July 20th, 2018


Japanese Diary 37: My Salad Days, When I Was Blue in Judgement

Most, if not all, kanji have their origins in pictograms, some much older than others. The oldest were scratched onto turtle shells and other surfaces in ancient China, then baked so that the pattern of the resulting cracks could be used for oracular purposes. Some were invented as recently as the last century, but the vast majority have a long lineage. Over time they've changed shape reasons of style or simplification, the cultural context has altered and rendered certain features opaque, errors have crept in, phonetic elements have become mixed with meaning elements, and so on, each change taking them further from pictogrammatic clarity.

This year I've been using this book to learn kanji, and one of its charms is that it gives a brief history of each character's forms at various points in its history, plus a selection of modern scholars' attempts at interpreting what it represents. Being scholars, of course, they generally disagree.

Still, when you start learning Japanese you are usually lobbed a few kanji that offer a tantalising pictogrammatic promise. Yes, 木 does look like a tree; 川 a bit like a river, and 口 sort of like a mouth. If you take into account that circles are hard to draw with a calligraphy brush, I think it's easy to see 目 as an eye, too, with the two inner lines being the top and bottom of the iris or pupil.

Before long, though, things get harder. As a random example, here is 縮 (shuku), which means "contraction" or "reduction". It's made up of elements meaning "thread" and "lodging", if that helps? No, didn't think so.

That and a couple of thousand others I'm still in the process of memorising, and will be for the foreseeable future. But for this post I'm interested in another group. For example, here is 月, which means "moon". Back in the day, its pictogram ancestor was a relatively realistic portrayal of a crescent moon, but it's changed a lot since. I think I'd have trouble making a case for the current character as a pictogram, in Western terms.

However - and this is the point of this post, I suppose - I now cannot look at that character without thinking "moon". This is a result of rote learning of the most crudely Pavlovian kind, of course, but I feel it goes further than that. I no longer experience character and meaning (and the various readings that go with them) merely as a coincidence of arbitrary associations, linked only by increasingly well-trodden neural pathways; subjectively, I have begun to feel that the 月 character actually looks like the moon.

It's an interesting mental phenomenon, which applies to other characters, too. Does 女 look like a woman? I'm pretty sure that it does so now more than it did when I first learned it a few years ago. As I internalise more kanji, perhaps this sense will spread to more complex characters as well. Perhaps there'll come a time when 縮 really does look like a mimetic picture of the concept of shrinking? I'm not there yet - but if so, it explains why Japanese people sometimes insist that the kanji are pictograms, when (with relatively few exceptions) they aren't, to Western eyes. I always assumed that such assertions were a kind of (slightly dishonest) attempt to encourage rookie learners, but perhaps it really reflects their subjective experience? After all, these are people who can look at a green traffic light and call it blue.