Wednesday 12 July 2017

Entry Prohibited! Remembering Kanji through Everyday Signs

Tachi-iri kinshi (no entry)
Returning from a trip to the UK, I will never forget the moment I reached my one-room apartment in Japan only to find a big red sign stuck to my door and tape criss-crossing the door frame, like something from a crime scene. Had someone died inside while I was away? Panic is definitely not conducive to reading kanji - it was late, I was jet-lagged, and I was worried about where I was going to sleep that night - but after I had recovered from the initial shock I began to decipher the four-character compound, known in Japanese as yoji-jukugo (四字熟語). I had seen the last two characters quite a bit on signs in the neighbourhood and knew they were read kinshi (禁止) meaning "forbidden/prohibited." The first two were beginner level kanji: 立入 (tachi-iri), literally "stand" and "enter." So basically, standing and entering (=going into) was forbidden. Maybe there was a dead body inside...

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Fortunately, the whole thing turned out to be a huge misunderstanding, but it did help to burn that particular compound phrase into my brain. The fact is that Japan is a very rule oriented society and rules are written (and spoken) everywhere (though not always enforced). An earlier post referred to Yoshio Sugimoto's characterisation of Japanese society's framework of control, regulation, and regimentation as "friendly authoritarianism" and he (2014: 326) notes how power is made "highly visible and tangible." This is maybe not great from a democracy/human rights perspective but for the Japanese kanji learner, it can be a boon. For example, a short walk with my dog the other morning found four variations of the XY-kinshi (XY-forbidden) four-character compounds plus a shiyō-chūshi (使用中止=use suspended) compound (all pictured below).

From left to right (1) shiyō chūshi (2) fuhō tōki (illegal dumping) kinshi (3) tsūkō (thoroughfare) kinshi (4) shin'nyū (entry) kinshi (5) mudan tachi-iri (admittance without permission) kinshi
Karasu Shin'nyū kinshi

On a lighter note, it was something of a relief to find a humourous kinshi sign (left) - this was placed in the rubbish collection point of my apartment. If you need a hint, karasu were covered in this post and shin'nyū means incursion or invasion! In summary, observing and understanding the signs around you (important in unto itself) has the added benefit of teaching and reinforcing everyday kanji, thereby "killing two birds (or crows?) with one stone" - rendered in Japanese as isseki nichō (一石二鳥), a compound of the characters for one/stone/two/bird! Who says Japanese is difficult...