One Son, Four Characters

March 20, 2010   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

The postcard-sized paper my son brought home from school had four imposing Chinese characters written vertically down the middle. It was from a school assignment where the fifth graders each selected a yoji-jukugo, or four-character idiom, that best suited another classmate.

Yataro’s friend had chosen “men moku yaku jyo” for him. The first two ideograms mean “honor,” the latter two “vibrant,” and they combine to refer to a person who enthusiastically pursues goals and earns the admiration of others. “You are so lively when playing at recess,” the classmate had written to explain his choice.

The Japanese use thousands of four-character idioms comprised of Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese written language. When grouped together, the characters create phrases with their own meanings. Familiarity with the expressions is regarded as a sign of being educated, and the idioms frequently appear on school entrance exams. Yataro had to memorize 64 of them for winter break homework.

Some were straightforward, like the characters for “different,” “mouth,” “same” and “sound,” which together read “i ku do on,” meaning many people in agreement. Others sparked the imagination, like “south ship north horse,” meaning to travel far and wide.

Yataro’s favorite was “han shin han gi” or “half believe half suspect.” It means to be dubious, but Yataro applied his own interpretation and took it to mean one can believe the half that one wants to and dismiss the rest.

The character clusters reflect the Japanese love of the compact, creative and scholarly. They have a vast historic range. “South ship north horse,” for example, dates back to the early Chinese travelers who forged rivers and canals in the south by ship and conquered mountains and fields in the north on horseback.

At the modern end, “den atsu soku tei” was one of last year’s winners of the insurance firm Sumitomo Seimei’s annual create-a-new-yojijyuku-go contest. Den-atsu means voltage, which is pronounced “boltage” here; soku means speedy, and tei means imperial. The result is a reference to the world’s fastest sprinter: Usain Bolt.

On the back of the paper my son brought home from school, the teacher requested that the parents write an idiom that befits their child. To broaden my choices, I went to the bookstore where I found a shelf full of titles like “Yoji-jukugo and Sayings You Can Use in Conversation and Speeches.” I settled on the 1000-entry “Yoji-jukugo Dictionary to Bolster Your Brain.”

Figuring this was a lesson in positive reinforcement as much as learning another phrase, I excluded the negative ones no matter how well they described Yataro.

Out went “horse ear east wind” — the eastern wind is a spring breeze, pleasant to humans but meaningless to horses: a perfect depiction of Yataro turning a deaf ear to my pearls of wisdom.

I also had to avoid the praiseful ones lest the teacher think I was an indulging parent. So I passed on “large vessel late achievement,” which describes someone who triumphs in maturity, even though I have my hopes pinned on the chance that my son is a late bloomer.

Yataro begged me not to bring to the assignment my personal gripes against the teacher, who I feel is petty in his criticisms of the children. Along that line my choice had been “ka gyu kaku jyo,” or “snail tentacles on top of,” which expresses small-scale squabbling through the image of the two tentacles fighting each other.

When I finally sat down to write, Yataro was shouting profanities at me to see how far those delicious new words he learned from his American cousins could push me. He didn’t have to keep the foul mouth going for too long before I lost my temper and said, “O.K. I have the perfect four letter word for you,” and scribbled the taboo expletive on the card.

After peace returned and the tracks of rage were erased, I wrote my choice for him: “jyuku doku gan mi,” “thorough reading enjoy taste,” which means to read deeply.

“Reading lets you glimpse into other worlds,” I wrote to Yataro who loves to lie down with a book. “May you continue your adventures with a boy from the American South, a Japanese soldier fighting in Burma and a street performer in France, all while lying on your bed.”

And then I could not resist. In the corner I drew a small picture of a snail and put boxing gloves on each of the tentacles.