Happy Kanji: Positive vs. Negative Japanese


Eternal Kanji Symbol

Hand-Painted Kanji: Eternal

As a way of mediation, contemplation, and preparation for the new year, I decided to write down 400 kanji (the sino-Japanese text).  In an effort to call forth positive energy into my life  this new year, only characters that had some positive connotation were chosen.  The kanji  are chosen from a list of 1,947 kanji that can be found in the reference book “Kanji in Context” The list includes all Joyo kanji.  Joyo simply refers to the set of kanji that have been set up by the Japanese Ministry of education as mandatory for all students up through secondary school.  The Japanese language in total consists of roughly 3,000 separate kanji characters but luckily for us non-native speakers any kanji outside of the list of 1,945 Joyo kanji that is used in Japanese newsprint must be accompanied by corresponding furigana.

So with this in mind I set out to create a list of 400 kanji that have some kind of positive denotation.  Of course it occurrs to me that there will be some subjectivity when it comes to determining what things are positive and what things are not so please do not regard this list as definitive.  There are certain characters which may have positive connotations if not widely then personally and I am sure that we all can agree that certain gray areas are quite acceptable. Also be aware than many kanji can have more than one meaning: 安(AN) for example can mean either safe or cheap.

What becomes clear as the list is being made is that there are relatively few kanji that have positive denotations.  Out of the 1,947 kanji reviewed only a few hundred can really be handpicked as uplifting, positive, soothing, etc.  The final hundred or so come down to things that I would like to consider as positive.  That is to say, these final kanji are no more positive than they are negative but because I have no more positive kanji I simply have to settle for something which is at least not harmful or negative.  You will see that many elements of nature stand in for the final section. Also notice that I chose to include many elements of the body because any and all good feelings must originate and radiate from the body.

The list is as follows:


(If you want to know the meaning: Go to this site->Polarcloud and download Rikaichan for Firefox, Thunderbird, or Seamonkey.  Then download the corresponding dictionary.  Now all that is left is to simply activate Rikaichan and hover your mouse over the kanji you want to know more about and VIOLA! )

That’s it.  That should be 400.  For those of you who can read Japanese (or Chinese as well) it should be easy to tell that some of the characters above are a bit of a stretch;  “Peach Tree” (桃) would be one such case. No matter, my point is not that there are exactly 400 examples of positive kanji but it is that fact that there are really quite fewer than that number.  While the amount of kanji people are required to know in order to read a newspaper in Japan may be roughly 2,000, of those less than 1/5th of them are positive even just slightly!  Let me repeat,  fewer than one-fifth of all the Chinese characters used in Japanese text are positive even slightlyA peach tree is neither positive or negative I daresay.

Negative? Neutral? Positive?

Negative? Neutral? Positive?

Does this mean that the other 4/5ths of all kanji used in Japanese writing are negative?  Well, not exactly, but it does make one raise an eyebrow and question the fact that even language for the expression of positive thought is limited somewhat.  To be fair, much of the remaining 4/5ths are quite definitely neither positive nor negative. Words like quantity, price, necessary, reverse, pull, push, step, put, sudden, stone, left, right, middle, desk, south, north, ten, five, wrap, and countless others for example are what would be considered neutral words.  They evoke neither positive nor negative feelings without more context. Without making a formal count I would say that somewhere between 2 and 3/5ths of Japanese kanji are of this kind.

Anybody paying attention to the math may perhaps notice that this leaves at least 1/5th of the language to be more negative than neutral… but this should come as no surprise when you consider the kind of reading material this list is applied to: Newspapers.  Think about the news you hear on tv or read about in your own newspaper and think about the last positive news article you read.  Now think about the latest news you read that was negative.  Which one was easier?  Take any given day and surely the easiest kind of news to recall will be negative news.  The reasons for this can be discussed in some other arena at some other time but the point is clear:  Positivity is lacking in language.

And this doesn’t just apply to Japanese! No, your own language or take English and try to list all the positive words you can think of.  Did you get to 4,000?  No?  Well that is how many words it would take to reach 1/5th of all the words in the English language.  Note of course that there is a difference in between Japanese kanji and Japanese words and that there are indeed quite a bit more words in Japanese than there are kanji.

Negativity abounds in language and that language is connected at some level to the very culture of the society in which it is molded out of.  Still, there are plenty of positives to look at and even some of the neutral words can be seen in a more positive light.  What would happen if all negative words did not exist?  How would we express our dissatisfaction? Anger? Frustration? Sadness? What is there was only one word for all negativity?  Would that reduce negative feelings in our society?  What if when we lost a soccer game we said “I feel negative!” and then when we lost a loved one: “I feel so negative!”?  Clearly there is a loss in the depth of emotion that one can express but would we gain anything?

As one wise person told me, “The balance must remain balanced.”

I believe this applies to language as well.


Feel free to comment!  I look forward to any and all responses.



2 thoughts on “Happy Kanji: Positive vs. Negative Japanese

    • Thank you for your continued support! It is hard to imagine that it has been nearly a year since this post. Since then, the studies have been going quite well and I have begun an in-depth meditation on Japanese and Korean calligraphy. I hope to have pictures and thoughts concerning my exploits up soon.

      Have a great new year!

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