Today let’s look at the kanji for world and kingdom.
A friend watching Doki Doki Precure with Japanese subtitles was becoming a little confused by various words for world and kingdom, so let’s look at the basic ones. What do they mean, and how do we remember them?
As usual, let’s look at them in the light of traditional symbolic thinking.
The word for “world” is 世界 – sekai. It consists of two kanji: 世 se meaning “generation” and 界 kai meaning world.
世 se shows a mother holding children* – generations. It has other pronunciations and related meanings (world, society etc.) but its root-meaning is generation(s). The pronunciation is really a gift (at least in 世界) because it looks similar to せ and that is exactly how it is pronounced (it is theorized that the kana せ is actually a simplification of the kanji 世 ).
界 kai means world. This is a very fundamental kanji. There are two great symbols for the world (cosmos) in traditional thought. One is the house – the house is always a microcosm of the universe, with the hearth-fire as its central sun (heart). The field is the symbol of the world seen as the “field of action” (this is fundamental to the symbolism of the chess-board), or as the “place of growth”, or manifestation.
As you see, these two fundamental world-symbols, field and house, make up 界 kai. 界 only ever has one pronunciation, so if you want a mnemonic you could say “the world is not quite the (heavenly) Sky – so we cut the S off and just say kai”.
These two kanji together make the regular word for “world”, 世界 sekai.
The word for “kingdom” is 王国 oukoku.
王 ou means monarch. It is such a fundamental concept that it has no consonants. It is just pronounced ou. To understand the kanji we need to understand the concept of the Sacred Monarch, who occupies the middle position betwen World and Heaven, mediating between them. The Sacred Monarch (originally a Sacred Queen, later a King) carries the Mandate of Heaven and mediates it to Earth. The kanji 王 ou depicts this [for much more on this kanji and concept, please see this article (note that the kanji reading there is Chinese not Japanese)].
国 kuni/koku means “country”. Here we see the Sacred Monarch surrounded by what she rules. In traditional thought a realm is precisely the Sacred Center and its periphery. Without the Sacred Center there would not be a realm or country but a mere wilderness.
The kanji 玉 is actually not 王 the Monarch herself. It means ball or jewel. The Crown Jewel, and the Crown itself, is what adorns the Monarch and is often used as a synonym for the Monarch or her rule (terms like “property of the Crown” are still used in English). We could go further on the meaning of the Jewel as the Central Treasure (the Jewel in the Lotus) but that would be too much of a digression. What we should note here is that once we grasp the centrality of the Sacred Monarch we can see how Jewel and Monarch are closely related concepts. The jewel is a small-thing** that represents all the splendor and centrality of the traditional Monarchic concept. Therefore the kanji for jewel shows the Monarch 王 with a small-thing 玉. It implies both the small-thing that adorns the Monarch and the small-thing that is in itself Monarchic.
So the country, an ordered- or ruled-place (kosmos as opposed to kaos), is represented by the periphery with its central monarchic-jewel - 国.
We may also note that the kanji of 王国 oukoku, kingdom can be reversed to give us 国王 kokuou the Monarch of a country.
* While 世 generally means world or generation, the connotation of mother-like care is not completely absent. 世話 sewa means caring-for or looking-after.
** Smallness is symbolically important, as “the Jewel in the Lotus” represents the Center that is not extended quantitatively into manifestation, but upon which all manifestation depends.