All posts by Cure Tadashiku

Unlocking Japanese – a breakthrough in how we learn the language

unlocking-japanese-cover800Cure Tadashiku: Unlocking Japanese isn’t just another book about Japanese. It is a breakthrough in how people can learn the language.

Cure Dolly: Thank you. It’s kind of hard to say that sort of thing about your own work. Everyone thinks her book is important, after all.

But I do think that objectively we have done something here that badly needed to be done and has never been done before.

And that is, simply to explain what Japanese sentences mean, rather than what they would mean if they were English sentences.

By doing this we can cut out endless confusions and false complications. We can cut out all kinds of apparent “exceptions” and things you “just have to learn”.

Japanese is very, very regular and fundamentally a surprisingly simple language. But you do need to look at it through its own “Japanese” eyes, not through the eyes of English.

Cure Tadashiku: And that is where all the standard textbooks go wrong.

Cure Dolly: That’s right.

Cure Tadashiku: Because they are trying to make things simpler for their readers in the early stages?

Cure Dolly: Partly that, but mainly because up to now there has been no model for understanding Japanese that doesn’t lean heavily on English and European grammatical concepts. These concepts don’t fit Japanese well, so they create all kinds of unnecessary complications. By looking at Japanese as Japanese we can cut through most of them quickly and easily.

I suspect that not only does European grammar not fit Japanese, but the fact that early interpreters of Japanese grammar to Europeans were using methods related to European languages also created an expectation of and tolerance for a lot of irrational exceptions that you “just have to learn”. Because European languages really are full of them. Japanese isn’t.

European languages really do have pages and pages of irregular verbs that don’t work the same as other verbs. Japanese famously has just two irregular verbs – kuru and suru – actually a few more if you count minor irregularities, but very few. And that regularity continues throughout Japanese even in places where Europeans have been unable to see it up till now.

Most European languages other than English have “grammatical gender” which calls every object in the world masculine or feminine (some languages, like German, have more than two genders). These genders add nothing whatever to our understanding of the word, but every one “just has to be learned”.

So  when Europeans tried to explain Japanese in terms of European grammar and found places that don’t fit or that are plain irrational, they said “Oh, these must be arbitrary rules you need to learn. All languages are full of those.” But all languages aren’t full of them. Japanese isn’t.

If we understand Japanese as Japanese, it is very, very regular. The problem is that there has been no model up to now for explaining Japanese as Japanese.

Cure Tadashiku: The model wasn’t entirely your doing, was it?

Cure Dolly: No. I owe a huge debt to Dr. Jay Rubin whose work introduced me to some key concepts on which this book is built. What we have done is to take the implications of what he taught and expand them much further.

Rubin-sensei showed how every Japanese sentence has a grammatical subject, whether you can see it or not, how the wa particle never marks the grammatical subject (even when it might appear to), and how the invisible subject works. All this is explained in I Am Not an Eel.

Progressing from I Am Not an Eel, we can draw many other conclusions that follow logically. For example, the fact that there is not only always a subject (which may be invisible) but also that it is always marked by the ga-particle (though obviously that may be invisible too).

From here we are in a position to solve many of the apparently exceptional problems of Japanese. We can see things like what a logical particle is, why the so-called “passive” isn’t actually passive at all and works just like the rest, and why “conjugation” isn’t actually the right word for much of what gets called “conjugation” in the West.

This, for example, solves the problems contained in sentences like

Creepu ga tabetai
usually translated as “I want to eat crepes”

Which have led one very prominent writer to state that there is no grammatical subject in Japanese, which essentially destroys our ability to understand the language.

Even without going so far as this writer, I would say that most learners are confused about how particles work by these apparent illogicalities. And particles are the lynchpins of the language. Misunderstanding them gives the whole language a foggy “voodoo” feeling – essentially because it is being explained as if it were a European language when it isn’t.

In fact there is nothing illogical at all about these sentences – or much else in Japanese – once you can actually see how it works. It all runs in a beautifully understandable and predictable way, all the time.

I know these issues sound a bit complicated when I try to put them briefly here…

Cure Tadashiku: But it isn’t complicated. That’s the whole point. It is the European approach that gets complicated. In the book you explain it very simply, step by step, with very little special terminology. I think anyone can pick up the basis of Unlocking Japanese in an evening, and that evening will be paying off for the rest of one’s Japanese life.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.

