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©Asako Yamazaki
Hiroyuki Sasahara

“崖”, “垳”, and “坿”
– Why don’t you observe kanji characters at whiles? –

Hiroyuki Sasahara
Professor at Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Hayao Miyazaki’s film “gake no ueno Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff 崖の上のポニョ)” currently enjoys great popularity and has been playing at theaters nationwide for quite some time. Since the kanji “崖 (cliff)” is not currently included in the “National List of Chinese Characters in Common use” issued by ministerial announcements and directives, it is listed as potential kanji to be added in list. In fact, this kanji is so well known that there is often no Kana which tell us how to read the kanji in the advertisement of this film which is mainly targeted for children.

Japan has a considerable number of cliffs (gake) varying in size from small to large throughout the nation due to its undulating terrain. It is noted that gake, a classical Japanese word (Yamato kotoba), is a relatively new word that first appeared in documents in the Middle Ages. Japanese people of the time had difficulty in finding an appropriate kanji character corresponding to it. Since the Middle Ages, various Chinese characters with similar meaning or character form such as “峪” and “岨” have been picked out from Chinese documents and dictionaries and applied for copying Japanese stories and documents.

Now when you attempt to convert gake to kanji in a computer, you may see “垳” in addition to “崖” as choices. Though the kanji “垳” is a “Japanese character” that is not found in China, it actually exists in the place name “埼玉県八潮市垳”. Characters locally used only for limited use such as place names are called “local characters”. Just like language has dialects, kanji characters have local variations. In Saitama prefecture, “垳” is also used as last name. It is due to its use as a place name that “垳” was adopted as one of the JIS level-2 kanji set in 1978.

It was not until the middle of the Edo era that the kanji “崖” was applied to the word gake. Among those kanji characters pronounced as gake in the Japanese way (Kun reading), “垳” was applied earlier, first appearing before the Genroku era. When I visited there with a newspaper reporter, we found a big river called Naka River with banks like cliffs (gake) as well as another river called “gake River”. Nowadays, a huge “gake River drainage pumping station” has been established. “垳” is an area name in Yashio city. The “gake Mannin no To” (Tower of Ten Thousand gake People) was built at Jozenji temple, located in that area.

Photo 1

We also noticed NTT and post office materials with “垳” replaced by “桁” or “行”, as well as door plates with “垳” rendered in Hiragana or Katakana (syllabic) characters. Nevertheless, this kanji character still exists in typical addresses that we encounter in daily life. For example, “垳稲荷神社 (gake Shrine)”, “垳町会 (gake Town Association)”, “垳消防団 (gake Fire Brigade)”, and “垳ふれあい会館 (gake Civic Center)”. (Photo 1) A local woman said, ““垳” is a Japanese character and is never found in Korea or China.” This was near Yashio station that is 17 minutes away from Akihabara station by Tsukuba Express, and just next to Adachi-ku, Tokyo.

We can intuitively understand that ”土 (land)” and “行 (go)” were combined into “垳”. This is the reason why use of “垳” has become established. This kanji character actually originates from the kanji character “圻” (Ki) meaning cliffs, which can be verified by dictionaries in the Middle Ages. However it was believed that “圻” was transformed into ”垳” around the Saitama area because its right-hand portion “斤” was changeable in shape and difficult to understand the meaning.

Photo 2

Besides, the right-hand portion of “圻” was transformed into “坿” (gake) in a different way from the “垳” case. “坿” is used in the area ranging from Oomori to Taiheiji in Fukushima city, near Minami Fukushima station, which is close to Fukushima Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. In this area, we can find “坿” in “坿町会 (gake Town Association)” and “大森坿公園 (Oomori gake Park)”. (Photo 2) A small river also flows there with banks like small cliffs (gake). A notice posted by an electric company contains “拊” with the left part of “坿” misplaced.

The kanji character “坿” first appeared in documents a rather long time ago, and its origin goes back to the beginning of the Edo era. You may think that “坿” is a wrong character because it was derived from “圻”. In the Middle and Modern Ages, however, both “斥” and “斤” written to the right of “言” were accepted, and similarly, both “析” and “柝” were generally acceptable. That is, it is believed that the “斤” of “圻” was changed into “斥”, and then into “付” to finally form “坿”.

Such variation in character form was not uncommon in the period when characters were written with a brush and sumi ink. Until the kanji “崖” became common and gained prominence, kanji characters meaning “cliffs” continued varying in both notation and character form. “垳” and “坿” are remnants of the early developmental stage of kanji notation in Japan.

Originally, the Japanese and Chinese languages are quite different from each other. The Japanese originally had no written characters, but they adopted Chinese characters and adjusted them accordingly for use in a variety of societies within Japan. The unique local kanji characters existing in many places in Japan do not reliably indicate the origin and source compared to the national list of common characters. In fact, the kanji characters “垳” and “坿”, both of which mean “cliffs”, are found in place names only in a single area in Japan respectively. These kanji characters were generated by comparing Japanese words with Chinese characters, adjusting them accordingly, and even changing their character forms.

Under the current situation where unification and simplification are the order of the day for all things, I eagerly hope that all of us--not only those local people who use these unique place names naturally and may take them for granted, but also those people who feel something different about such place names--take time in our daily lives to recognize the above mentioned facts as the forefront of a long and rich history.

Hiroyuki Sasahara
Professor on the Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

The author was born in Tokyo in 1965. He studied Chinese language at the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Japanese language at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and earned his PhD in Literature at Waseda University.

His research involves kanji characters, letters, and notations based on various materials ranging from ancient epigraph to modern internet texts.

He was involved in tasks for revising “JIS kanji characters” with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, “kanji designated for personal names” with the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice, and “National List of Chinese Characters in Common use” with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Following posts as a full-time lecturer at Bunka Women’s University, senior researcher at the National Institute for Japanese Language, and associate professor at Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University, he was appointed as a professor on the Faculty of Social Sciences at Waseda University in 2007.

His main works include “kanji in Japan” (Iwanami shinsho, January 2006) and “Story about Kun reading: Japanese language in the kanji cultural zone” (Kobunsha shinsho, May 2008). He was awarded the 35th Professor Kindaichi Kyosuke memorial prize for “Phase and development of Japanese characters” (Sanseido, March 2007).