Shouemon Kotabe was born in the Ibaragi Prefecture in 1971.
Mr. Kotabe is the 37th successor to his family’s foundry business which has been handed down for over 800 years.
Since his childhood, Mr. Kotabe helped his father make temple bells. After graduating with a Metal Engineering degree from National Takaoka College (now Toyama University), he went into training at an iron kettle studio in Morioka. He then, returned to the Kotabe Foundry run by his father and took charge of it at the age of 25.
At the foundry, on the foot of Tsukuba Mountain, Mr. Kotabe makes temple bells, fire bells and rainwater bowls. Orders come from all over Japan as well as from other countries.
After consulting about letters and patterns, he creates a mold with local sand and clay and then pours copper and tin heated to 1200 ºC into the mold. Because he doesn’t color the bells, he takes considerable time to create an elaborate mold. It takes four to six months and occasionally as long as one year to make one temple bell. A bell newly taken out from a mold is orange-brown in color. Its tone gradually changes to red, then purple and finally to blue-green. As time passes, the local air makes the bell change its color.
Wanting the sound of his bells to resonate in people’s hearts, Mr. Kotabe continues his quest for the perfect bell-tone.
Dr. Christoph Schmitz is a scholar of the work of Dr. Shizuka Shirakawa, Japan's leading authority on the origin of Kanji, or Chinese characters. Dr. Schmitz also researches the history of philosophical thought as well as Japanese thought. A native of Cologne, Germany, he currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.
His interest in Kanji was aroused while he was studying the history of Japanese thought based on the understanding of Japanese and general history, philosophy and the history of philosophy at universities both in Germany and Japan. The absence of convincing explanations of the relationship between Kanji forms and their meaning in the world of Western higher education made him lose his trust in established Kanji education. In 1997, reading an interview with Dr. Shirakawa about his work, he started his research. After teaching history of philosophy and Kanji for adult education classes in Germany, hoping to introduce Dr. Shirakawa's work and meritorious achievements to the world, in 2001, he met Dr. Shirakawa for the first time. In the following year, he became a research student at University of Tokyo Faculty of Law.
In December 2003, he started translating 'Jouyoujikai' (Basic Kanji Dictionary), a primer on Kanji written by Dr. Shirakawa with the consent of the author. To tackle the manifold difficulties of this yet unseen project took him almost three years. His aim is to base Kanji learning on natural understanding.
Few Japanologists seem to have read the proclamation of the Japanese prime minister from 9 December 1954, in which capitalization of nouns in alphabetical transcription of Japanese is sanctioned. After all, it still is nothing less than the official Japanese transliteration system. Accordingly, capitalization is applied in this translation to clearly mark nouns for learners who often do not know which word is a noun, and which is not. Thus, to counter the weakness of modern English spelling which does not clearly mark nouns, I come back to the traditional English capital spelling of nouns as usual some hundred years ago.
There are a lot of problematic or false notions widely used in the field that can mislead learning once they hoaxed the mind of the unwary, which is why I use terms that learners will find more convincing, like the following.
Tortoise Plastron, not Tortoise ‘Shell’
Those thousands of tortoises used for divination seem to have died in vain. Few term coining scholars ever took the pain to verify which one of the two shells of these tortoises was used; a rough translation with ‘shell’ or ‘carapace’ misses the specific meaning of the Kanji 甲 and gives an unclear view of the matter. The flat belly plate was used in what amounts to a percentage of more than 99 % of cases, the carapace, however, which is the hooked back shell only in very rare exceptions: It is too hard to be carved in. The character 甲 shows the flat ‘plastron’ with the vertical and horizontal notched natural ‘lines’ of the belly or breast shell.
Revisiting in 2016
This introduction with its casual explanations intending to help a first easygoing acquaintance with Shirakawa's character explanations is now complemented with your comprehensive dictionary "The Keys To The Chinese Characters"!
Giving the full contents as only a dictionary can, it renews and supersedes a part of the terminology given here.
With its technical terms and methodical approach enriched with many citations from and references to the classics, a meticulous commentary and copious indexes you will have a powerful instrument to master your study and enjoy deepening your understanding.
