JOK Notebook

An Eye on the Eyes

I blogged about eyes just two months ago. (I mentioned there that I had just e-friended a blind photographer from Japan. Coincidentally, I'm scheduled to meet him for real next week!) Anyway, there must be an infinite amount to say about the eyes, so I'm eager to explore this topic more today.

Let's start with a quiz about eyes:

1. What do you think this could mean?

切れ長の目 (きれながのめ)     to be cut + long + eye

a. almond-shaped eyes
b. cutting one's eyes at someone in a derogatory glance
c. looking sad or depressed
d. getting on in years

2. What organ of the body contains two eyes?

I'll block the answers with a preview of the new essay 2006 on 梗:

Here are the answers:

1.a. 切れ長の目 (きれながのめ: to be cut + long + eye), which involves three kun-yomi (always exciting!), means "almond-shaped eyes." It's a common way for the Japanese to describe an Asian eye shape, as opposed to a larger, Western eye opening. At its root we find 切れ長, a much less common word that means "long slits (esp. the eyes)." Oh, the eyes look like slits! It's not actually about slitting open the eyes! What a relief.

2. I've discovered that there are two eyes in the kidney! I'm talking, of course, about kanji rather than anatomy. Here's the term for "kidney":

腎臓 (じんぞう: kidney)

I've enlarged it so that you can see something that escaped me until after I posted essay 2037 on 腎 (kidney), in which this word makes quite a few appearances. Each kanji in 腎臓 contains the 臣 shape! Is this a coincidence? What could this beautiful, orderly component mean? Once I found the repeated shape, I had to track down the answer!

From writing essay 2037, I already knew that the 臣 in 腎 meant "lowered eyes." In that kanji 臣 pairs up semantically with 又 (to hand (something to someone)). According to Kanjigen, 臤 means “to stiffen one’s body like a vassal (servant) with lowered eyes.” Presumably, the vassal feels very uncomfortable about whatever he or she has just witnessed. The 月 means "flesh."

So what about the 臣 in 臓 (924: internal organ)? Henshall says that, to understand this character, we need to burrow inside a bit and find 蔵 (923: to store, storehouse; to harbor). 

In 蔵 (923), he says, the 臣 means "eye" or "guard" in the sense of "protect." However, to grasp the 臣 in 蔵, he indicates, we really should examine 臣 (524: servant). Oh! That means that 臣 is an autonomous kanji, as any Japanese kid knows by the end of fourth grade!

Okay, then, what can we learn about 臣 (524)? Well, says Henshall, it shows an eye with a deliberately exaggerated pupil. This symbolizes "wide-eyed alertness," which came to mean "guard," and from there "servant."

From this I conclude that the kidney contains two eyes! (In a sense, it also contains two servants!)

Now that we've peeled the onion, let's reconstruct it. In 蔵, says Henshall, we have "grass" (艹) because 蔵 originally referred to "concealing a wounded and incapacitated person with grass," which protected that person from pursuers. This later extended to "storing" and "harboring," among other meanings.

In 臓, we have the addition of 月 (flesh). An internal organ (臓) stores or harbors (蔵) things in the body (月), says Henshall.

Indeed it does—including eyes!

Can you take one more tidbit about eyes? I hope so! But first, a small detour. In essay 1349 on 珠 (pearl), I included this keyword:

数珠繋ぎ or 数珠つなぎ (じゅずつなぎ: linked together; tied in a row)
         rosary (1st 2 kanji) + linked together

A rosary is a string of beads that Buddhists use when praying, and that image has given rise to a wonderful bit of figurative usage. With 数珠繋ぎ, the Japanese convey that cars are bumper to bumper or that people are lined up and crammed together as tightly as beads on a string. An Asahi Shimbun headline features this term and ends with another that I didn't know:

世界遺産の山頂へ数珠つなぎ にぎわう富士山5合目
World Heritage Site Fuji-san Is Quite Crowded Halfway to the Top

世界遺産 (せかいいさん: World Heritage site); 山頂 (さんちょう: mountain summit); にぎわう (to be crowded with people); 富士山 (ふじさん: Mount Fuji);
5合目 (ごごうめ: halfway to the top)

The Japanese use ~合目 (~ごうめ) when assessing the distance from the bottom of a mountain to the top. They divide the distance by 10 and count from the bottom with1合目 (いちごうめ) , 2合目 (にごうめ), and so on. The 目 here is part of the counter ~合目, so although one needs eyes to evaluate the distance, that's not the function of this 目.

You can learn much more about the body in the new essay 2006 on 梗 (blockage; stem). You'll have extra time to do so because Joy o' Kanji will be on a short break to celebrate Thanksgiving. See you back here in two weeks! In the meantime, I'll keep an eye out for more kanji tidbits, and I hope you'll do the 



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