Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What's My Name?

One thing that's fascinated me since I first arrived in Japan is the way that Japanese people are named. Whereas in England, it often seems that our names have little intrinsic meaning ("James" has always been, to me, just a name rather than a word I attach any proper definition to), Japanese names are much more intriguing.

Before I explain why, just a quick peremptory note on the Japanese language: unlike English, which has just one alphabet, Japanese is made up of three scripts. First, you've got your hiragana (ひらがな), which is the basic Japanese script used for words without kanji and sentence particles; second comes katakana (カタカナ), which is the script used for foreign loan words (e.g. テレビ - te-re-bi: television); and, lastly, there's kanji, which predominates in every other area. Whereas hiragana and katakana are fairly simple (there being around 50 hiragana and 50 katakana, with each character consisting of only a few strokes), kanji can be painstakingly intricate, with some running to over thirty strokes each... not to mention that, by the time of graduating, a high school student will be expected to know over two-thousand kanji. As if that wasn't complicated enough, the same kanji can have multiple readings... for example, 時 (below) may be read "ji" or "to", depending on how it is used. This is different from hiragana and katakana, which are strict syllabaries (rather than alphabets): that is, each character represents a syllable, and that syllable can only be made by that character. The syllable "ka", for example, can only be made by the hiragana "か" or the katakana "カ". In an alphabet, however, the same sound may be made by different letter combinations: consider, for example, the difference between the words "tough" and "beef". 

Now, for the past two weeks, I've been informally taking part in a language exchange with my Japanese friend, Ha-chan. Once a week, we go for dinner and just chat together - it's a chance for her to practice her English and me to practice my Japanese. Usually, my name being (obviously) foreign, it'd be written in katakana, so would read:
Ji-Mu Ke-N-Pu... Jim Kemp!

Not being satisfied with being a designated foreigner forever, last week, I asked Ha-chan if she could write down some Japanese kanji for my name. And here, on the back of a napkin, is what she came up with:

With a little help from Google, I managed to transcribe it more legibly:

So, the four kanji that Ha-chan chose for my name mean "Time. Dream. Sword. Ticket." The last one kind of lets down the cool factor, huh? To a Japanese person, it'd be read: Ji-Mu Ken-Pu... so, all-together... "Jim Kemp"! (Interestingly the first kanji may also be read "To"... so these kanji may equally represent the name "Tom Kemp"!) Despite my fourth kanji being a bit square, this is exactly what I mean about my fascination with Japanese names. Each person's name is, like mine, made up of four kanji - two for their family name and two for their first name. And, like mine again, each kanji has its own individual meaning. What's more, there being thousands of kanji to choose from, even the same name can be made up of four completely different kanji and thus have a radically different meaning. A less cool reading of "Ji-Mu Ken-Pu", for example, might look something like this:

So, just as my name could be made up of the four kanji above, it could equally be made up of the four kanji for "Desk Work. Hair. Husband". Significantly less cool.

But it's not just Japanese peoples' names which can be so poetic - even simple nouns and place names can sound inspiringly beautiful when breaking down the meaning of each individual kanji. Take a simple English word like "telephone", for example: the two kanji which constitute it are 電話. The first is the first kanji in "electric", whilst the second means "talk" or "speech". So, "telephone" is, literally, "electric speech". Beautiful!

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