A quick kanji homonym

This one is easy, maybe I’m the only person who didn’t realise these were different words until I saw them written down –

速い and 早い, read “hayai”. 速い means fast or quick, while 早い means early. Before learning their kanji I thought they were the same word, because if you get somewhere early you travelled quickly, right? In my defense I had just started studying, and I always forget how complex languages are when I’m just dipping my toes in.

Anyway, combine them to get 早速 “sassoku”, meaning immediately.

If you know radicals and need a way to keep them apart; 速い has that squiggly radical that means road, because roads are where fastness happens – such as on a 高速道路 “kousokudouro”, or highway if you will.

早い is made from 日 (sun) and 十 (ten), because for me it’s waking up too early if the sun is still out, let alone ten am.

Why are Some Japanese Animals Counted with “Head”?

Small animals in Japanese are counted with 匹 hiki. Large animals are counted with 頭 tou. Rabbits are counted as if they were birds, because logic.

Back in the olden days, all animals were 匹. When doing my pre-writing double-check-googling just now, I found one source that suggests this kanji gets its shape from a horse butt. Oh that makes sense, you much too optimistically think, I bet that’s because it’s used for counting horses, right? Weeeell… it used to be, but then English came along and ruined everything with its fancy phrases worth stealing.

I couldn’t find any confirmation for the following, but my more literate friend told me this a while back:

Natsume Souseki, also known as that guy with the mustache who used to be on 1000 yen bills until he was dethroned by that guy with the floofy hair, is the person who popularised 頭 as a counter for large animals. I did find confirmation that it was popularised in the Meiji era, and of its English origins. When counting cows, they’re counted with heads of cattle. My farming lingo isn’t up to scratch so I’ll take google’s word for it. Our boy Natsume Souseki decided this sounded really neat, and decided to count that way in one of his novels; 頭 is read as tou when used as a counter, but it can also be read atama, which means “head”. Ever since, tou has been used for large animals, and hiki for small ones.

Small animals, except for rabbits, that is. Rabbits are a special case, and are counted with 羽 wa. My dictionary tells me that when read hane, this means “feather” or “wing”. Wa happens to be the counter for birds, so the feathers and wings make sense. There aren’t any definitive answers as to why rabbits are counted as birds, but there are a couple prevalent theories. The first is that the Japanese words for “to fly” and “to jump” are pronounced the same (tobu, I believe the kanji are 飛ぶ for to fly and 跳ぶ for to jump, although I might be mistaken and they’re both 飛ぶ). This theory is generally countered with “frogs tho, they jump but are counted with 匹”. The second theory suggests that once upon a time, there were a group of monks. They weren’t allowed to eat animals, only bird meat. But, they really wanted to get in on some rabbit meat action, so they declared that rabbits are totally a kind of bird.

Counting Japanese Books

One of the first kanji most Japanese students learn is 本. It’s nice and non-intimidating, with only 5 strokes. Plus, you need it to write “Japan” and “Japanese”, so you’ll need it for getting fancy and titling your notebook 日本語 or letting everybody know that you’re 日本語を勉強しています. While it has a bunch of meanings, you easily remember that one of them is “book” because books are made of trees and this kanji is only one stroke away from the one for “tree”, plus it means “origin” too and books originate from trees, and everything is nice and logical and you’ve totally got a great grasp on this whole situation.

Now you, hypothetical strawman reader, have advanced in your studies. You’ve just discovered the complexity of Japanese counters. Instead of everything being “one thing, two things”, there are all these different suffixes you gotta learn depending on the thing you’re counting. One flat object, two small animals, three big animals (yup, big and small animals have different counters. It’s America’s fault, I think I’ll write about that next). Skimming the list of counters, you finally see one you recognise. 本! Of course, this must be how you count books! After all, it does mean book!


本, hon, is the counter for “long, cylindrical objects”. You know what’s neither long nor cylindrical? That’s right, books. The correct way to count books is 冊 satsu. And speaking of kanji pronounced “satsu”, there’s also 札 which means bill (as in 千円札, 1000 yen bill). I just tried to look up whether bills would be counted with 札, or with 枚 (the counter usually used for paper and other flat objects like pizza), but googling 千円札 数え方 just gave me video demonstrations of how to do that fancy bill flicking counting thing they do in stores here. My old manager tried to teach me once, but gave up upon realising I’m cripplingly left-handed. Digressions aside, let’s think about long cylindrical objects.

