JOK Notebook

The Measure of a Man

On the ferry from Okayama to Shodoshima, I walked into a room not meant for me. The sight of a urinal was a huge clue that things were not quite right. Fortunately, no one else was around.

I backed out sheepishly and glanced at the sign on the door:

I understood お手洗い (おてあらい) as "bathroom," or literally "hand-washing" place. But what about 紳士? I had a full bladder, so I didn't spend too long analyzing the kanji.

Making my way to another bathroom, I found this most welcome sign:

The "woman" radical in 婦 provided all the reassurance I needed. The word 婦人 (ふじん: adult woman + person) means "woman; adult female." No problem there, though the sign does appear to exclude little girls!

After relieving myself, I returned to the men's room door and studied it for clues, hoping for more relief. What was it about 紳士 that said it was for men? Component analysis is often helpful, but when it came to 紳, recognizing 糸 as "thread" got me nowhere. As for 申, I knew it best from sentences like イブと申します (イブともうします: I am called Eve), as well as 申し込む (もうしこむ: to apply for). Those words were of no help whatsoever when it came to 紳.

Moving on to 士, I realized that it means "samurai," as in 武士 (ぶし: warrior; samurai). We envision samurai as male, but there were definitely women samurai, too, so I wasn't making any progress. I thought about 弁護士 (べんごし: lawyer), which ends in 士, but that again was of no use.

I wandered back to my seat, far from satisfied. I couldn't look up 紳士 in a thorough way until I reunited with all my reference material at my office.

I also felt annoyed on principle. Shodoshima is a tourist destination, and non-Japanese people must sometimes make the trip. Would it have killed anyone to attach a little icon of a man for those of us who prefer not to have doubts about such things? After all, the bathroom doors in the ferry were plastered with signs. Surely they could have accommodated one more!

I had experienced bathroom confusion on the very night I arrived in Japan, five days earlier. At a Korean restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo, I stood befuddled in front of two doors with flowers on them. The flowers had exactly the same shape, but one was blue and the other red. Jet-lagged, I stood there blinking and wondering what I was missing. Finally, a server walked by and motioned toward the red-flower door. As I later learned, the Japanese indicate men's bathrooms with blue icons (of all types) and women's with red.

The situation reminded me of Tahiti, where on a few occasions I scurried between bathrooms, trying to figure out which one was right for me. One restroom had the words for "man" and "woman" in Tahitian. I asked a local which one to use, and then I quickly absorbed that vocabulary. In another case, I needed to study pictures posted outside a bathroom, trying to figure out which one represented a man:

The person in the first picture is kind of pretty, but the right-hand image clearly depicts a woman. The flower is a dead give-away. As I later learned, Tahitian women often put flowers behind their ears. Depending on their marital status, they choose a different ear. It may all seem obvious after the fact. When you have a full bladder, though, it's not the best time to struggle with uncertainty about such things.

Now that I'm not in any state of urinary urgency, I can take more time to think about the ferry signs and to consider 紳士, in particular. It means "gentleman," and the yomi is しんし. In fact, both 紳 and 士 can mean "gentleman."

The first character, 紳, also means "belt," which is actually its primary meaning. According to Henshall, the "thread" radical 糸 represents "cloth" (not "thread") in this case, whereas 申 (to say) acts phonetically in 紳 to express "pull, stretch." If you have cloth that's pulled or stretched, it's a "belt." This kanji later came to mean "gentleman," as well.

Now that you know 紳 (which has the Joyo on-yomi of シン and no Joyo kun-yomi), prepare to be a bit disappointed. This character appears in very few words—only 16 on Denshi Jisho. Nearly all have to do with gentlemen or merchants. In fact, 11 of them contain 紳士 as a root word.

It does seem as if 紳 could be helpful on shopping excursions because it plays a role in these words:

紳士服 (しんしふく: menswear; suits for gentlemen)
紳士靴 (しんしぐつ: men's shoes)

Here's the most interesting 紳 word I've found:

紳士録 (しんしろく: (Who's Who) directory)

Ah, a Who's Who book is really a list of gentlemen. As long as they're upfront about their exclusionary policies!

As for 士, which has a broad life outside of its partnership with 紳, Halpern defines 士 primarily as "military man" and secondarily as "professional suffix." Hence the connection with samurai and lawyers! This kanji can also mean "man of learning and virtue, gentleman, scholar," says Halpern. That explains its role in 博士 (はくし: doctor, Ph.D.), also read as はかせ (expert, learned man; doctor, Ph.D.).

Here's my favorite 士 word at the moment:

一言居士 (いちげんこじ: ready critic; one ready to comment on any and every subject)

Oh, I think I'll need to store up that cynical word as ammunition! Could be very useful at some point!

I'm "skirting" one issue, so to speak, which is the etymology of 士. Henshall says that the upside-down T represents the "erect male organ." Some scholars believe that the longer horizontal stroke on top gives aesthetic balance to the character, whereas others think that this cross-stroke symbolizes the "glans." I just had to look up "glans," because my mind went naturally to the testicles. Nope. It's the head of the penis (as well as the head of the clitoris, but I think we can overlook that in the context of 士).

One more thing, as long as we're being glans-博士. The dictionary says that glans comes from the Latin for "acorn"! Who'd have guessed?!

Anyway, let's return to Henshall's etymology. He says, "The erect male organ symbolizes masculinity, and hence man." Well, of course people have made that association! For my part, I'll always associate 士 with "urinal"!

As long as we're focusing on Japanese bathroom door signage, I'll share other possible designations:

殿方 (とのがた: gentlemen)
男子 (だんし: men)
女子 (じょし: women)

And, again, sometimes the Japanese opt to forgo words, as in this sign or this one.

Time to get our heads out of the toilets! The new essay this week is on 摘 (to pick, pluck; extract; trim; gather). Once I made it to Shodoshima, I found a great sign with 摘 and added it to the essay. Shodoshima is the first place the Japanese tried growing olives, and this experiment was so successful that it has become a booming industry on the island. The sign I photographed is about picking olives.

Here's a sneak preview of the essay:

Have a great weekend. And before you enter a public bathroom, make sure you've chosen the right one!

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