I remember my favorite classes at the university were those dedicated to the kanji (at least, the first year) because the sensei used to teach us the new characters by explaining their origins and what they symbolize (it’s great to memorize them!).
There is the tree 木 that is actually a stylized tree with branches and trunk, house 家 that is a little pig under the roof, and so on.
Although in Japanese there are two syllabic alphabets (hiragana and katakana), the kanji are the foundation of the language. They convey notions that can hardly be written as a single word with our alphabet, in which the letters have merely a phonetic value.
The kanji are great capacitors of meaning, symbols of complex feelings (sometimes even difficult to explain) enclosed in a single character (or a couple).
I picked up as an example of this linguistic peculiarity 9 Japanese terms, untranslatable in a single word, that tell an entire world in a few kanji.
Mono no Aware 物の哀れ
It does not sound great but it is one of the Japanese words I love the most and that represents a fundamental aesthetic concept of classical Japanese culture since the Heian period (I’ve already written about it in this post on post on sakura as symbol of mono no aware).
The mono no aware indicates a kind of nostalgia and sensitivity towards the transient nature of beauty and life.
Ok, this is my word! When I get into a bookstore I can not leave without a book even if I still have others to read so I’m accumulating piles of unread books!
(Image source: Japan Foundation)
Deceptively simple, with only the kanji of river and bright, this untranslatable word has one of the most evocative images ever. Just pronounce it to imagine the whole scene and to desire to be in front of that river which glows at sunset.
Three kanji, wind, things and poetry, to describe a sort of nostalgia you feel in the air that you can hardly express if not in Japanese.
One of my favorite words: poetry enclosed in four characters.
Totally untranslatable, wabi sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept, similar to mono no aware but more related to art, and indicates the beauty of imperfect things.
Aesthetic principle linked to the wabi sabi, it is not only an untranslatable word but also so difficult to explain that the definition changes depending on the context.
The yuugen indicates an incomprehensible depth and the hidden beauty, the charm of things in the dim light that you can not fully understand.
It literally means “repair with gold” and is a practice part of the aesthetic concept of wabi sabi in which the damaged object is not thrown away but on the contrary is treated and embellished pouring into the cracks liquid resin with gold dust.
The beauty lies not in perfection but in the history of life-changing and in the imperfection that follows.
The objects, especially ancient ceramic tableware, acquire a temporal dimension, each one telling a different and unique story in the golden design of cracks, and thus become a symbol of beauty.