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Many Useful Returns

This season a lot of interesting words and kanji make an appearance. Gaijinpot presents a guide to making the most of this seasonal vocabulary.

By 3 min read

While for most of us, the holiday season is about feasting and having fun, for learners it offers something more. The season marks the appearance of some unusual seasonal vocabulary. For those who like to do the JLPT and kanji kentei exams it offers us a chance to learn some of the less common readings of kanji that are frequently used in the New Year period.

If you know any Japanese families with young children, you have probably heard the word お年玉 recently. お年玉 is money given to children at New Year. This may seem like a strange custom, after all the Asian New Year is expensive enough without this custom, so why even have it at all?

The Japanese culture commentator Professor Murayama believes that the 玉 part of お年玉 is a homonym for the Japanese word for soul (魂). Therefore the image is that the older member pass on ‘soul’ to their juniors in the form of money representing the spirit. For learners, this connection can help you remember both Japanese words.

As well as giving money to young kids, most families are expected to send 年賀状 (New Year’s cards) to everyone important in their lives. One of the interesting things about this word for learners is that年賀状 has the unusual 状-ending. Usually 状 is associated with words that describe shapes or states, but here it has a meaning of a letter or a correspondence.

This unusual状-reading can be found in other kinds of letters such as a letter of thanks (礼状) or a testimonial letter (表彰状). Due to its association to writing, this kanji also pops up in a lot of legal words such as 訴状 (A legal brief) or 白状 (A confession).

After all this giving, most Japanese people want to receive something too. These people will go to the shrine to draw some おみくじ (A written fortune), and hope to select a lucky fortune. Around New Year, most shrines divide their predictions of luck into 3 categories: 大吉 (Great fortune), 中吉 (Moderate fortunate), and 末吉 (Luck to come). The 吉 in all of these words helps learners to learn words like 吉報 which is often used in websites like the ever-popular rocketnews24 to proclaim that something is good news.

Of course, the おみくじ are not the only things that have an element of luck involved. Many stores like to offer their shoppers sealed bags full of goods at a reduced price called a 福袋 (Lucky bag). While some people really experience 福 and discover bonus surprises such as discount vouchers and useful goods worth far more than their purchase price; others discover that the bag is simply a way for that store to hastily sell off whatever junk they had lying around (These bags are jokingly called misfortune bags: 不幸袋).

Most learners soon learn that the 福 part of this kanji is very useful. It appears in many words connected with luck and fortune. Some of the more useful ones include 福祉 (Welfare), 幸福 (Joy), and 裕福 (Prosperousness).

No article about useful seasonal words would be complete without the word for New Year’s Day itself, 元日, included. Although the がん reading of 元 is this kanji’s less useful reading, this がん reading can be found in words like 元凶 (The cause of something bad) and 元金 (‘Principal’ in finance).

One of the intriguing things about learning Japanese is the way that there are a lot of connections between the words. It is fascinating to discover that元金 has a morphemic connection to 元日, for example. Likewise, who would’ve expected that お年玉 and 魂 are connected? Once learners discover these connections, they soon discover that they make studying far more efficient as well as having the hidden benefit of giving insights into the Japanese way of viewing the world.

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