Oh, I know! You naïvely exclaim, dear strawman, how about chopsticks! Those are long and cylindrical, right? Next time your Japanese friends act amazed that you managed to transfer a whole piece of food all the way from your plate into your mouthhole without incident, you can further blow their minds with some amazingly accurate counting skills, and count the chopsticks with 本 hon.

Oh my sweet summer child.

No? Not hon? Oh of course, chopsticks come in pairs. They must use soku 足, the counter for pairs! Wrong again. Just like books are important enough to get their own special counter (bet you didn’t think my digressions would come full circle), chopsticks also get their own words. If you wanna sound really impressive, count them with 膳 zen, that’s 一膳 ichizen per pair.

Finally, let me leave you with a story about counting pairs. You may have recognised the counter for pairs as the kanji for foot, when read ashi. In Japanese class, we learned this meaning much earlier than we learned it as a counter. My classmate once saw a pair of shoes for sale. The price tag stated the price per 足. As we were not yet aware of the “pairs” meaning, she assumed that price per 足 = price per foot, i.e. the sign was listing the price per shoe and the pair would cost twice as much. I do love the idea of going to the store to buy a single shoe.

A Scary Kanji Homonym

恐い and 怖い, both read “kowai”, both translate as “scary”. The difference between these two is quite subtle.

First off, I just did some light googling to double check the accuracy of what my Japanese friend told me when I insisted he come up with a difference (this was over a year ago so I wanted to make sure I remembered correctly). The first few results insisted that there’s no difference, and recommended to stick with 怖い as it will almost never be incorrect. The third page I consulted did suggest a difference that mostly lines up with what I’d been told, but only when using another reading for 恐; in this case, 恐ろしい (osoroshii).

Let’s start with what my friend told me. After I threw many examples of scary things at him, and insisted he tell me which kanji applied, we reached a conclusion (ghost? 怖い。dinosaur? 恐い。ghost dinosaur? I guess 怖い now please go away). We settled on 怖い being for abstract threats, and 恐い for physical ones. In other words, 恐い物、怖い事。

I honestly thought I had it all figured out until I did my double checking-research just before starting to write this. The conclusion of the link from my second paragraph had a subtle difference. Here, 怖い is for subjectively scary things, and 恐ろしい for objectively scary ones. I suppose my previous conclusion still stands, as a ghost is subjectively scary and a dinosaur would be objectively so.

Speaking of dinosaurs, that’s also how I keep these two kanji apart. Whenever I need to remember which one is for physical intimidation, I think of the word for dinosaur: 恐竜 (kyouryuu). Literally translated that says Fear Dragon, which certainly sounds like something that would be physically and objectively intimidating.

Finally, you can smoosh both kanji together into a new word, 恐怖。It means fear, and I think it’s a noun (I haven’t studied grammatical terms since elementary school, and my 9 year old self was not into paying attention. Thanks a lot, Past Self). This is a trend I often come across on my Kanji Homonym Deciphering Quest – two words with almost the same meaning and the same reading, combined into a word with a similar but more broad meaning.

初めて versus 始めて

初めて and 始めて, both read “hajimete”. These were my first encounter with Kanji that are homonyms, and nearly but not quite synonyms. I believe they were taught to us as the former meaning “start”, and the latter meaning “begin” (or maybe it was the other way around). Perhaps the difference is immidiately obvious to native English speakers and it’s just my ESL-ness showing, but at the time I thought start and begin were synonyms anyway, and had the most frustrating time figuring out the difference.

After drilling any Japanese person I came across for long-winded explanations, I finally found a simple way to distinguish them that I could easily remember.

初 is for discrete time, and 始 for continuous time. So for example, 最初 (saisho) means first time (versus the second time, third, last). 始め is the beginning, like the beginning of class. 初 for situations that span first to last, 始 for beginning to end.

Did that adequately explain it at all or just make it more confusing?

This is just my understanding of the difference, it’s very possible that I’m completely wrong. They are also close enough in meaning that nobody will be confused if you use the wrong one, I think.

Is it necessary to be this in-depth in kanji studies, and analyse near synonym pairs for minute differences in nuance? Of course not. I just have a wildly inefficient studying style, where I procrastinate by insisting on really mastering one single word instead of spending my time on useful knowledge. Similarly, Japanese is great if you’re into etymology, because you also get to consider kanji radicals.

I have a bunch more homonym kanji pairs, I might write about some more eventually – if I write about them, that means my time studying them won’t have been a complete waste, right?

Incidentally, I did have to look up discreet vs discrete for that third paragraph. Discrete is the one I know from math class as the opposite of continuous, and discreet is the one about subtle behaviour.