Category Archives: Profound

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.

On Ambiguity and Japanese

yumeIs Japanese an ambiguous language? Among some people it has that reputation. Others forcefully deny it, saying that the language can clearly express anything a speaker wishes.

My untutored impression is that both parties are correct. There is nothing in Japanese that prevents clear expression of ideas, but (more culturally than linguistically) Japanese does tend toward a degree of ambiguity.

A translator friend of mine, for example, when translating into English instructions for what to do in case of an earthquake in Japan, added various specific details that were not present in the original Japanese. Her Japanese colleagues were a little surprised and made comments like “Americans like to be so specific, don’t they?” She replied that knowing exactly what to do and how to do it could save someone’s life.

Which, of course, is true, and which demonstrates that, even in a circumstance where specificity is important, tolerating a higher degree of ambiguity is part of Japanese culture.

Is this a flaw in the language (or culture)? To a large extent the answer to that question depends on what you believe language is primarily for. West Tellurian (earth) people have for several centuries believed that language primarily exists for practical purposes. In fact they have more recently built their lives around the picture-story that life itself took form, or “evolved” on a purely practical (survival-oriented) basis. This they believe to be “science”; but to an outsider it looks uncommonly like a “mythologization” of their own cultural outlook.

Not all peoples have assumed either life or language to be primarily a matter of practicalities. Most people, in fact, have assumed that practicalities are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Which, when you think about it, makes sense doesn’t it? Practicalities as an end in themselves are rather like a sign saying “do not throw stones at this sign”.

So what is language primarily for? For Buddhism, as for Taoism, the highest function of language is to give us “hints” or “indications” toward that which cannot ever be expressed in words. The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao. The Zen koan does not attempt to put the Truth into words, but to open the mind to that which is beyond words.

This, by definition, is the highest possible function of language. In its lower, more everyday functions, it still has some of the same “connotative” rather than “denotative” function. We cannot truly describe music or the taste of food, or the feelings the sakura arouses in our breast. The subtle feelings that define us as spiritual beings cannot be fully expressed in words, but words can hint at them and evoke them. Whether we see this as the primary way of using language may depend upon whether we see ourselves as primarily spiritual or primarily material beings.

Has this any connection with learning Japanese? For me it has. I was discussing with a Japanese-speaking American friend the question of watching anime, and she said that turning off the (Japanese) subtitles was largely a matter of confidence and tolerance of ambiguity. The ambiguity here, of course comes from unfamiliarity with the language and the uncertainty of one’s ear rather than from the nature of the language or culture. When I spoke of developing a tolerance for ambiguity she said “the Japanese are masters of that”.

This interested me. While the two ambiguities are not the same, I think they are for me related to each other and to a third ambiguity: the ambiguity a small child must tolerate while learning language. When a small child watches anime, there are various words and concepts she does not understand. She needs to build up slowly from massive ambiguity to getting the general gist while being unclear about exactitudes. She has no first language to fall back on, so she can only understand as much as she understands.

I don’t want to get into the whole immersion argument from a language-learning point of view, but to me there is a subtle intertwining here of the process of learning a “second first language” (or in a way, a first first language, since English has never felt native to me) and learning to tolerate ambiguity from a cultural point of view. Modern English is probably the most materialistic language/culture in Telluria, which is probably why it has always felt alien to me.

Everyone has her own reasons for learning Japanese and mine (appropriately enough) cannot really be put into words. I am trying to find something. And I think tolerating ambiguity is going to be a part of that process.