JapanesePod101.com Blog
Learn Japanese with Free Daily
Audio and Video Lessons!
Start Your Free Trial 6 FREE Features

Comparatively Speaking: Part 3

Quick Links
Welcome to Kanji Curiosity | The Basics | Glossary

Two weeks ago, I introduced the following sentence:

Pengin to seikurabe! Nankyoku ni seisoku suru 4 shurui no pengin
no waki ni tachi, anata no shinchō to hikaku shite mite kudasai.

Stand beside the four Antarctic penguin species and see how tall they are compared to you!

Breakdown of the Kanji

At first glance, it might seem as if this text is about penguins, and of course they play a vital role. But the more I look at it, the more I see that it’s full of body parts!

See how many components or whole kanji you can spot that relate in some way to bodies or their functions. I’ll post the original sign again to block your view of the answers, which come immediately afterward.




OK, let’s start with whole kanji. Here’s what I found:

1. (se, sei: back)
2. (i(kiru): to live)
3. (iki: breath)
4. (waki: side)
5. (ta(tsu): to stand)
6. (SHIN, mi: self)

Looking for components makes it really interesting:

7. Inside and we find , which means “fallen person” or “seated person.”
8. Inside and we find the “flesh” radical .
9. Inside we find , which means “self” and originally depicted a “nose,” says Henshall (since some Asians refer to themselves by pointing to their noses). For the purposes of this game, you might maintain that you spy with your little eye an eye (), but somehow I think that doesn’t count, and I hope that’s OK with you!
10. Inside we find , the “heart” radical.
11. Inside we find , which means “head.”
12. Inside we find , which means “strength” but was originally a pictograph of an arm with bulging biceps! I didn’t know that! (I think this one counts, but it’s debatable. I hate debates, so if you disagree, please don’t take it up with me!)

There are so many body parts here that you might mistake the text for a gory passage about dismemberment, rather than an innocent one about a cardboard cutout of penguins!

So much to explore, and so little time! Always the case with kanji. Well, if I have to choose one thing to discuss this week, I’ll choose #7.


Back to Back

In asking people if they’re taller than penguins, the sign featured these words:

身長 (shinchō: height)     body + length
比較する (hikaku suru: to compare)     to compare + to compare

But another word in the text conveyed the same thing much more efficiently:

背比べ (seikurabe: comparing heights)
     back, height + to compare

Halpern feels that means “height” here. But we primarily associate with “back,” and that makes sense in this context; people compare heights by standing back to back.

And if you stare at for a long time in a kanji-delic daze, losing awareness of the world as it spins along without you, you’ll see that the top of this character pictographically represents a back-to-back comparison. At least, that’s what came to me after a protracted space-out, and to my utter delight, Henshall confirmed that that was the case! The in means “body, flesh,” and literally shows people sitting back to back. They’re not standing but sitting! And that makes sense, because represents a fallen or seated body. (Although this is a very literal pictograph, try not to be too literal here, or else you’ll wonder why the two people are sitting on top of someone else’s flesh!)

More on the Etymology of

But how can represent two people sitting back to back when I thought meant “north” (with the kun-yomi of kita)? Ah, Henshall ties those two ideas together. In his discussion of , he says again that this kanji originally showed two people with their backs to each other. Turning one’s back expressed both “fleeing” and “north.” That is, because north is the coldest direction, this kanji came to mean “shunned.” The ancient Chinese favored the south and shunned the north. Makes sense to me, when I consider just how cold northern China must be for much of the year.


Side by Side

With now fixed in our minds as “seated person,” we can’t look at the following compound without doing a double take:

背比べ (seikurabe: comparing heights)
     back, height + to compare

Make that a quadruple take! There are four people in this compound!

If shows people sitting back to back, are the two people in sitting in some kind of railroad-car formation? No, Henshall says originally showed two figures sitting next to each other. This led to the idea of comparison. An associated meaning is “ratio.”

Oh, there’s also this: (kura(beru): to compare) has the on-yomi of HI, which one would represent with the katakana hi … which is ! And lo and behold, came from ! In the eighth or ninth century, elite men wanted a writing system for themselves that was simpler than kanji but not as girly as hiragana, with all its loops and flourishes. So men broke off parts of kanji characters and created katakana, which is how emerged from . See Crazy for Kanji, pp. 48–50 for more on this.

One more thing you must be wondering about: If 背比べ means comparing backs or heights, what’s going on with the following compound?

比較 (hikaku: comparison)     to compare + to compare

It looks like this might be about comparing and swapping cars () before doing some kind of exchange (). But that’s not, in fact, the case. See the link for the real deal.

Henshall on

At this point, are you as twisted up in knots as I am? We’ll return to the penguin passage next week to talk about more body parts. For now, it’s time to relax with a Verbal Logic Quiz! Enjoy!

Verbal Logic Quiz …

Ready to Speak Japanese? Get 28% OFF Basic, Premium & Premium PLUS!