This character cannot be seen among the tortoise plastron, bone, or bronze inscription characters but from the Tenbun (Zhuàn Wén) seal script on. Certainly, it can be divided into a left and right part. It, however, would be too rash to jump to an A+B style mathematical explanation. Dr. Shirakawa summarizes: “The meaning is to realize an oath.”
Rather than a mere superficial interpretation like that of a 言 ‘kotoba: word’ that 成る ‘naru: realizes,’ one has to take the customs and religion of ancient China into consideration here. As was pointed out in the explanation of 信, the 口 of the lower part 言 is a vessel for putting in prayer writings. The meaning of the upper part with its four horizontal lines is hard to understand from the form of the Common Use Kanji. Its original form and meaning has to be understood in the context of the tattoo and ritual body painting culture. It shows the form of an instrument, a needle with a handle for tattooing. Already this part 言 only has the meaning of words of oath to the gods.
The part 成 shows the form of the ritual of completion performed after the making of a 戈 ‘hoko: halberd’ is finished, adding a decoration. This means that the left and right character parts have their origin in religion.
Its original character is 气. Again, the original character of 气 is 乞, the form of moving clouds. 気 can be thought of as the basic unit of energy, be it air, atmosphere, weather, vapor, or breathing.
In ‘Explanation of Common Use Kanji,’ the last character dictionary of Dr. Shirakawa, for the first time in his dictionaries, we find his explanation commenting on the vital role of 米 ‘rice’ nurturing 気 spirit or energy. By the way, also Jacob Chang-Ui Kim from Korea gave a similar view in his English explanation of Kanji.
Food is what supplies living beings with energy. Without eating, one cannot live and there is no vitality. From ancient times on, rice is the basic food and basis of energy in East Asia.
The upper part of 気 can also be thought of as the rising steam from rice boiling, and it therefore may even be regarded as a pictograph. In Japanese, 気 came to be used in a lot of expressions describing human feelings and states of mind. In East Asia as a whole, it has become the basis of martial arts culture built on the importance of breathing techniques, as Chinese shadow boxing and Aikidō.
In ancient Greek philosophy, with ‘pneuma,’ there is a very similar notion. The Stoa, a classic school of thought that commends pantheism and a life style following the laws of nature, taught that ‘pneuma,’ the most fine matter like air, is the carrier of ‘logos,’ or world reason, extant everywhere in the universe. In this sense, 気 is (was) a common way of thinking in East and West.
I shall introduce an easily approachable character from nature here. Originally, 'tide' was a character combining 水 'water,' 艸 'grass' and 日 'sun' only; the 'moon' was added later. Above and below the sun are the pictograms for grass. There are also forms for this character with inverse sides. The moon was added for the first time in the Tenbun (Zhuan Wen) seal script.
In antiquity, the characters for celestial bodies such as the sun and the moon had a dot in the middle (there are exceptions), which we can see in 日 (sun, day). The dot also distinguishes ○ 'gem' (of 環) from 日, which would otherwise have been written the same. (In poetic language, the sun, moon and stars were often compared to gems. This is also the case in the Zhuang Zi).
In ancient Chinese characters (carved on tortoise plastron and oracle bones and bronze vessels), the character for 'moon' does not appear. This, of course, does not mean that people then were not interested in the moon. Probably, there was not yet an understanding of the moon's relation to the earth's gravity and tides.
The special thought and attention in Japan to the moon can be understood and is seen in Heian literature like the 'Hyakuninisshu: The Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets.' Inclination to the moon in ancient China also is conspicuous. The character 望 engraved on bronze vessels shows that a month was divided into four weeks. Although there was no scientific discovery of gravity, this character shows not only the inclination to the moon, but also bears a relation to calm astronomical observation of the atmosphere and the clouds.
A representative ethical notion in East Asian thought widely spread in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan Confucius’ teaching and Confucianism [the teaching of the person Confucius and what people have made out of it later are different things]. In Kanji science, however, the process before this character became a completely abstract notion is the main focus of interest. Actually, at the time of Confucius correct knowledge about the origin of Chinese characters had already been lost. In this sense, it was a character that could easily be manipulated or exploited. One can often hear the popular belief that it is the combination of the person-classifier at the left side and the number two at the right side. There also is the view that it was developed as a generalization of the notion ‘between two human beings,’ becoming one of the five basic tenets of Confucianism 仁 ‘Nin, Jin: humaneness,’ 儀 ‘Gi: rightness,’ 礼（禮） ‘Rei: propriety,’ 智 ‘Chi: wisdom,’ and 信 ‘Shin: trustworthiness.’ Certainly, the classifier is the person-classifier; here, however, the focus is on the interpretation of the right part.
