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att. Culture - 携帯 vs ケータイ 5
att. Culture - 携帯 vs ケータイ 5
att.JAPAN Issue 22, May 2005

携帯 vs ケータイ 5


Infinitely Free 国字

KetaiAmong the many kanjis used in Japan, there is a category called "kokuji," literally meaning "national words." They were invented to express cultural phenomena uniquely Japanese, but based on the original concept of Chinese characters. Some famous kokujis are: 「凪」"Nagi": a calm of the wind making the sea surface unmoving. It was made from 「風」"wind" and 「止」"stop," creating the appropriate image; 「躾」"Shitsuke": teaching good manners, made from 「身」"body" and 「美」"beautiful," expressing graciousness of proper behavior; and 「裃」"Kamishimo": a formal attire of samurai, consisting of a jacket and long skirt. The "clothing" radical combined with characters meaning "top" and "bottom" makes it a typical kokuji.) Ocean, teaching graceful movements of the body, samurai's attire. All of these are deeply related to the original Japanese culture.
Many languages of the world contain word groups that are intricately related to their respective cultures or natural environments. Eskimos have a vast vocabulary for snow only, each one different, and the Arabs similarly possess a variety of expressions for camels: standing camel, sleeping camel, etc. Likewise, the Japanese, who have lived in this small island surrounded by the sea on all sides, necessitated to rely on fish as their major source of protein. Thus, an incredibly large glossary for fish came into existence. Some examples are: 「鰆」("fish"+"spring"), or Spanish mackerel, which appears in large schools in the Seto Sea during spring; 「鱈」("fish"+"snow"), or codfish, which is mostly caught during winter; 「鰯」("fish" + "weak"), or sardines, known to rot quickly; etc. etc.. Sadly, some Japanese don't even know that these are original Japanese kanjis, but kokujis are proof that when the configurative characteristics of kanji and the Japanese' taste for visual images come together, new words can be infinitely created.
There's a TV quiz show on NHK, in which challengers try to make four-word kokujis from foreign words. For example, 「競争渡筒(competition+hand over+cylinder)」was created after painful efforts, for "baton." Another one was 「海産黒粒(seafood+black+grains)」, the intended meaning for "caviar." This can go on and on, and in fact there are several magazines that tickles the Japanese' want to play with kanjis, or rather, the comfortable freedom of visual images.
Well, then, how should I be expressed, who for months been toiling to prove how complicated Japanese orthography is and how it is contributing to modern communication methods, as well as, and most importantly, that it has made a significant influence on the development of the Japanese mind? 「苦探字例(suffer+search+word+example)」! I believe that the young Japanese will further expand this freedom in their comic books and mobile phone cultures, eventually contributing to transforming the entire language in the far future. I don't think it's a bad thing: languages have to change to conform to the needs of the eras.
But why is it that, when we Japanese are so lax when it comes to languages, we are so rigid in issues concerning politics and economics? Maybe we need to return to our original selves: a people who have always accepted and assimilated to anything from the outside, while at the same time never losing sight of their own culture.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution
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