JOK Notebook

Completing the Circle

In the new essay on 寂 (lonely; desolate; quiet), I mentioned the seven principles of 侘び寂び (わびさび: wabi-sabi), including 不均斉 (ふきんせい: asymmetry, irregularity). I said there that one example of that concept is an enso circle (円相, えんそう), a Zen symbol. As I wrote, some calligraphers complete the circle, whereas others intentionally leave it open and asymmetrical. According to Wikipedia, the idea may be to show that “imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence.”

When I reread the essay before posting it, I was struck by the 円 in 円相 because the same kanji reappears later in this term: 

円寂 (えんじゃく: (1) nirvana; (2) death of a priest)     complete + quiet

As I recently learned, this 円 means “complete,” which is a big leap from the way in which I usual see it as "yen" in terms such as this:

100円 (ひゃくえん: 100 yen)

It is a huge leap, isn't it? Or are the two meanings somehow connected through the idea that a coin is round and therefore a complete circle?

As it turns out, 円 means "circle" in so many words that my proofreader and I chose to put that before "yen" when we selected the main definitions of this kanji (a process we're going through for all 2,136 Joyo kanji). And that choice made sense, given the role of 円 in terms such as these:

円周 (えんしゅう: circumference)

楕円形 (だえんけい: ellipse), in which 楕 is non-Joyo

円盤 (えんばん: disk; flying saucer)

円軌道 (えんきどう: circular orbit)

円を描く (えんをえがく: to draw a circle)

円い (まるい: round) 

To find out how "circles" and "yen" became associated with the same symbol, I turned to Henshall. And to my amusement, I saw that this character couldn't have been more rectilinear in the past: 

That original shape is now the non-Joyo variant of 円. In 圓, the "enclosure" radical 囗 indicates "roundness," says Henshall, making me laugh again. Meanwhile, the inner 員 represents "round kettle," he says, "here emphasizing roundness and also lending its sound to express 'circle.'" 

He does not say where or when 円 replaced 圓 but adds that 円 came to mean "coin" (or "yen" in Japan) from an association of shapes. So there we go. It's as I expected. Still, it's a bit surprising to connect 円 with coins because I'm more familiar with Japanese money as paper bills. (That's probably true for most people using any currency, unless one is a busker or parking meter attendant!)

Henshall says nothing about 円 as "complete" in words such as 円寂 (えんじゃく: (1) nirvana; (2) death of a priest). But it makes sense to me that "circle" extends to "complete"—unless we're talking about the enso, 円相. 

Now that we're back to that, what's the second kanji doing there? I'm accustomed to seeing 相 in 首相 (しゅしょう: prime minister). Looking up 相, I find some things I didn't expect, such as that it solely contributes the ソウ sound to words such as 可哀相 (かわいそう: poor, pitiable), though people usually write that in hiragana or, barring that, as 可哀想. Any kanji rendering of this term is ateji. Meanwhile, I can locate nothing about the meaning of 相 in 円相. (My proofreader also comes up empty-handed on this one.) 

I love going in circles like this, which isn't to say chasing my tail fruitlessly—or eating it like the Ouroboros (an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail), which was mentioned in the Wikipedia article on enso. Rather, I love making connections and trying to organize all this information on the page because it refuses to stay orderly in my brain.

In that vein, I'll share another moment of exciting connection. It happened in my last conversation with Kensuke, my language partner.

Just one day before, I had posted essay 1132 on 輝 (to shine; brilliant), which includes 垣間見る (かいまみる: to catch a glimpse of) in a book title. Originally, I defined 垣間 and 見る separately, and when my proofreader spotted that error at the 11th hour, I hurriedly fixed it. The ensuing adrenaline rush seared the word into my brain, whereas I usually find it difficult to retain new vocabulary. 

The title in question also features the keyword 燦然と輝く (さんぜんとかがやく: to shine brilliantly, in which 燦 is non-Joyo):

Ways in Which Five Men Left Their Marks on History and
Lived Brilliantly, as I Have Observed in My 100 Years

年 (ねん: years); 人生 (じんせい: life); 歴史 (れきし: history);
5人 (ごにん: five people); 生き方 (いきかた: how to live)

The author lived from 1912 to 2013 and wrote this book at age 100!

When I spoke to Kensuke, I asked him about the current controversy at Yasukuni Shrine, wherein someone leaked the chief priest's highly critical comments about Emperor Akihito, leading the priest to state that he would resign. Kensuke knew nothing of the matter, so he found an article about it, the Japanese version of a BBC article originally in English, and I read the Japanese aloud with his help.

I was thrilled to come upon 垣間見る and knew the word immediately. It was in this sentence:

The BBC's Tokyo correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says that the leaked statement is a rare chance to glimpse how many of the conservatives in Japan think of the emperor.

東京 (とうきょう: Tokyo); 特派員 (とくはいん: correspondent); 発言 (はつげん: statement); 流出 (りゅうしゅつ: leak); 日本 (にほん: Japan); 保守 (ほしゅ: conservative (people)); 多く (おおく: many); 天皇 (てんのう: Japanese emperor); 考える (かんがえる: to think (about)); めったにない (rare); 機会 (きかい: chance); 話す (はなす: to say)

With all the work I'm putting into Joy o' Kanji, I'm gratified beyond belief whenever I see that my methods of investigation are actually working. Not only am I creating an extensive reference source to consult but I'm actually absorbing and retaining a great deal along the way! It feels miraculous! I can only hope that anyone reading this material is reaping similar benefits.

To come full circle, here's a preview of the newest essay, the one I mentioned at the beginning:

In conjunction with that essay, I also posted a Thematic Exploration called "The Relationship Between 'M' and 'B,'" which is a free resource.

Catch you back here next time!


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