49. The "Oneself" Radical: 己

I find it mesmerizing to compare the three shapes of radical 49:

primary shape: 己

variant 1: 已

variant 2: 巳

Why is it that simply completing the upper-left corner makes so much of a difference in the way one perceives these shapes? I can't put my finger on it.

However you draw it, this radical contains three strokes. That's surprising when it comes to 己, which one could dash off as quickly as a 5.

Which Joyo Kanji Feature an On-Duty 己 Radical?

Just two Joyo characters feature an on-duty 己 radical, and one is the autonomous 己 kanji:

巻 (826: to roll up; volume (in a series of books); involve)

己 (855: self)

The primary radical shape appears in both characters. In fact, whenever radical 49 serves as a mere component in a Joyo kanji, the standard rendering of that character features the 己 shape. By contrast, Chinese fonts replace the 己 with 巳. 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The upper-left squiggles in this sign at a Nagoya pickle shop baffled me, and I was even more befuddled when I realized that they correspond to 阿己. Both characters are in the cursive style known as grass script. Another sign at the same store has a much clearer rendering of the 己:

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Because the non-Joyo 阿 is again in grass script, it's still challenging to identify. As for the meaning, that's also confusing; it seems that both characters contribute only sound here.

The Meaning of 己 

Henshall says in his newer edition that 己 is a pictograph of the "twisted end of a length of thread" and means "end of long thread." He informs us that people borrowed this shape to represent "oneself." 

As for 巻, he says, the traditional form of that character didn't even include 己 but rather 卩 (radical 26: "seal"), which meant "person kneeling." Henshall notes that the Chinese and Japanese traditionally bound books into rolls, so 巻 also came to mean "(book) volume." 

The Names of the 己 Radical

The autonomous 己 kanji carries three Joyo yomi, including おのれ and キ. We can refer to the radical in those two ways, as well as つちのと.

That last name refers to 己 (つちのと) when it represents the 6th of 10 "Heavenly Stems" in the system of Chinese Celestial Signs. I explain this complex system in essay 1773 on 丙 (third (in order or quality)). It isn't necessary to explore that elaborate scheme here, but one thing to know for the present discussion is that every Heavenly Stem is associated with a natural element. For 己 the element is 土 (earth).

Each Heavenly Stem character combines with a kanji representing one of 12 zodiacal signs (also called the Earthly Branches), so there are 60 possible combinations that represent the names of days and years in the Chinese calendar. As it happens (purely by coincidence, it seems), the sixth zodiacal sign is a variant of our radical, read in that context as み:

巳 (み: snake)

One of the 60 combinations has the following name:

己巳 (つちのとみ or きし: Earth Snake)

Look at that! The primary shape of our radical combines with the variant form! This name corresponds to the years 1929, 1989, and 2049, as well as a day that recurs every 60 days. 

All of this clues us into why the English names for radical 49 are "oneself" and "snake."

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

This sign indicates that peppers known as 唐辛子 (とうがらし or とんがらし: chili pepper; cayenne; red pepper) but written with し in place of 子, have been rolled inside しそ巻 (しそまき: rolled-up shiso leaves). These wrapped peppers, which are called しそ巻唐辛し (to reproduce the way it’s written in the sign), are a specialty in the city of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture on Honshu. Sometimes the Japanese incorporate these wrapped peppers in rice balls. Other times, people serve them as appetizers that accompany drinks. Whew—that’ll keep you drinking, for sure! By the way, 辛 is another Heavenly Stem, so it's fun to see it in a sign with the 己 component!