So, here’s the first article in my experimental series for Learning Kanji Without Kanji. See that article for an explanation of the motivations and approach.
According to the data I collected, the on’yomi (Chinese-origin kanji reading) that occurs most frequently, is じ. This doesn’t mean that it is used for the largest number of commonly-used kanji characters (that would be コウ), or that the kanji characters that use it are the very most commonly-used kanji characters (the most commonly-used character in books/novels is apparently 人, with on’yomi of じん or にん; in newspapers it is claimed to be 日 with にち or じつ); it means that, if you were to take a large sample of text (in my case, I used data taken from novels and books), and kept just the words that are made up entirely of on’yomi kanji readings, and replaced each character with just its reading, ignoring what the original character was, then じ would turn out to be the most common on’yomi found. From my set of ~2100 kanji characters I was taking into account, 23 of them use じ as at least one of their on’yomi (but we’ll only consider the meanings of the most common, as the less common ones probably happen rarely enough that they don’t immediately “pop” their meaning into the listener’s head).
You may already be familiar with the word じぶん, meaning “oneself”. I use Facebook in Japanese-language mode; I see this word all the time there (as well as in other places). For instance, 「John Smithが じぶん の きんきょう に ついて コメント しました。」 “John Smith commented on his (own) status.”
There are also words like じどうしゃ (automobile/car; literally, “self-moving vehicle”) and じてんしゃ (bicycle, “self-revolving vehicle”); じどう can also be a word to itself meaning “automatic”, and is a fairly common prefix found in words of that sort; another example might be the word for “vending machine”: じどうはんばいき (“automatic sales machine”). Just keep in mind that the じ of じどう means “self”.
Aside from じぶん, the ジ sound is used in several other words that mean “self” or “oneself”, some of which have slightly different uses from each other, such as じしん, which is especially used to mean “on ones own initiative”, or “personally”. The Japanese Wikipedia rule against publishing articles about oneself is phrased, 「じぶん じしん の きじ つからない」. There’s also じこ, another word meaning “self”, which is another word that’s often used as a prefix; for example, じこしょうかい, “self-introduction”. Since the sound こ is also an on’yomi that can sometimes indicate “self”, じこ is one of those words that takes two sounds that can portray an overlapping meaning, and uses them together to express that meaning in unison. There are many examples of such words.
じしん was already mentioned as one of several words referring to “self” (especially “on one’s own initiative”), and it’s comprised of じ “self” + しん, “person”. But there’s another kanji character for しん, meaning “belief”, that is sometimes used for the word じしん; in these cases the word means “self-confidence” rather than “on one’s own initiative”. Context usually makes it clear which is meant.
(Note: as we’ll see later in this article, there’s another common meaning for じしん, “earthquake”. Japanese is frustratingly full of homonyms… fortunately context usually helps in discerning one of several possible meanings.)
|じしん||on one’s own initiative|
Matter or thing
This じ expresses the same idea as the common word こと (which is expressed by the same kanji character). You already know it from the words しょくじ (eat + thing = “meal”) and だいじ (big + thing = “important”). It also gives a flavor of “work”, as in こうじ (construction + work = “construction work”), and even じむしょ (work + employ + place = “office”). It also combines with じつ, “truth” (the same one from the sentence-starter じつは, “the truth is/actually…”) to form the word じじつ (thing + truth = “fact”).
The great thing about starting with the most commonly-used on’yomi is that you’re probably already familiar with a lot of words that use it (the downside of course is that there are several alternate meanings expressed by the one sound).
Any beginning Japanese learner should be pretty familiar with the meaning of “time” for the sound じ. いちじ is one o’clock, さんじはん is half past three o’clock, じかん is one hour, and いちじかんはん are one and a half hours.
|どうじ||(“same” + “time” = ) simultaneous; synchronized|
|じだい||(“time” + “period” = ) era.
Example: めいじじだい, the Meiji era of Japanese history
This one probably needs even less introduction than the “time” meaning. We can pretty much just skip to the example vocabulary.
One word worth noting is じゅうじ, ten + character = “cross”. Red Cross is せきじゅうじ, literally “red ten character”.
The word じ can appear by itself to mean character. The word もじ is also used for the same meaning, when じ by itself is too ambiguous. The word もじれつ is the Japanese word for the computer programming concept of a character string.
|えいじ||(English) alphabetic letter|
|すうじ||(count + character = ) digit|
|もじれつ||character string (programming term)|
At the time I’m writing this, the devastating March 11 earthquake happened only a month ago, so one of the sobering words one would be hearing a lot at this time is じしん, ground + quake = “earthquake”. Yes, we just saw two other じしんs (I said we’d see another one, didn’t I?). Japanese is a language where context is very important.
Another common word with this meaning for じ is じごく, ground + prison = “hell”. There is an anime series known as Hell Girl, for which the Japanese name is じごく しょうじょ (the second word means “little girl”).
There’s also いじ, which means “spirit” or “disposition”, and is formed of “mind/heart” + “ground”. It might be a little trickier to see the connection between this word and its components, but it helps somewhat to note that, unlike the wordlet き (as in きもち and きぶん, both of which refer to how one is feeling at the moment), いじ tends to refer more to one’s actual nature as a person, and not some fleeting mood. It’s not necessarily an unchangeable or permanent state, since you can say ともだち に いじわる を して は いけません, “Don’t be unkind to your friends” (いじわる is いじ + わるい, bad-spirited), which implies that you can change your disposition toward your friends; however, it’s frequently used to indicate something that’s a personality trait, as opposed to a passing condition.
(Note: we haven’t gotten to the sound ち yet, but this same idea of (and kanji for) “earth/ground” is often expressed as ち as well as じ; it’s the ち of ちず, earth + diagram = “map”).
じ can express the idea of “baby” or “child”. じどう is a word meaning “children’s” or “juvenile”, and is often used as a prefix. じどうぶんがく is “juvenile literature”. Note that we also saw another じどう earlier, meaning “automatic”, which was also used as a prefix for many words. But “juvenile literature” makes a little more sense than “automatic literature”, doesn’t it?
|じどう||juvenile, children’s ~|
|こじ||orphan (also: tiger cub)|
The last meaning for じ that we’ll look at here has a primary meaning of show or express.
しじ, finger/point + show = “indications/directions/instructions”. 「やじるし が すすむ べき ほうこう を しじ する」, “The arrow indicates the way to proceed.” 「はこ に ある しじ の とおり」, “According to the instructions on the box.” 「いしゃ の しじ」, “the doctor’s instructions.”
Another common word, ひょうじ, combines two sounds that both can mean “to express or display”; another word that clarifies one of several possible meanings by reinforcing it. 「がめん に ひょうじ された イメージ」, “The image displayed on the screen.”
|ひょうじ||display (either verb or noun)|
|あんじ||(dark/dim + express = ) hint; suggestion|