70. The "Direction" Radical: 方

The four-stroke 方 radical seems simple enough at the outset and then proves to be anything but. Let's start with the relatively easy parts, such as this kanji:

方 (204: direction; place; side; concerned party, person, polite suffix for person; way of doing, method; square)

Its Joyo readings are ホウ and かた. That's why, when this shape serves as the "direction" radical, we can read it as ほう or かた. Those names apply to 方 (204) itself. Because we're focusing on radicals, I'll mention just for fun that we can also use ほう or かた for the bottom component in the non-Joyo 旁 (つくり), which means "radical on the right side of a kanji." (If you don't know what I mean, see "Radical Terms" and check the Radical Positions section, then Positions 1–2.)

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In this ramen shop sign, 方 appears in the first word, 喜多方 (きたかた). That's the name of a town in the Kyushu city of Fukuoka (though I took this photo elsewhere). After that comes ラーメン and then the surname 坂内, read here as ばんない. Two proper names and katakana—an atypical mix for a sign! I love it for its unusual font.

The "Direction" Radical on the Left

Although our radical has no variant shapes, it's much thinner when it occupies the left side of a character. That's where it's located in the other five Joyo kanji in which 方 is on duty:

族 (333: family; group of people)

旅 (410: travel)

旗 (451: flag)

施 (1318: to carry out; give; construct)

旋 (1494: to turn around; render a service to) 

In these instances we can call the radical ほうへん or かたへん. The -へん (-偏) means "radical on the left side of a kanji."

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Can you stand all the cuteness?! In an ad for 損保ジャパン (そんぽジャパン), an abbreviation for a name that translates as Sompo Japan Insurance, our radical appears in the third line in 旅 (410: travel). Here's what the sentence means:

Don’t you know the economical overseas travel insurance that you can buy online?

ネット (Internet); 入る (はいる: to enter, shown here in its potential form);
おトク (お得: economical); 海外旅行 (かいがいりょこう: overseas travel);
保険 (ほけん: insurance); 知る (しる: to know)

It's Complicated

Things can't stay easy forever, so let's see what's difficult about 方.

For starters, it's supposedly the pictograph of a "plowshare," according to Henshall in his newer edition (the source of all etymologies in this Radical Note). Lacking farming expertise, I had no idea what a plowshare was but soon learned that it's part of a plow—only not a part that's easy to fathom. The shape differs in every photo, and after puzzling over the matter for an inordinate amount of time, I decided that a plowshare is more or less a big shovel blade.

I actually do see how the 方 shape could represent that. But as we know from the many meanings of 方 (204: direction; place; side; concerned party, person, polite suffix for person; way of doing, method; square), this kanji no longer has the slightest connection to agriculture. Instead, says Henshall, "All modern meanings are loan usages."

So the primary meaning of the character is "direction," just as the radical bears that name in English, but 方 acquired that sense rather randomly. This discovery made me feel ... directionless.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In a predominantly Chinese part of San Francisco, a sign with a pun on "Far East" includes two Chinese words. They have identical meanings in Japanese, so I've provided Japanese readings here:

東方 (とうほう: the East)

魅力 (みりょく: charm; fascination; glamor; attraction; appeal)

The words enable us to see how similar 方 and 力 look. The latter is not only a kanji that means "power" but also radical 19 ("strong").

The Role of the Radical

After struggling over the etymology of 方, I Iooked at how the 方 radical functions in the five other kanji in which it is on duty. That left me even more bewildered, always for the same reason. Here's an example:

旗 (451: flag)

Henshall takes the 方 along with the top two strokes of the right side as one meaningful entity, saying that it represents "flagpole and streaming banner." The lower-right side (that is, the remainder) originally meant "winnowing basket." As the phonetic, that component conveys the associated sense "to gather together." All together, 旗 symbolizes "flag for troops to gather under."

I would have expected any etymological analysis to divide this character into the left-side 方 and then one or two right-side components. That's not what happened here or with 族 (333), 旅 (410), 施 (1318), or 旋 (1494). In each case Henshall treats the odd 方-plus-two-strokes concoction as a single unit. Although dictionaries slot these five ほうへん kanji under 方, etymologically we need to consider the radical as being 方+2. This blew my socks off!

Henshall defines that composite shape slightly differently every time—but always in relation to flags. (Fun with flags! Where's Sheldon Cooper when you need him?!) "Direction" doesn't matter at all now that we're onto flagpoles and streamers. That makes sense for 旗, as it means "flag." But what of the other four kanji in our group? Here's Henshall's explanation of another character, an extremely common one:

旅 (410: travel)

The 方+2 part means "flag," and the lower-right component means "follow." One scholar takes that latter component as a phonetic with the associated sense "to accompany." Two other researchers take it as "many together." If they're right, the overall meaning of 旅 becomes "(many) people/soldiers gathered beneath a flag." Henshall adds that whereas 旅 once conveyed meanings such as "group of 500 troops" and "troops moving," it later generalized to mean "journey."

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

In the city of Nikko (in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo), this sign helps travelers, as the English indicates. (Oddly, they managed to spell "accommodations" correctly, even though many native speakers can't, then botched the ultra-simple word "and"!)

We find 方 in three places, including the first of these two lines:

(For) people with no reservations!!

予約 (よやく: reservation); 方 (かた: person)

Accommodations (and) information

宿泊 (しゅくはく: accommodations; lodging);
案内 (あんない: information)

Our radical pops up once more in 旅館 (りょかん: traditional inn) on the lower left, along with ホテル (hotel), 民宿 (みんしゅく: guesthouse; bed and breakfast), and 日帰り温泉 (ひがえりおんせん: hot spring resort where customers can bathe without spending the night).

The green writing again contains 旅 in 旅ゆき (たびゆき). Apparently the name of a travel agency, this coinage means "going on a trip.

What Goes Around Comes Around

It's perplexing to think of our radical as meaning "flag" in characters. After all, how many could possibly have flag-centric definitions? To show you how flags fit into another etymology, I'll share one that's kind of cool:

旋 (1494: to turn around; render a service to)

The lower-right side means "leg." Our 方+2 component represents a "streamer" or a "pictograph of a flag fluttering on a pole" and acts as the phonetic with the associated sense "to go round." (Wait, 方+2 is both the radical and the phonetic here? That does happen, but it always seems strange.) Anyway, the whole 旋 character means "to return by making legs go round." The nuance "return," says Henshall, is thought to derive from a "flag fluttering on a pole and in rapid movement going back to its original position." I like that!