Cure Tadashiku: But to ask a tougher question: what would you say to someone who asks, “But how can you say you’ve got Japanese right when everyone else has gotten it wrong?”

Cure Dolly: Put simply, I don’t think there is any such thing as “right” or “wrong” in grammar. Grammar isn’t a set of rules by which people speak. It is an attempt to describe what is happening when they use (a particular) language.

European grammar isn’t “wrong” when applied to Japanese. It is just not the most efficient way to describe it and it creates artificial exceptions.

So the test of any model for describing Japanese is “how well does it work?” What we have done in Unlocking Japanese is provide a model that works very regularly and throws up almost no exceptions as compared to the “Europeanized” model.

That is because we were looking at Japanese on its own terms and not as if it were “English gone a bit wrong”. Whether this is the “correct” model is,  I think, a meaningless question. The point is that it works more efficiently and leads us to seeing Japanese as far as possible from within, rather than through foreign glasses.

It’s a bit like riding one of the first bicycles that had no gearing (that is why the front wheel was so huge) and then a geared bicycle. It isn’t that one is right and one is wrong. It is that one has looked at the other one, seen where it was inefficient, and found a way to do the job better.

That’s what is meant by a breakthrough and why I think we really can call this book a breakthrough.

Cure Tadashiku: So do you think Unlocking Japanese will eventually revolutionize Japanese learning and teaching in schools and elsewhere?

Cure Dolly: I don’t know. Dr. Rubin’s work has been quite influential, but I don’t think it has actually revolutionized teaching. The textbooks don’t, for the most part, take his ground-breaking insights into account. We have gone a lot further in Unlocking Japanese, so perhaps we have even less chance of being taken up on a general basis.

I do think, because what we do in Unlocking Japanese actually, and quite unarguably, works, that it will become more widespread over the next decade or so. Whether it will force open the ironbound doors of academia, I don’t know. That wasn’t really my aim (though it would be nice).

My aim was to provide a clear and easy path for self-learners (and others) into the beauty and simplicity of Japanese grammar.

I am not trying to replace grammar textbooks (though I have my own views on how to use them) but to give the “walkthrough” that makes real sense of them.

Cure Tadashiku: And that you have done.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.


A Doll’s-Eye View of Japan

Alien-girl-cover-dolly500Cure Dolly’s book based on her first experiences of Japan has been published, just as the Doll herself returns to Japan.

You can read her current adventures, in Japanese, here but if you would like to read about her first adventures, in English, you should get this book.

It is only available in a Kindle edition because color printing still makes books prohibitively expensive and this book is full of color photographs.

For Japanese learners, An Alien Doll in Japan is a fascinating record of getting by in Japan with no English at all after one year of studying by what gets called the Dolly Method.

For Cure Dolly fans, of course, the book is a must. We reproduce the publisher’s introduction:

A Doll’s-Eye View of Japan

An Alien Doll in Japan is a unique look at Japan by the well-known Japanese language blogger Cure Dolly, who assures us that she really is a doll even though she can pass for human “on a rainy night or when people are seeing what they expect rather than what they see”.

However you take her, it is clear that Cure Dolly has very little Western-Earthling enculturation and so comes to Japan with a perspective that is neither Japanese nor, in any of the usual senses, gaijin.

Her “Doll’s Eye View” of Japan is unlike anything else you may have read. This book, lavishly illustrated with color photographs, covers her first month in Aichi Prefecture.

She photographs and writes about such things as Shinto shrines and maid cafés, but also about sides of Japan that are less often seen, ranging from family life and a day in pre-school, observing the enculturation of very young Japanese children, to wanderings in Japanese countryside and small city environments, observing everything with the passion and freshness of a doll to whom human culture as a whole is something strange and new.

At the time of going to Japan, Cure Dolly had been learning (she would probably reject the term “studying”) Japanese for about a year, using the self-immersion methods she advocates. She put her theories into practice by adopting the challenge of using no language other than Japanese during the whole of her stay, even in emergencies (of which there were several).

Cure Dolly’s aim was not only to live in Japan but to live in the language she has often declared that she is “in love with”.

Being a doll rather than a regular human, there are many occasions in which her inability to negotiate ordinary situations lead to results which seem funny only in retrospect. As she says, her newness in the language was in a way her best friend, since it served as an apparent reason for her difficulty with everyday human situations.

The book is full of intense love for all the things she sees and thoughtful, but often entirely unexpected, reflections on everything from infant education to cosplay, from uniforms to Japanese Denny’s.

