83. The "Clan" Radical: 氏

Although the "clan" radical 氏 is quite straightforward, it surprised me in a few ways. 

First, it is on duty in two Joyo kanji that look far more similar than I ever realized before:

氏 (495: Mr., Ms.; surname; family, clan; he; third-person pronoun)

民 (590: people; private)

Second, the radical name うじ comes from the Joyo kun-yomi of the 氏 kanji, which of course looks identical to the radical. I know うじ as 宇治, a Kyoto-area city where a delicious green tea of the same name is grown. I had no idea you could read 氏 as うじ, and somehow that pronunciation seems like a huge mismatch! With that reading, 氏 means "surname; lineage; birth."

Third, although the four-stroke 氏 has no variants, it's curiously shape-shifting. The three photos below all feature 民, not 氏, but that doesn't matter. Look how much 民 transforms from image to image. This kanji is hardest to recognize in the first photo. 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The right-hand column situates us on Sado (佐渡, さど) Island in Niigata Prefecture. The non-Joyo 國, which corresponds to the Joyo 国 and means "province," reminds us that Sado was once a province. The 小木 (おぎ) is a town name.

The left-hand column presents the name and function of a building:

民俗 (みんぞく: folk customs)

博物館 (はくぶつかん: museum)

The 民 bears four horizontal strokes that look exaggerated in a way I can't pinpoint. Perhaps they're elongated.


While we're focusing on the shape of 氏, it's worthwhile to consider look-alike radicals. These are not so similar that you would confuse them with 氏, but I thought I'd mention them anyway:

弋 (radical 56: "ceremony")

戈 (radical 62: "tasseled spear")

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Of the three photos, this one features the most normal rendering of 民, though it has an extra dot to the right in what appears to be a variant of the kanji.

This character appears in 和民 (わたみ), an invented restaurant name that means "Japanese people." It's also a play on the founder's name, 渡邉美樹 (わたなべ   き), where 邉 is non-Joyo. The yomi of 和民 match official pronunciations; 和 can carry the Joyo on-yomi ワ, and 民 has the Joyo kun-yomi たみ.

In addition, the restaurant founders invented the 居食屋 (いしょくや) on the sign. The usual term is 居酒屋 (いざかや), showing that an establishment serves alcohol (酒), but they wanted to be clear that they offer food, too. The 食 (to eat; food) playfully conveys that.


Here's what Henshall says in his newer edition about the etymologies of 氏 and 民: 

氏 (495: Mr., Ms.; surname; family, clan; he; third-person pronoun)

Early forms depict a “sharp-ended spoon-like utensil for taking meat and other food from a large plate or cooking pot," he says. The meaning "clan, family" apparently derives from a connection with the left side of 師. (Editorial note 1: I can't produce that left side electronically, so I'm using 師 as a convenient way to show you the shape, which I'll now call X.) Originally X meant "buttocks" and by extension "hilly prominence." (Editorial note 2: OMG, really?!) Noble families in ancient China commonly lived on elevated sites, and people started calling the families themselves "such-and-such X" (i.e., those who live on such-and-such a hill). It’s possible that X and 氏 had similar Chinese pronunciations. Anyway, people came to use 氏 for "clan, family."

民 (590: people; private)

This shape may represent a pictograph of a "gimlet (tool for drilling holes in wood)." Alternatively, 民 could depict the "eye of a person (criminal or slave) being pierced with a needle to blind them as a punishment." If so, the current meanings (which Henshall identifies as "ordinary people, populace") reflect the idea that "ordinary people were ignorant" or figuratively "blind." 

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

This sign treats us to two instances of 民, both times in 民家 (みんか: Japanese-style house). Actually, the first 民家 is part of 古民家 (こみんか: old Japanese-style house). In each case, the diagonal stroke of 民 looks extra-prominent.

The writing tells us that we've arrived at 日本民家園 (にほんみんかえん), the name of an open-air (野外, やがい) museum (博物館, as you know) in Kawasaki (川崎, かわさき) City (市立, しりつ), south of Tokyo. This wonderful architecture museum features a collection of traditional houses transported there from many parts of Japan.