JOK Notebook

Where Even Natives Fear to Tread

I've just published essay 1809 on 房 (chamber, room; cluster; tuft; tassel; cell), which includes a doozy of a photo. Take a look at this:

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

The kanji in the center aren't the problem. Here they are from right to left:

ゴム印 (ゴムいん: rubber stamp)
印章 (いんしょう: stamp, seal)
名刺 (めいし: business cards)

We know, then, that this Osaka shop sells name seals, rubber stamps, and business cards.

But what's going on inside those circles?! Because I had 房 on the brain, I was miraculously able to spot it on the lower left. Beyond that, I was lost.

I consulted my right-hand woman, a native speaker who had little trouble with the old-style kanji above 房. She said it was 印. That gave us access to this word:

印房 (いんぼう: shop selling name seals and rubber stamps)

The seal-script 印 repeats in the right-hand circle, where it's alongside a kanji that she identified as 實, the non-Joyo variant of 実. This yielded another word:

實印 (じついん: registered seal)

One uses a registered seal when signing official documents.

That left this mess:

She balked at going any further. Not a problem, I thought. I'll take it to my proofreader. He knows everything. 

Except for this. No go. Not even a guess. He consulted a coworker who would surely know. She didn't.

"I give up," he said.


I stared at the image long and hard. How many kanji did the tangle of lines even represent?! Three? Maybe the first was 金 and the last one was 堂?

Fortunately, I have direct access to the Fountain of Wisdom. I'm talking about Facebook, of course! I posted the photo for people to have a go at it.

One Japanese friend engaged with it immediately, making a guess and then returning every 15 minutes with new thoughts on the matter. He discounted my 金 idea, replacing that first kanji with 幸. As for 堂, he said I was right. Wonder of wonders! But that jumble in the middle??? He thought it might start with the "going person" radical . Logical enough. He tentatively proposed 律, thinking that 幸律堂 would make this the Stay Happy Store!

In the meantime, another JOK assistant took the photo to her Japanese professor of calligraphy. He jotted down some notes: 幸 on top and definitely 堂 on the bottom, but that part in the middle? He put 足 on the left (except that it looked like the left side of 跡, as a proper あし radical should), then drew 宀 over 車. He finished with a big circle and question mark around the whole group of strokes. (I can't even find a kanji featuring 宀 over 車, so that seems like a wild guess indeed!) But I knew nothing of his findings until this morning.

By that point, my proofreader had solved the mystery, and then some. I had assumed he was down for the count, but I should have known better. Quitting is not in his nature! Once I told him what my Facebook friend had figured out, my proofreader threw himself back into the inquiry.

First he told me that the shop name is 幸運堂印房. Here's how those first three, nearly illegible kanji break down:

幸運 (こううん: good luck)
-堂 (-どう: suffix for shop name)

But there's more! He also did a thorough etymological analysis! This is what he wrote:


Here’s the etymology diagram of 幸 from Kanjigen:

The top-right kanji in the circle certainly looks like the seal-script version (the second from the bottom in this diagram), so I believe we can say for sure that it’s 幸.

As for the second character (below), the left half is certainly 辵, which in many kanji transforms to 辶. The right half seems like 軍, again in seal script: 

Etymology of 軍 from Kanjigen:

By putting 辵 (辶) and 軍 together you get 運. That means the name is most likely 幸運堂印房, which makes sense as a shop name.

For confirmation, here’s a sample of 幸運堂印房 in a seal-script font: 

These seal-script characters came from Font Garage and were then retouched.


I took this analysis back to the two native speakers who had helped me thus far, and they were amazed at all this deciphering.

Two more Japanese friends then happened upon the Facebook discussion. I hadn't indicated that the mystery had been solved, so they offered their opinions: 幸運堂印房, they said. Definitely.

They made it seem like no big deal. One is nearly 80 years old, and the other is beyond that. Did age somehow help them? Maybe seal script becomes easier to read as we grow older!

"A good name for a shop," one said. "It tells you that you'll be happy if you order 印 at this shop!"

It would indeed tell you that—if you could read it! Seal script is, of course, appropriate for a shop selling seals. But what happens when the majority of the populace (not to mention foreigners) can't read your shop sign, even with a concerted effort and every kind of tool at their disposal?!

By the way, there's a sequel to this story. My proofreader apparently felt that he hadn't achieved enough, so he went one step further. He found the shop on Google Maps and took a screenshot:

In the process, he confirmed the shop name as 幸運堂印房. Moreover, he found the physical address. Using that, he searched more and found three sites (here's an example) mentioning that a shop named 幸運堂印舗 exists at that address. 

Wait, the last kanji is now 舗 (shop, store)? Oh, no! It was definitely 房 in the photo I took. What happened?

My proofreader muses, "They might have avoided duplication because another shop named 幸運道印房 is in Gifu Prefecture."

Figures! With that, our kanji sleuthing will draw to a close for today!

Here's a preview of essay 1809 on 房, which contains the tricky photo, as well as many others that are much easier to read!

Have a great weekend! Best of luck on whatever kanji trails you decide to follow!


eve's picture

After writing this entry, I consulted one of the older men who had read the sign so easily (and who had actually used a dictionary in order to do so, unbeknownst to me). I asked why older Japanese people might have more of a knack for reading seal script.

He chalked it up to "richer experiences." That is, during their long careers, older Japanese people have had more opportunities to read old kanji, which are generally used in official seals on business and legal documents. He also thinks that, in their school days, older people learned more about the etymology of kanji than younger people do.


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