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Sense and Sensibility: Part 3 of 4

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I firmly believe that every kanji has its own personality. And as with people or dogs (or most creatures), it takes a while to get to know a complex kanji. By “complex,” I don’t mean something like this:


Read as KYŪ or kuji, this crazy concoction means “lottery” (though “circuit board” would have been more fitting). It certainly looks complicated. But when I say “complex,” I mean a character with … well, with lots of character! That is, one with emotional depth and many sides to its personality, a kanji that sets a mood or conveys layers of meaning.

When you think of (KŌ, GO, ato, ushi(ro)), which generally means “after” or “behind,” what associations would you expect such a kanji to have? Take a moment to think about it. Then, after reading today’s blog, see how your expectations matched up to the reality of !


Looking Back

As you might have guessed, figures into words about reflecting on the past, but not nearly as many as I would have thought. Here’s what I could find:

後知恵 (atojie: hindsight)
     after + to know + wisdom

Together, the last two characters mean “wisdom.” When they stand alone as 知恵, the yomi is chie.

後口 (atokuchi: aftertaste, reminder)
     after + mouth

English speakers call it the aftermath. For the Japanese, it’s the aftermouth!

読後感 (dokugokan: one’s impression (of a book))
     to read + after + impression

In previous blogs, we’ve seen these:

後日談 (gojitsudan: reminiscences)
     after + day + to discuss

別後 (betsugo: since we last saw each other)
     to separate + after

後悔 (kōkai: regret)
     later + regret

後思案 (atojian: afterthought)
     after + thought

The last two characters break down as to think + idea.

I would have expected to be drenched in nostalgia or bittersweet sentiment, but that’s true in only about half these compounds. The rest feel matter-of-fact, as if they’re straightforward indications of where one is in time.


Stabbed in the Back

The anatomical part known as the “back” is (se).

Do You Say Se or Sei for ? …

If you want to refer to this body part, you would definitely use . Nevertheless, also refers to the backside of one’s body (or to the space behind one’s back), as in these compounds:

後足 (atoashi, ushiroashi: hind leg)     rear + leg

後ろ姿 (ushirosugata: appearance from behind)     rear + figure

Many phrases about betrayal include (though others contain instead).

For Betrayal Expressions Using

Check out these expressions about turning one’s back on someone or biting someone’s back with gossip:

後ろ暗い (ushirogurai: shady, underhanded)
     behind + darkness

後ろ指 (ushiro yubi: being talked about or backbitten)
     behind + finger

This compound is part of a very cool-looking but obscure expression: 後ろ指を指す (ushiro yubi o sasu: to backbite), in which the kanji appears twice with different yomi and different meanings! First, it’s yubi (finger), and then it’s sa(su) (to point to). How about that?! One more thing about 後ろ指: Spahn’s dictionary defines it only as “bird’s hind toe, finger of scorn.” The second part is clear enough, but “bird’s hind toe”?!?!

面従後言 (menjūkōgen: pretending to obey someone to his face but badmouthing him behind his back)
     face + to comply + behind + to say

For Two Ways to Screw Someone Over …


The Life Cycle Compressed into Compounds

Here’s a compound that blew me away:

後天 (kōten: not inborn)

I was initially tempted to break 後天 down as after + heaven, which sounds like something that happens after one dies and goes to heaven. But the definition of 後天, “not inborn,” refers to birth (or rather a nonevent at birth, bringing to mind the “unbirthday” concept from Alice-in-Wonderland).

So what’s the connection between heaven and birth? My mind began to spin with thoughts about heaven as the dwelling place of gods (who give us traits) and Buddhist ideas of being born again, carrying traits from previous lifetimes.

And then I found (in Jack Halpern’s trusty Kanji Learner’s Dictionary) that can mean “by nature” or “innate.” In fact, that’s its function in 天才 (tensai: genius, natural gift, innate + talent).

Aha! So we start with some innate traits, and 後天 covers those we acquire after that.

For Elaborations on 後天

And what traits might we acquire in this lifetime? I could think of many possible answers, but I never expected to stumble onto this one:

後天性免疫不全症候群 (kōtenseimen’ekifuzenshōkōgun:
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS))

Here’s how this behemoth breaks down:

後天性 (kōtensei: acquired trait)
     not inborn (1st 2 chars.) + quality

免疫不全 (men’ekifuzen: immunodeficiency)

免疫 (men’eki: immunity)     to be immune + epidemic
不全 (fuzen: imperfect, incomplete)     not + all

症候群 (shōkōgun: syndrome)

症候 (shōkō: symptoms)      illness + climate
(gun: cluster)

The difficulty of this 10-kanji compound may be why the Japanese use エイズ (Aizu) to say “AIDS”!

Sadly, the discussion of AIDS provides a smooth segue to the topic of death. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that many compounds refer to the end of life—that is, to old age and death:

老後 (rōgo: one’s old age)     old + after

後半生 (kōhansei: the latter half of one’s life)
     later + half + life

亡き後 (nakiato: after one’s death)
     death + after

死後 (shigo: after death, posthumous)
     death + after

死して後已む (shi shite nochiyamu: to be determined to do or die)     death + after + to stop

And if you’re very good as you cycle through life’s stages, maybe you’ll get one of these:

後光 (gokō: halo)     after + light

Now it’s time for today’s Verbal Logic Quiz. Just click on the following link, and it’ll whisk you away to the proper place.

For the Verbal Logic Quiz …