As Cure Dolly says in her introduction:

When I left Japan, for the first time in my life, I experienced culture shock. Japan is not my home. I am not Japanese. I am sure I was almost as strange to the Japanese as I am to anyone else. And they were strange to me. But not as strange.

Seeing an airport full of gaikokujin, I was overwhelmed by the strangeness I had seen around me ever since I came to life. It has never become less strange to me. But after Japan it seemed even more strange.

Which is a rather negative way of presenting my experience. But perhaps it clarifies it a tiny bit.

I want to try to show you Japan through my eyes.

This is Japan as you have never seen it before!

Buy it now through Amazon: An Alien Doll in Japan

Making the Kawaii Japanese Forums More readable

If you are having trouble reading the Kawaii Japanese Forums, here are a few tips to help make it easier.

1. Increase the size. On a personal computer, the site will comfortably enlarge by at least 3 increments (not all sites will, but it works quite well here). Press Ctrl (cmd on a Mac) and the plus key 3 or 4 times and see how it looks.

In Firefox you can also set the zoom to adjust the size of the text only – without messing up the rest of the page.

Go to the 表示 menu (“View” if you still have your Firefox in English), scroll to the ズーム (Zoom) popout and check the last item, 文字サイズのみ変更 (のみ is written-instruction-speak for だけ), which will be “Change character size only”, or something like that, in English.

Do you know why books for small children have such large print? It isn’t because they have poor eyesight! It is because they need to clearly recognize the shape of each letter in a way people who are more used to the alphabet and the written language don’t.

You will also notice that while the very large print is only for small children, children’s books up to the age of ten or so have larger print than most adult books. It takes a long time to become fully proficient at recognizing letters and words at smaller sizes and there is a sliding scale of familiarity determining how closely the eye needs to examine the characters in order to read comfortably.

So the “younger” you are in Japanese, the bigger the print should be.

2. Use Rikaisama if you need it. You may be nervous of it, and with reason. “Rikai-skimming” with English definitions turned on is a bad habit to acquire. How much help you need clearly depends on your level. If you are a beginner punching well above your weight in reading a certain post at all (good for you! えらいね!)then use all the help you need.

If you are intermediate we would suggest that you set Rikaisama into Sanseido mode (J-J definitions) by default. Go to Configure > Startup > Check Sanseido Mode. Optionally toggle off definitions by pressing D while a Rikai window is up (or turning them off by default in the settings – you can still restore them with D). With this set-up you can use Rikai as “on-demand furigana” for unknown kanji. Look at the Japanese definition if you are still in doubt and only go to the English definition if you are really stuck. O toggles between Sanseido and English definitions.

These two techniques should help you to read the Forums more easily.

Back to Forums


On a mobile device, don’t forget to hit the link at the very bottom of the page to switch to the mobile version.

If occasional English definitions turn up in Sanseido mode it doesn’t mean Rikaisama is broken. Unfortunately the Sanseido dictionary is a little limited, and where a J-J definition does not exist Rikaisama uses the English one. This is another argument for having definitions off to begin with.

How to Write Kanji—a free kanji tutor (for people who don’t write kanji)

how-to-write-kanjiKanji Recognizer as a self-teaching tool

How to write kanji is a question that Cure Dolly would precede with another question, namely whether to write kanji. As a matter of fact, I am largely of her school. Like Cure Dolly, I hand-write maybe two dozen words a year in English. So why do I want to learn to do in Japanese what I don’t even do in English?

The arguments over whether you need to learn how to write kanji in order to learn kanji at all are discussed by Cure Dolly, and I am broadly in agreement. It depends on who you are, what your needs are, and how you learn best.

But let’s say you are like Cure Dolly (and I am). Let’s say you don’t need to write kanji (for exams or whatever) and you only need to recognize them for purposes of both reading and (electronically) writing. Is there any need to learn to write them at all?

I really don’t see any value in sitting down to write kanji hundreds of times. I have heard people complain about doing this and still finding the kanji to be strangers to them in a week or so.

I actually am learning a tiny bit to write kanji, but none of them are strangers to me. I know the kanji. I am familiar with their components. That isn’t the point of writing them to me. So what is it?

One thing I have realized is that while my recognition is reasonably good, my ability to picture shapes is (perhaps abnormally) terrible. I can read hiragana with no problem, but I recently realized that I could no longer write several of them. I did learn them in the beginning and could write them easily. I found that a year or so later, even though I had no trouble at all recognizing them and reading them, I don’t actually remember how they are made up. I can’t picture them in my head. I only know them when I see them.