Actually, from the standpoint of correct Kanji science, apart from the original number characters there is not even one case among Kanji with an element standing for an abstract number. It may look like this in the form of the present Common Use Kanji, which differs from the old character forms, but the idea that something abstract is incorporated as an element in Kanji always is characteristic for vulgar belief.
The part 五 appearing in 悟, for example, has no relation to the number 五 ‘five,’ but shows a double wooden lid firmly closing a ‘norito,’ i.e. ritual prayer receptacle. As a character that really shows two human beings there is the character 比 and others.
Basically, the elements appearing in Kanji are human beings and things. As they are things extant in ancient society, the person-classifier shows the form of a person who is about to sit down and the left part is the cushion at the sitting place. As this is the Orient, it is not a chair, but a cushion or mat. Thus a rather different way from there to the abstract ethical notion of humaneness becomes evident. In other words, it is the heart or mental attitude of offering a seating cushion to somebody. It means the mental attitude of consideration and feeling of hospitality towards guests or visitors. Originally, it is a notion for expressing such a warm feeling or attitude.
The character 羊 shows the form of a 'sheep.' It can often be seen as an element in Kanji. The reason for this is that in antiquity sheep were often used in rites. 'Sheep' stands out among Kanji with abstract meanings like 善 'good,' 美 'beauty,' and 義 'justice.' The character 'bi' 美 ('beauty') shows the whole body of a sheep. While 羊 shows the upper part of a sheep including the horns, in 美, its lower body including the hind legs are added. A person who possessed sheep was already considerably wealthy.
In the world of polytheism one tries to receive the favor of gods by beautiful and precious offerings. It was believed that offering a dog to the highest god was most effective. Offers to receive godly favor became especially important at the time of trials. As trials took the form of an ordeal by the gods, both parties submitted a sheep to be variously tested by the gods.
The origin of Shirakawa Kanji science follows the idea that characters were formed and developed as a means of communication between gods and man. From this standpoint, beauty has to be acceptable to the gods, or warranted by the gods. Interestingly, the Biblical idea of offering a sheep to God can also be found in Gospel St John 1, 29 and I Corinthians 1, 7.
'Kan' (as in 環境 'Kankyo': environment, surroundings) has a form that shows a rather deep meaning. The upper part of the character is 'eye.' ○ means 'gem' or 'precious stone.' Apart from the character form made up of these three elements, there is also a character form with the 'gem' classifier. The 'gem' classifier (the character's radical on the left) takes the form of a 'cord' passing through three 'gems.'
Actually, 'Kan' is related to funeral customs and the belief in resurrection from death and faith. As the 'eye' above is open, it symbolizes resurrection from death. In antiquity, it was the custom to bury a dead person with his or her possessions. This character takes the form of a gem around the neck of the deceased's dress. As can be seen in the character 含, there also was a custom of placing a gem in the deceased's 口 mouth.
Dr. Shirakawa mentions, in works such as 'Koshiden: The Life of Confucius,' that Zhuang Zi (in 'The True Classic of Southern (Cultural) Fluorescence') often describes such customs as above. However, as is to be expected from a leading Daoist, he is rather critical and negative. For example, in Zhuang Zi's 'Miscellaneous Chapters, Esoteric Things,' he satirizes Confucians who retrieve gems attached to corpses following exact descriptions of the deceased's possessions in 'The Book of Odes,' which later Confucians have regarded as a moral authority. Dr. Shirakawa has pointed out that in the work of Nishida Kitaro, a representative philosopher of Japan, one can see good influence from Zhuang Zi, who, in a sense, has philosophized the world of Chinese characters. In this respect, Kanji have a dimension that connects the past with the present.
環境 'Kankyo: environment' is closely related to the fate of mankind. Wouldn't it be a really appropriate character to think about when maintaining a healthy environment?