The Joy o' Kanji Essays

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capital
JOK: 99
Learn to associate the キョウ, ケイ, and キン readings of 京 with very different contexts. Find out which three cities this character can represent. See how 京 pairs with all cardinal directions—but how “western capital” and “southern capital” aren’t what you’d expect. (One has a relationship to miso, the other to peanuts!) And learn about the people of Tokyo and Kyoto through old proverbs.
noon
JOK: 110
See why 午 means both “noon” and “sign of the horse,” thanks to its role in a number system based on 12, not 10. (Jupiter inspired the system!) Learn to say, “first thing in the afternoon” and “I slept the whole afternoon away.” Find out about the Hour of the Horse, the Year of the Fire Horse (and its link to murderous wives), and the significance of the first Day of the Horse in February.
grasp
JOK: 999
This kanji plays a role in terms ranging from handshakes to bribes, from grasping the gist to seizing power. Above all, 握 has deep connections to sushi. See how sushi relates to gripping—and what sweaty hands have to do with suspense. Learn to say “just a handful,” “I was behind the wheel,” “He took over as leader of the party,” and “He crumpled the sheet of paper into a ball.”
horizontal
JOK: 1009
Discover the connection between latitude and weaving. (Hint: It's as if the planet is wrapped in thread!) Learn to explain how things got to be a certain way. Read about a criminal case related to nail care. Learn about latitudes versus parallels of latitude. And play a game by considering latitudes in various titles and following them around the world to see which locations they represent.
potato
JOK: 1011
From Hokkaido to Okinawa, the Japanese grow many types of white potatoes and sweet potatoes and have scads of ways of eating them. Find out when 芋 represents which of its many definitions, why a "new potato" label is crucial, what "sweet potato color" means, and what a potato stamp is. Also see why sweet potatoes prompt passion, nostalgia, embarrassed laughter, and excuses.
sharp
JOK: 1018
See how the Japanese use “sharp” to describe not only knives and pain but also keen senses and nimble minds. Learn what the “select few” policy is and the contexts in which the Japanese value elitism. Also find out how to say, “spirited newcomer,” “Is he the man the papers depicted as an up-and-coming scholar?” and “Our company will try hard to create a better environment.”
epidemic
JOK: 1019
Learn Japanese words for “epidemic,” “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “immunity.” Find out how to say, “An epidemic has broken out,” “In ancient times, many people died of plagues,” and “A worldwide plague of theft emptied art museums,” as well as “immune to measles.” Also learn to speak of immunity figuratively, as in, “I graduated from a boys’ school, so I have no immunity to women.”
ecstasy
JOK: 1020
Learn to talk about delight and pleasure, sexual and otherwise. See how the Japanese refer to religious exultation, and peek into a monk's daily life. Find out how to say, "I'm so happy for you," "I am very pleased to hear the news," and "I am most humbly delighted" (which is handy if you meet a VIP!). Get some culture by reading about fine artists, writers, a singer, and a folk-craft movement.
surpass
JOK: 1021
If you want to outdistance others, beat them to the punch, defer work till later, move to Kawagoe, climb over a wall, cross a mountain, be promoted over your boss, or simply excel, you'll need 越. It's also useful for violating borders and walking all over people. Finally, 越 enables you to cross into a new year - if you've taken the proper measures to welcome the New Year's gods.
audience
JOK: 1022
Did you know that in 1582 teenage Japanese envoys went to Europe and met the pope in Rome? And did you know that a 19th-century British painter depicted Queen Victoria’s encounter with a mysterious kneeling black king? Find out about all this, plus terms for meeting such VIPs. Also learn who opened Japan to foreign trade (not Perry!) and discover surprising words for “pope.”
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