I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Personally I don’t want to lose my ability to hand-write kana, so I did a little practice with a kana-writing app just to get it back. If I wrote anything by hand—shopping lists, anything—I would do it in Japanese just to keep my hand in. But I don’t. I am a near-total non-writer.

However, kana is not the point here. The point is kanji. What I have found there is similar. Since I didn’t know how to write kanji, I didn’t really know how they were made up. I didn’t really know the difference between 家 and 象, for example. I tended to recognize them by context rather than their actual differences. I don’t think learning to write kanji is the only way to overcome this problem. One could just familiarize oneself more firmly with the components of each and make up little stories around them, which is how I learned them in the first place.

One of my problems with writing is a pathological fear of paper. I really can’t manage the stuff. If you start allowing it into the house it gets everywhere—but you can never find the bit you want. I really can’t start toodling around with bits of paper. For me it would open the door to nameless chaos.

But I did start to feel it would be worthwhile to write kanji. Not hundreds of times—just a few times each. Not in order to learn them—the kanji I write I already know by sight—but simply in order to clarify my mind on their exact composition.

And it works. But you really need the right tool. Fortunately I found it. It is called Kanji Recognizer. It is an Android app. You can write the kanji with a stylus on your tablet or keitai. Although this is not the purpose of the software, what it does is both allow you to write kanji (without all that scary paper) and act as an instant tutor at the same time.

Let me show you how:


You write the kanji freely, and as you can see, Kanji Recognizer tries to work out what you wrote and places its top ten guesses along the top. The higher you come in the top ten, the more accurately you have written the kanji. This in itself is very, very useful.

The software also numbers your strokes, so you are able to check your stroke order. It puts the number at the start of each stroke so you can also check the stroke direction (this comes into its own later as you will see).

The two buttons ringed in mizuiro (pale blue—I don’t know why there isn’t an English word for the “pink” of blue, but there isn’t) are 画削除 kakusakujo (delete stroke) and クリア (clear). 画削除 is very nice as it allows you to get rid of strokes you messed up. Paper is just mean about that sort of thing.

The app is free, though ad-supported. If you have your device in Japanese (and you should) the ads will tend to be Japanese too, as you can see at the bottom of the screenshots.

Once you have written your kanji, you can tap the correct one at the top to get a screen of information about it:

how-to-write-kani-2This, of course, is immediately useful for making sure the kanji is what you thought it was! The most important thing here for our purpose is the button we have ringed: 書き順 kakijun (writing order—or stroke order, as they tend to say in English). This gives you, as you might expect, an image of the kanji (written with an enviably steady hand) with its correct stroke order marked:


However, the really useful thing here is the (ringed) button labeled 動画 douga (animation). Press this and the app will clear the kanji and re-draw it for you, so you can watch it forming stroke by stroke and see how it is done.

You can then click the home button (ringed) which will take you back to the page where you wrote the kanji originally. It will still be there, just as you wrote it, so you can check whether you had the stroke order and direction right. If you didn’t make number one in the top ten, you can hit クリア and try again.

If you have an idea of the general rules for stroke order, you will get it right a lot of the time. The surprises will tend to impress themselves on your mind. The animation is particularly useful for this, I find. What you will also start to find instinctively is a lot of kanji-order sub-rules. They aren’t taught and rightly so, as they are fiddly and have exceptions, but they do start to make a kind of sense in practice, I find.

I am still not really trying to learn how to write kanji. I know hand-writing is never going to be a part of my real life. Actually, I would like to learn Japanese calligraphy one day, but that is something of another matter. What I am finding is that this gives me a better feeling for how the kanji work, how they hang together.

My method is perhaps unusual. I have never in my life “learned a kanji”. I learn words as I go along, and I make friends with the kanji that form them. People have occasionally asked “how many kanji do you know?”. I have no idea how to answer. How would I know? Maybe some people go through a book from Kanji 0001 to Kanji 2500, but I really wouldn’t even know how to do that, and I am sure it wouldn’t stick that way.

When I write kanji on my little slate, I am already friends with those kanji. I have known them for some time. Now I am taking tea with them and learning their funny little ways. I am a horribly inattentive friend, and there are so many things about them I never noticed. I love them so I want to learn.

