33. The "Samurai" Radical: 士

Although the samurai looms large in Japanese culture, the same can't be said of the "samurai" radical 士. Nelson treats it as a variant of radical 32, 土 ("earth"), except when it comes to this one kanji:

士 (494: military man; samurai; distinguished man; profession suffix)

I see no connection between samurai and dirt, just as I see no reason to conflate two radicals that happen to look similar, so I don't agree with his classification scheme. In my view, 士 is the on-duty radical in five Joyo kanji. One is 士 itself, of course. Here are the other four:

声 (153: voice; sound; reputation)

売 (192: selling)

壱 (810: one)

壮 (1514: robust; magnificent)

This three-stroke radical has no variants and always retains its 士 shape.

The Names of the 士 Radical

In three of those cases, the radical is on top, leading one to expect a かんむり suffix to the radical name. (If that isn't clear to you, see Radical Terms and look at the "Radical Positions" section, focusing on the third position.) But nothing doing. This radical has just one name in Japanese with no position suffix attached. That name is さむらい!

Likewise, the English radical name is "samurai." An alternative is "scholar," but it hardly seems necessary to use that.

A Closer Look at the 士 Kanji

Let's return to this kanji, which doubles as our radical:

士 (494: military man; samurai; distinguished man; profession suffix)

Although the character can mean "samurai," the Japanese primarily render さむらい in kanji as 侍 (1326: samurai; to wait on), secondarily as 士.

Even stranger, 士 has just one Joyo yomi, シ. The kun-yomi さむらい is non-Joyo.

As for an etymology, Henshall says in his newer edition that researchers widely interpret 士 as depicting an erect penis! He thinks that's fair but mentions the "awkward question of how to regard the upper horizontal stroke." Could it represent the tip of the penis? No, he says, that's "graphically unconvincing." One scholar sees the whole shape as depicting a battle ax as a ritual object. The bottom stroke would be the ax blade.

Here is yet another surprise. If my kanji photo collection is an accurate reflection of reality, 士 mainly appears in three contexts in Japanese life. I will present a picture corresponding to each one.

Photo Credit: Corey Linstrom

By far the most common use of 士 is in the name 富士山 (ふじさん: Mount Fuji). According to my proofreader, 富士 is the name of an area in Shizuoka Prefecture, and nobody knows why 士 is in that name. 

This signpost starts with 富士山, followed by this term:

頂上 (ちょうじょう: top; summit; peak)

After that we have these words:

浅間 (あさま: name of a Shinto goddess)

大社 (たいしゃ: grand shrine)

奥宮 (おくみや: rear shrine)

Together these three words mean "rear shrine of Asama Grand Shrine."

The sign also affords a glimpse of two shapes of interest here. That is, 上 is something of a look-alike for 士, or at least a permutation of its three strokes. And then 社 contains an off-duty 土 (radical 32) on the right. 

What Does 士 Mean Inside Kanji?

We've seen that Henshall's etymological analysis of 士 is inconclusive. As for his examinations of the other kanji categorized under this radical, most of those etymologies are even more useless regarding the role of 士. Three of the characters were once far more complex:

• The ancient form of 声 (153: voice; sound; reputation) represented an ancient Chinese musical instrument plus a "hand" plus an "ear," giving the overall meaning "listen to instrument" and by extension "sound, voice." 

• The 壱 (810: one) character was enormously elaborate in its earlier incarnation, involving a jar filled with fermented wine. The current definition is loan usage.

• The radical in 売 (192: selling) may have emerged in error or as a simplification.

Perhaps I can now understand more of why Nelson folded these three kanji into the 土 category; our radical appears in these characters only by happenstance, not in any meaningful way. This kanji stands as an exception:

• Henshall says that in 壮 (1514: robust; magnificent), the 士 radical means "adult male/samurai" (or possibly "phallus"), whereas the left-side phonetic means "bed" with the associated sense "big." Thus, the overall character represents "big man" and by extension "vigorous, flourishing." 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Here's the second word in which I repeatedly found 士 in my photos:

紳士 (しんし: gentleman)

That's true in this sign from the Asakusa section of Tokyo, where the other two terms are 婦人 (ふじん: woman; lady) and 帽子 (ぼうし: hat).

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The third usage is quite unexpected; 居士 (こじ) can serve as a posthumous suffix. That's the case on this gravestone, which starts with 蘭亭 (らんてい), followed by 居士. After that comes 之 (の), which indicates a possessive, as in "Rantei's." The last kanji is 墓 (はか: gravesite; tomb). The man buried here was a blind poet named 高野蘭亭 (たかの らんてい: 1704–1757). The suffix 居士 can also be attached to male given names, as is the case here.

By the way, 蘭 and 之 are non-Joyo. Although 亭 is in the Joyo set, the stone presents a non-Joyo variant, one that I can't reproduce electronically.