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Kinda Sorta a Binding Commitment: Part 1

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In the past, we’ve encountered kanji that embody opposite meanings—namely, and . Well, I’ve found another culprit: (YAKU)!

A Note on the Yomi

In one side of its split personality, this is the laid-back kanji of approximations; when you don’t know a precise number, you can precede it with to express the idea of “about” or “circa” or “kinda sorta like that.” For instance, you might use to say “about half”:

約半分 (yaku hanbun: about half)     about + half (last 2 chars.)

The full breakdown is about + half + part.

When I wrote an article about the soon-to-be-unveiled Shibuya Station, I asked a project architect for its dimensions. He supplied this information (without the rōmaji or English, of course!):

敷地面積 (shikichi menseki: site area):14,000m2
総床面積 (sō yukamenseki: gross square footage):28,000m2

A Breakdown of the Kanji

The allowed him to round off his figures.

Then, during a very different conversation, this kanji emerged in the opposite way, appearing in the word 約束 (yakusoku: promise, promise + to bind).

I had arranged to chat with a new Japanese language partner on Skype at 5 p.m. To my surprise, he contacted me at 4:15 and wanted to get going. I told my friend Mayumi about this. She grew up in Japan but has lived in Italy for years. Ever amused at the differences between the two cultures, she had this to say:

それにしても5時に約束して415分って早いですね。なんか日本らしさを少し感じます。イタリア人ではありえないな。きっと5時に約束して6時とか …。:—)

Sorenishitemo goji ni yakusoku shite yoji jūgofun tte hayai desune. Nanka Nihonrashisa o sukoshi kanjimasu. Itariajin dewa arienaina. Kitto goji ni yakusoku shite rokuji toka …. :—)

When you’ve set a time for 5:00, 4:15 is early, isn’t it? That somewhat gives off the feeling of a typical Japanese. That’s impossible for Italians—promising to meet at 5:00 surely means showing up at 6:00 or something…. :—)

A Breakdown of the Kanji and Difficult Words …

Reading her email and admiring how compactly she said 「5時に約束して」(an expression that seems to require a bit more verbiage in English), I realized that is the opposite of an approximation here. That is, 約束 is a firm promise. For untrustworthy sorts, a promise might be a nice gesture, a bunch of empty words that the speaker never plans to fulfill:

空約束 (karayakusoku: empty promise)
     empty + promise (last 2 chars.)

But 約束 is a promise to take seriously. Breen defines it in all these ways:

(1) arrangement; promise; appointment; pact; engagement
(2) convention; rule


Halpern throws in “vow” and “pledge.” That’s some hardcore promise.

Sample Sentences with 約束

After all, consider the breakdown of 約束:

(YAKU: to promise, make an agreement, conclude a treaty)
(SOKU, taba: to tie up, restrain, bind)

With the kun-yomi of taba, means “bundle” and appears in words about being tied up in a bundle:

花束 (hanataba: bunch of flowers)     flower + bundle
札束 (satsutaba: bundle of bank notes, wad of bills)
     paper money + bundle

And with the on-yomi of SOKU, gives off the sense of a necktie pulled so tight that it has become a noose:

束縛する (sokubaku suru: to restrain, restrict, bind, fetter)
     to bind + to bind
拘束 (kōsoku: restriction, restraint, binding)     to confine + to bind

Well, maybe I shouldn’t have said “necktie” but rather sokutai:

束帯 (sokutai: old ceremonial court dress)     to bind + to wear

In any case, there’s no freewheeling feeling here. When my partner and I agreed to talk at 5:00, he (as a native speaker) should have known that he was almost literally forming a binding agreement. Given the severity of what he entered into, he should have been hogtied after calling 45 minutes early, because I might have been fit to be tied … or at least tied up in knots … or even tied up (or down!) with another 約束.

Fortunately, I was happy to hear from him, and we had a great talk. Since our story had a happy ending, I’ll tie it up here. Just one more thing. As a kanji with a dual and therefore inexact meaning, embodies the very idea of “approximate.” That is, refuses to be bound to any one sense.

OK, now that I’ve taken this waaaaay too far, it’s about () time for a Verbal Logic Quiz!

Verbal Logic Quiz …