If you love something, you should pet it. Kanji recognizer was essentially made to be a dictionary, not a tutor. It works as a tutor, and (for me at least) as something else too. It is my favorite Virtual Pet game!

On Learning a Second Language without Having a First Language

japanese-second-languageMiss Geneviève Falconer once said: “Most English-speaking people would benefit immensely from learning a first language”. The witticism is apt and much appreciated, but in my case it is more literal than it was ever intended to be.

As a space alien (as one of my fellow exiles so amusingly puts it) I am very aware that English is not really my first language, although currently it is my only language (I have a smattering of a few other languages, but am not yet fluent in any). I write books in English, so I suppose, up to a point, I have gotten into the cage with the chair and whip and made the language do some of the tricks I want it to do. But it is really not my language.

There are many things I want to express, and I kind-of know the words for them but those words don’t exist in English. It is an interesting challenge to try to force and twist the language into expressing what I need to say, and I don’t claim not to enjoy it, at least upon occasion. I am in the unusual position of having a native speaker’s facility with the language, but not a native speaker’s culture and sensibility, and to be actuated by thoughts and feelings that do not seem to belong in English at all. It really feels like speaking a second language while not knowing more than snatches of my first language.

Language does not exist in a vacuum. All languages ultimately derive from “the first, the mother language”. Just as “numbers were before there were things to be numbered” (a saying from my homeland), so words were before there were incarnate beings to speak them. Just as music derives from the Primordial Note and descends via the unheard Music of the Spheres to the realm of things palpable (or in this case, audible), so language derives from the Primordial Word and descends via the unheard Language of the Angels to the worlds of incarnate souls.

The languages that beings speak are formed by centuries of thinking and feeling. Languages, like all things have a warp and a weft – a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension of the fabric of language is the Primordial Language, without which no being could speak a word. The horizontal dimension is what happens to language through its exposure to the world of flux and change. This, of course, includes the special character of each dialect, or “language” into which the Primordial Tongue is broken, which is shaped by the particular character of the collectivity that speaks and forms that dialect. So English has its own particular character, as do French and German, Japanese and Chinese and all the other languages of this world and of all other worlds. Each one corresponds to a particular “genius”, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

No serious philologist doubts that the “progress” of language is a degeneration. The earliest known languages are the most complex, subtle and sophisticated (compare Sanskrit to Hindi, Latin to its various modern derivative languages or ancient Greek to modern Greek – or any other like comparison you care to make). That the implication of this is “down from the Angels” rather than “up from the apes” they naturally avoid, for this would conflict with the current ideology of their world, but the fact that the entire known history of language is a history of decline is indisputable.

This is not to denigrate modern languages, since the decline is a part of the process of manifestation, and to a degree what languages lose in depth they gain in breadth – a poor exchange but one that is metaphysically necessary. My own is no exception, of course. Modern Western languages, though, and English in particular, have been shaped by centuries of de facto materialism and individualism. As such it is about as far from the sensibility of my people as a language can get. It makes me wonder why I – like several others – was deployed in the Anglosphere, though doubtless there are good reasons. It certainly makes the expression of the thoughts and sensibility that I have to convey a little more challenging.

On a personal level, it also very much increases my sense of isolation – which I suppose is not necessarily a bad thing (except from the standpoint of my own humble emotions) since I am not supposed to “go native” – and going native is near-to-inevitable in a life-deployment unless one is provided with unusual circumstances and a teflon soul. Both of which seem to have been the case with me.

I have had an opportunity to observe the effect of language as a “filter” for the manifestation of a soul in a dear friend who is an American English-speaker but fluent in Japanese. Her English-self is beautiful in a way that is rare in these times, but her Japanese-self is something else – something more beautiful and more true (I believe) to who she really is.

Japan has long been cited as something of a this-world analogue to my home nation (by no means an exact analogue, of course, since the all-possibility is limitless and the exact same Form does not manifest twice). I had always accepted that, and have always been somewhat fascinated by the Japanese language.

But in seriously beginning to learn it I became for the first time aware that there might actually be a language that allows my soul to be filtered into manifestation in a way closer to its true nature than is made possible by its current linguistic medium.

Time for the Great Experiment.

