20. The "Wrapping" Radical: 勹

The "wrapping" radical 勹 is wrapped around a few surprises. 

For starters, I thought I'd seen this shape in scads of places, but it's the on-duty radical in only three Joyo kanji:

包 (583: to wrap, pack; include)

勾 (1953: hook; curved; arrest)

匂 (2089: scent; flavor; hint)

Maybe I was thinking of 勺 (ladle), once in the Joyo set but then demoted. Or perhaps I was visualizing numerous Joyo kanji in which this shape is a mere component, such as 号 (281: number), 物 (387: thing), 約 (591: approximately), 陶 (1650: pottery), and 葛 (1974: kudzu).

I might have also had that feeling because our radical somewhat resembles these common ones:

刀 (18: "sword")

力 (19: "strong")

Despite all these theories, I can't quite wrap my head around this sense of quasi-deja-vu!

What Is the 勹 Radical Called in Japanese?

Like 刀 and 力, the 勹 radical consists of just two strokes. It has no variants, and aside from "wrapping," no other English names. By contrast, the Japanese refer to it in three ways:




Each option contains -がまえ, the voiced version of the radical position name かまえ (構え: structure). This name applies when a radical encloses a component, as 勾 and 匂 respectively enclose ム and ヒ. (If this discussion feels confusing, see "Radical Terms" and read about Radical Position 5.) 

As for the first halves of the names of 勹, here are the origins:

• つつみがまえ: The idea is that 勹 is the radical in 包, which has the Joyo kun-yomi つつ•む (to wrap up). The つつみ in the radical name could be the pre-masu form of that verb or could represent the noun 包み (wrapping). Either way, つつみがまえ (包み構え) means "wrapping" enclosure.

• くがまえ: The く most likely comes from the katakana ク, which looks a bit like 勹. 

• ほうがまえ: The Joyo on-yomi of 包 is ホウ.

What Is Enclosed in 包?

We've seen that our radical wraps itself around ム and ヒ, though of course those katakana have nothing to do with the two kanji in question. Henshall says, in his newer edition, that the etymologies of 勾 (1953: hook; curved; arrest) and 匂 (2089: scent; flavor; hint) are "difficult" or uncertain, so let's look instead at the most popular of the three Joyo kanji featuring this on-duty radical:

包 (583: to wrap, pack; include)

According to Henshall, the 勹 radical in this character originally meant "person bent forward enclosing something." In 包, the inner part (usually "serpent") depicted an "infant still in the womb." So the overall meaning was "to be pregnant." By extension, 包 became "to enclose."

The serpent-infant connection took me by surprise, but Henshall says in an etymology of 改 (435: to change, redo; examine) that 巳 (sign of the snake or serpent) was originally a pictograph of a "snake" or a "fetus." 

For some reason, the Japanese occasionally present 包 in its old form:

I'm not sure why that would be, except that the serpent plays a clearer role here. Maybe some people like to make serpents as visible as possible! 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

At Toshogu Shrine in the city of Nikko (which is in Tochigi Prefecture on Honshu), this sign features the old form of 包 in the third column from the right in 包む (つつむ: to wrap). After a statement about how a structure called the Treasury was built there in 1654, we find this description of the exterior:

entirely covered in bronze

外部 (がいぶ: exterior); 全体 (ぜんたい:
whole); 青銅 (せいどう: bronze)

The rest of the sign says that the Treasury houses letters that the imperial court sent Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542–1616) and the shrine. Wikipedia identifies Ieyasu (as the Japanese call him) as the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan from 1603 through 1868.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

What a dramatic example of curvature we find in the stone wall supporting Nagoya Castle. Fittingly, the title of the accompanying sign features 勾 (1953: curved), but that's hard to see in the image above, so here's a closeup:

Now the title is much clearer:

The Curved Stone Wall

石垣 (いしがき: stone wall);
勾配 (こうばい: incline)

I borrowed the translation from the English sign below the Japanese one, but 勾配 actually means "slope; incline; gradient; grade; pitch," not "curve."

That word recurs in the third column in the coined phrase 扇勾配. As the sign explains, 扇勾配 (おうぎこうばい: "fan sloping") is a technique in which the base of the wall has a gentle slope that becomes steeper toward the top. Thus, the wall is curved like the edge of a folding fan (扇). This both prevents swelling and evenly balances the weight of the stones against the pressure of the sand and earth behind the wall. I don't really grasp the physics, but I love the resultant look!