The Japanese Kanji character "Wa" in calligraphy

和 Wa

The Japanese character [和]”Wa“, is a very important one for understanding Japan and Japanese.  It has many important meanings, particularly peace, harmony, and Japanese style.  The character is used in a huge number of words; a list of many of the compounds in which the character is used in Japanese can be found on Wiktionary.

In Japanese, many Kanji characters have several readings; that is, they have different sounds when used in different words.  One indicator of the complexity and importance of a character in the language is the number of readings it uses.  This character has more than 20 different readings, depending on the context in which it is used!

The most simple reason that this is true is because the word’s origins are from the oldest recorded name for Japan.  This story is recorded most clearly and comprehensively, in English, on Wikipedia.  Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, until the 8th Century, generally referred to the nation with the character [倭]and the sound “Wa” or “Yamato”.  In the 8th Century, many Japanese began to find the character to be offensive and initiated the process to replace it with the character [和]meaning peace, harmony, or balance.  The sounds “Wa” and “Yamato” are retained to this day to mean the nation, Japan, and Japanese character or style, with the Kanji characters [和]”Wa” and [大和]”Yamato”.

The Wikipedia article provides a great deal of insight as to why the Japanese found the original character [倭]”Wa” to be offensive and repugnant.  The Chinese character combines the radical [人]or its simplified [イ]meaning “person” or “human”, with the character [委]meaning, in Japanese, to entrust or detail.  However, in Chinese, the character “wěi ” – which combines the elements for “grain” or “rice” [禾]over the character for “woman” [女]- is considered to have had derogatory meaning.  The Japanese of that period realized that the character used to represent Japan and Japanese depicted a person who was “bent down like a woman working with grain” and implied a “short, submissive, obedient, dwarf people”.   In this context, it is quite understandable that the Japanese were not pleased with the representation.

The character [和]”Wa”, then, represented a much better alternative.  The ideas of peace, harmony, and balance indicated a much more appealing sense of self and national worth.  But why [和]?  Apparently, this character has a very different etymology.

The character uses a [禾]”nogihen”, a character that is rarely used in Japanese alone, but as an element in a more complex Kanji, and [口]or “mouth”.  The “nogihen” has at its core the root [木]or “tree” and is used on the left hand side of many Japanese Kanji.  Apparently, the “nogihen” is indicative of a tree with 2 branches.  But it is also notable that this character is written with 5 (brush) strokes.  In the case of the Kanji  [和], the 5-stroke “nogihen” is combined with “mouth”.  This combination has been taken to mean that “harmony” is achieved when the “5 senses” are appreciated “tastefully”.

Thus, peace, harmony, and good Japanese style can be thought of as an attempt to find a good balance of the 5 senses in taste.  I like that!

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