Kanji: What the (Western) “Experts” Can’t Tell You

To anyone reasonably well versed in traditional metaphysics, the meaning of some of the basic kanji is immediately and transparently obvious. Unfortunately, Western writers on kanji origins, armed with the beloved “progress” ideology and a total ignorance of traditional thought, work hard to obscure this. Let us try to set the record straight.

monarch-kanjiThe traditional explanation of the kanji for “monarch”[right], for example, is that of the joining of the three worlds of Heaven, Earth and Humankind. But really anyone conversant with the traditional concept of monarchy would hardly need to be told this any more than she would need to be told that a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth meant “face”.

The “monarch” kanji shows the World Axis, common to all traditions, joining the three worlds  – Heavenly, (or solar/Spirtual), Human, or (lunar/psychic), Earthly, (or substantial/material) – and thus reconnecting all things with their archetypal Principles and establishing the Law of Heaven on Earth through the mediation of the Axial being (in this world, the human), headed, of course, by its principal and representative individual being, the Monarch.

This is so elementary as to be the metaphysical equivalent of ABC [more about this].

face-kanjiSuppose some scholar were to tell you that the “kanji” to our left – which means face – was actually not originally a depiction of a face, but of a shirt button with holes for the thread.

It came to mean “face” because shirts button right up to the neck, near where the face is, but the supposed resemblance to a human face is pure coincidence, though possibly useful as a mnemonic.

The correct scholarly answer to that is: “pish-tosh”. Because even if it were true that the “face” kanji were originally a depiction of a shirt-button, it is absolutely evident that in simplifying and regularizing it, the scholars who did the work were, at the very least, utilizing a “visual pun” that clearly depicts a human face. Anyone who has an elementary-school knowledge of art can see that.

Unfortunately, many modern scholars, raised (or de-educated) in a tradition of pure materialism, do not have a knowledge  even that elementary of how human beings have actually thought for most of their history.

The current kanji for “monarch” may, as we are told, have had, as one of its ancestors, a “primitive” depiction of an ax. We do not dispute that at all. The ax itself is a metaphysical symbol, and one that is actually not unconnected with the symbolism of the current “monarch” kanji – that is, its haft is a depiction of the World Axis that connects heaven and earth as well as uniting the dualities of manifest existence (and the Western hermeneutic connexion between “axis” and “ax” is by no means accidental).

In reducing the kanji to its current form, the ancient daisensei were simplifying, clarifying, and, in a sense, universalizing the metaphysical symbol to one that anyone (except a person de-educated by the modern Western ideology) can read.

In many cases, it would seem that local and particular meanings – certainly metaphysical in their primary reference , as that is the way traditional people think all over the world – were reduced to a simple and beautiful geometric metaphor (and all “abstract” thought is essentially metaphor) that reduces the metaphysical narrative to its essentials.

The fundamental error of the “scholarly” approach is to assume that the earliest local and particular form that they can find is the “real historical origin” and that therefore the later simplification is somehow “inauthentic”, or at any rate “accidental”.

This in turn is based on the idea that ancient thought was actually trying to do what modern western thought is doing (ie dealing exclusively with the accidents of the material realm), only doing it badly.

Thus the only “root” a kanji (or any other word-form) can have is merely a matter of historical accident and not of the essential metaphysical nature of the word/concept. The lack of respect for the intellectuality of the daisensei who created the current forms of the kanji is at once breathtaking in its cultural arrogance and amusingly typical of the naive provincialism of Western (and Westernized) materialistic “scholarism”.

kanji-juuTo take one more example, we are asked to believe that the kanji number ten (juu) is unrelated to the essential symbolism of the cross and is merely an “accidental” simplification of an earlier form, influenced by the kanji for a sewing needle.

It would seem pointless to ask if it is mere coincidence that the Roman symbol for ten (X) is also a cross. The grasp of why the cross would represent ten is, in the minds of the modern scholar, so tenuous that coincidence would seem almost possible. You may wish to read this article to understand a little of the intimate connexion between four and ten, and also why ten thousand (万 man) is a numerical unit in both Chinese and Japanese.

Once we learn to discount the cultural arrogance of Western scholarism and gain some respect for the traditionally established forms of the kanji, they may begin to seem a little less mysterious. Ironically it is precisely the de-mythologization and “accidentalization” of modern Western thought that makes them seem random. In order to understand, we need to re-mythologize the kanji – or rather to treat the existing mythic/iconic structure with the respect it deserves.

Japanese Kanji for World and Kingdom

The Sacred Monarch: uniting the three worlds
The Sacred Monarch: uniting the three worlds

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.

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 ).

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.

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)].

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 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.

