JOK Notebook

Grafts and Granules, Seika and Spoons

This week brought a terrific surprise. Mark Schreiber, who regularly writes about the Japanese language for the Japan Times, contacted me for the first time ever (on a mutual friend's recommendation), sending a link to his latest article.

I found Schreiber's article to be a great read, and I had even more fun with our back-and-forth about the piece. How rare to have a chance to ask an author questions!

Among other things, his post draws on an anecdote in Jack Seward's book Japanese in Action, a story involving Japanese maid at a ryokan (traditional inn) who didn't know the Imperial Rescript on Education. The rescript, which people were supposed to abide by from 1890 to 1948, commanded Japanese subjects to be good citizens. In that era, even children could universally recite the document.

I asked Schreiber why she might not have known it, and he shared some possible answers, noting that we ultimately can't be sure. He then sent me a scan of the pertinent passage in Seward's book. (The gifts kept coming! I couldn't believe my good fortune!)

Between Schreiber's writing and Seward's, I suddenly found myself with several kanji threads that begged to be explored.

A Fist in the Mind?

Schreiber mentions that the rescript includes this term at the end:

拳々服膺して (けんけんふくようして : firmly bearing in mind; having something engraved on one's mind (heart))     fist + fist + clothes + breast; to strike

I've used Breen's definition here.

Incidentally, I've just written about plant grafting in essay 1460 on 穂 (ear of grain plant; tip of pointed object), and I now realize that I've grafted together all these influences: Breen, Schreiber, and Seward, who drew on the emperor's rescript!

I broke down the kanji as shown above, and the result made no sense to me, so I consulted my proofreader Lutlam—yet another person in the chain of influences! I asked if 拳々服膺 were ateji.

He turned to Kojien (another source!), which lists 拳々服膺 as a yojijukugo meaning "thinking about something reverently all the time." According to that source, this word comes from the Chinese Doctrine of the Mean, a Confucian text.

Lutlam said that 拳々服膺 breaks down this way:

拳々: holding something reverently with both "fists"
服膺: bearing in mind at all times

And then he broke down the second word to its finest granules. (I've been writing about grain and granules in essay 1460, so I'm bearing that image in mind at all times.) Here's how that breakdown looks:

服膺 (bearing in mind at all times)     to wear tightly + chest, heart

Etymologically, then, 服膺 (in which 膺 is non-Joyo) means "holding something tightly in one's chest or heart."

With all this clarified, I'll revise the breakdown I presented above. Here's what it should be:

拳々服膺して (けんけんふくようして : firmly bearing in mind; having something engraved on one's mind (heart))     fist + fist + to wear tightly + chest, heart

Overlooking and Underestimating

Schreiber quotes the ryokan manager in Seward's book as having said this:

I failed to recognize your ability.

見逸れる (みそれる: to overlook; underestimate)

I immediately wanted to know more about 見逸れる. And I felt especially intrigued by the second kanji, as I know so little about it.

Lutlam said that お見逸れしました is a set phrase that means "I've been overlooking your abilities" or "I've been giving you too little credit," which is to say, "Sorry I underestimated you." And he broke down 見逸れる as to look + to swerve.

Oh, I like that breakdown! Someone comes toward me but swerves to the side, passing me by after failing to see me for who I am. Of course, that sounds preferable to a collision!

The Many Faces of せいか

The same ryokan maid who didn't know the rescript also didn't know something else. When Seward asked her how one writes the か of せいか in kanji, she said, "Which せいか do you mean?"

I, too, had no idea which word he meant. But unlike the maid, who could probably visualize a dozen possibilities, I could picture none!

Fortunately, I have Breen for that, and he lists 26 せいか compounds. Here are some (with my own definitions in a few cases), and although I don't need to keep listing the yomi, I can't seem to help myself:

成果 (せいか: results; fruits)
青果 (せいか: fruits and vegetables; produce)
製菓 (せいか: confectionery; place confections are made)
製靴 (せいか: shoemaking)
所為か (せいか: it may be because)

People usually write the last word in hiragana.

Here's another possibility:

生花 or 活花 (せいか: (1) flower arranging; (2) fresh flowers)

If that looks familiar, you're probably used to seeing the first concept represented as 生け花 (いけばな: flower arranging). I love how radically the yomi changes with the addition of a mere け.

Here's another option:

青華 or 青花 (せいか: ceramics with a blue pattern on a white background)

What wonderful specificity we find here!

You can see why the maid was confused! So which word did Seward mean? He doesn't say (he sticks to romaji in his book), but fortunately Schreiber does:

精華 (せいか: flower; essence; glory)

"Glory" is the relevant meaning in the rescript. The word 精華 can break down as pure + flower—or as semen + ostentatious, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't apply here.

To Throw in the Spoon

I'm a bit loopy, as it's late here, so perhaps I should quit for the night. I should throw in the towel. Or, as I've learned from Seward's charming text, I need to throw in the spoon. That's how the Japanese put it:

匙を投げる or さじを投げる (さじをなげる: to give up (something as hopeless); throw in the towel)     spoon + to throw

The first kanji is non-Joyo, and of course it's the one that interests me here. Breen gives us this rundown on that character:

じ or しゃじ or かい (匙 or 匕: spoon)

Where did this come from? Which spoon was thrown into what?

Ah, Lutlam to the rescue. His dictionaries say that "throwing in the spoon" comes from the idea of a doctor's throwing away a medicine-compounding spoon when there's no longer any hope of saving a patient. His sources also say that the yomi さじ comes from the reading of 茶匙 (さじ: teaspoon).

I'm intrigued by one more thing here—namely, 匕 as spoon. We're not seeing a katakana hi, as it's tempting to think. Rather, 匕 is another non-Joyo kanji. Breen includes just four more 匕 terms:

一匕 (いっぴ: (1) one spoon; (2) one dagger)
石匕 (せきひ: stone knife, a Jomon-period tool, shaped like a rice spoon)
匕首 (あいくち or ひしゅ: dagger; dirk)
匕箸 (ひちょ: spoon and chopsticks)

There's so much to explore here! Spoons are on a par with daggers?! There was once a knife shaped like a rice spoon?! Spoon + neck, head (匕首) means "dagger" or the puzzling "dirk"?! There's a term for "spoon and chopsticks"?!

The “spoon” in these cases is a Chinese-style porcelain spoon. Kanjigen includes the phrase 匕箸を失う (ひちょをうしなう: to be so surprised while eating that one drops one's spoon and chopsticks). This comes from an ancient Chinese anecdote in which someone was shocked by a dining companion's comment, not by the food, and dropped his spoon and chopsticks.

This blog has become long, so I will indeed throw in the spoon ... or I'll at least put it down gently, conscious not to spill all that it holds.

And now I'm thinking of the band The Lovin' Spoonful! And ... oh, my! Just look what that name conveys! Definitely towel/spoon time for me!

Here's a preview of essay 1460 on 穂 (ear of grain plant; tip of pointed object):

Have a great weekend!


Did you like this post? Express your love by supporting Joy o' Kanji on Patreon:


Add comment

Log in or register to post comments