Japanese Pokemon Name Meanings

You think Bunnelby is a rabbit? In Japanese it’s a wallaby. Learn more surprising facts at the new Japanese Pokemon site


Have you ever been fascinated by the original Japanese names of Pokemon but wondered what they could possibly mean?

A new sister site Administered by our own Cure Dolly is bringing a daily feast of fun facts and in-depth analysis of Japanese Pokemon names to the Web for the first time in English.

You’ll learn, among many other things, about mediaeval armor, ancient schools of ninjutsu and their surprising relations to Japanese Pokemon.

Pop along to Japanese Pokemon and complete your education!

Japanese Kanji for Left and Right – why they are what they are

The kanji for left and right may, on first sight, seem slightly confusing. It is not until we understand a little about traditional metaphysics (which was how the ancient Chinese, Japanese and everyone else before the last few centuries actually thought) that they make sense.

Why is the left hand crafty?
Why is the left hand crafty?

The kanji for both left 左 and right 右 feature a hand. This is normal, as the concepts “left” and “right” are always linguistically associated with hands. In English we speak of “the left-hand side” etc. The hands are each holding something representative of their particular side. Migi (Right) holds a mouth 口. Hidari (left) holds a symbol that means craft 工.

Why is left associated with craft? In the literal-minded thinking of the modern world, this seems counter-intuitive, since it is the right hand that is dextrous (from Latin dexter = right) and most capable of making things.

Then we look at the kanji for migi (right) and that has a mouth. Why a mouth?

Why does the right hand hold a mouth?
Why does the right hand hold a mouth?

Traditionally every action has two components: Wisdom and Method. These correspond to the cosmic duality of Essence and Substance. To do anything we must know how to do it. In the modern West, this has come to mean technical knowledge alone. In Japan there is still the concept of the Way 道 — the proper way that a thing should be done within the harmony of earth and heaven.

Wisdom is the teaching – the “word” by which we know the Way. Method is the physical actions that make the Way manifest in whatever we are doing.

The kanji for the Way 道 on its own is pronounced michi which can mean a literal road or the Way. In combinations it is pronounced dou and is found in the names most of the traditional Arts, because each art is precisely a Way which correctly followed leads to a measure of enlightenment.

Tatoeba (for example):

弓道 kyuudou is the Way of Archery

剣道 kendou is the Way of the Sword (kendo)

茶道 sadou is the Way of Tea (tea ceremony)

書道 shodou is the Way of Writing (traditional calligraphy)

Wisdom is the Teaching of the Way; Method is the Following of the Way. Vital to the Way in any form is the Sensei, the Teacher of the Way.

Wisdom and method are not equal. Wisdom must always lead and Method follow or the work will be out of harmony and not in the true Way.

Symbolically the right hand (the superior hand) is the hand of Wisdom and the left hand (the supporter hand) is the hand of Method. Therefore it is natural that Right  should have a mouth symbolic of the teaching of the Way, while Left represents the physical and outward aspect of craft.

Dorje, symbol of Method, held in left hand
Dorje, symbol of Method, held in left hand

Interestingly, in Tibet, Wisdom is represented by the bell and Method by the dorje (Sanskrit vajra). The dorje [pictured right] is the same essential shape as the 工 of hidari (the dorje elaborated and 工 reduced to barest essenitals), while the bell emits sound (symbolic of teaching) like the mouth 口 of migi.

Naturally, in rituals, the bell is always held in the right hand and the dorje in the left hand.

To ring (a bell) in Japanese is 鳴る naru. This kanji also contains a mouth (sound) and also a bird. “The language of birds” is in various traditions symbolic of the language of angels, and the ringing of bells symbolic of that same angelic teaching.

Kanji do make sense read in the light of the traditional wisdom that underlies them, and the kanji for right and left, migi and hidari, are easy to understand once we are aware of the thought-world from which they emerged.

Kanji Symbols – Fire, Movement and Humanity

kanji-symbol fire
Kanji symbol: fire

If we look at kanji in the light of traditional philosophy, they make a lot more sense. In kanji symbolism, fire and movement, life and humanity are depicted in terms of the ancient metaphysical thinking common to all traditional civilizations.

King Lear was in line with tradition when he called humanity a “forked animal”. This is exactly what the kanji for a person 人 (hito on its own, jin/nin in combination) shows. Notice that the “fork” is all it shows. there are no arms or head. Just, as Shakespeare said, the forked animal.

Kanji reduce things to the essential. Why is the fork the essential feature of humanity? Humanity is, in traditional thought, the center of the Middle Kingdom – the creature that links earth and heaven. The being that stands at the Axis of the World. Humanity is upright and stands on two legs rather than four.

Being “between earth and heaven” humanity is inherently dual. We have both a Heavenly and an earthly nature. Or to put it in Buddhist terms we have both a samsaric nature and a Buddha-nature. And we are always choosing between the two. That is how we create our karma.

So the fork 人expresses what is essential to humanity.

Of course people do have arms. When they hold them out wide they are saying something is this big. So we get 大 big.

Humanity also has within it the Divine Fire, the spark of life. So when we want to depict fire, we think of it in this most fundamental sense – as the Solar principle on earth. All fire comes from the Sun in traditional thought. Wood burns because it was fed for years on the warmth and light of the sun. When wood is burned, it releases that warmth and light in the form of fire.

But the highest fire – the earthly avatar of the Heavenly Sun – is the Solar principle in each human being – the Divine Spark – 火. Thus the kanji symbol fire (ka) shows the human being and the divine flames. Why two? Because we can use that heavenly power for good or evil, so even the fire in us is expressed in two flames, continuing to express our “forked” duality.

The first non-human-powered vehicle was the chariot, and, as we would expect, the chariot is deeply rooted in traditional symbolism. In the Bhagavad Gita, the entire teaching of the Scripture is given while Krishna and Arjuna are in the chariot. The chariot is the world, or human body, and within it are the Divine Principle (Krishna) and the human principle (Arjuna).

The design of the chariot itself reflects this. The body of the vehicle is the world, or the human body (these two “vehicles of manifestation” are called the macrocosm and the microcosm – the great world and the little world – in traditional Western thought). Through its center passes the World Axis with the two wheels as the dual principles that lie “above” and “below” the world.

The world itself is often described as a “field” (kshatra in Sanskrit). The chessboard is called kshatra because it represents the world in its black/white duality – the field on which the conflict of light and darkness takes place.

The Chariot

In kanji the field looks like this: 田. This is the simplest possible form of the symbolism that is elaborated on a chessboard or a go-board. The fourfold division is that of the material world – its four directions, four elements, four seasons.

Add the World Axis (axle) and the upper and lower wheels, and we have the chariot: 車.

The chariot being the first and fundamental human vehicle, 車 is used in Japanese for every kind of wheeled vehicle. The basic vehicle today is the car, so 車 kuruma means just that. Interestingly our English word “car” also originally means “chariot”

The Etymological dictionary tells us:

Car: “Wheeled vehicle,” from Anglo-French carre, Old North French carre, from Vulgar Latin *carra, related to Latin carrum, carrus (plural carra), originally “two-wheeled Celtic war chariot”.

Kanji etymology and English etymology alike preserve the identity of the modern “fundamental vehicle” with the essential Archetype of the Chariot.

From this basic chariot/car, which is pronounced kuruma, we have many combinations (in which it is pronounced sha. So we have, for example, 電車 densha – or electric-vehicle – a train and 自転車 jitensha, a self-revolving vehicle or bicycle (note that the 自 ji of jitensha always means oneself, as in 自己紹介 jikoshoukai, self-introduction, or 自己中 jikochuu, self-centeredness. So self-revolving means “revolved by oneself”, not “revolving itself”.

Now if a vehicle has to carry a heavy weight, we may need to add extra wheels. For carrying heavy loads the four-wheeled cart was used. Thus the concept heavy is represented by a four-wheeled vehicle. 重い omoi, heavy.

As in English, and most other languages, the concept of heavy  may also be used metaphorically to mean “important”. We talk about “the gravity of the situation” or “a weighty matter”. In combinations 重 is pronounced juu, so we get, for example, 重点 juuten, “important point” (literally heavy point).

riki is strength or power. We will see is in many, many combinations. If you apply strength to something heavy, you move it. Thus 動く ugoku means “to move”.

動 in combinations is pronounced dou. So, for example, we get 動物 doubutsu, meaning animal. The kanji literally means move-thing. So we can see that the Japanese word for animal is essentially the same as the Latin/English word “animal” – something animated or moving.

We will see all these elements in many different combinations. For example we can tie together many of the things we have learned today with the word 人力車 jinrikisha,  shortened in English to “rikshaw”.

I am sure you can see that the word literally means “person-powered vehicle”.

jinrikisha-rikshawThanks to Cure Dolly for the photograph.