Reading Japanese Characters


The greatest pitfall for all Japanese sword enthusiasts has always been that all of the crucial information was in Japanese. If you undertook the arduous task of trying to learn the language, even then Japanese sword terminology is almost another language in itself, with some of the characters using a completely different sound far from their ‘everyday’ use. With the specialist publications in English still in the minority, we would all love to be able to read the captions that accompany the National Treasure Swords on display at Tokyo National Museum or The Japanese Sword Museum in Yoyogi, let alone the fantastic exhibition catalogues that come from Japan and the NBTHK journal sword descriptions. This is without trying to read ‘old Japanese’ character inscriptions on the tang or the Origami from NBTHK and NTHK.  If your feeling despondent already, don’t! The amount of people in Japan that understand sword terminology and how to read the ‘old’ characters are in the minority too.

I began to think about all the information I have accumulated just to be able to read the Japanese language sword captions, oshigata of the various pieces, and of course the papers one receives from the NBTHK, NTHK and others. We are often misled by generalisations made in the beginner books and we tend to take what we read in books as gospel. If we start by trying to learn the basic characters of that which we already know the terminology for, then it may be easier as we already have a frame of reference. I have included two lists of basic terms with Japanese characters and how they are pronounced with a loose translation. I have not translated everything as not everything needs it. I have also not put every variation of characters, because if you stick with it, you will be able to make the connections for yourself. For example: The character ‘-Dai or O’ is an adjective meaning big or a lot as in ‘大磨上げ-Osuriage’ and the character’-ko’ means small as in ‘小沸-konie’. It is also handy to know the characters for; ‘shaku-(30.3cm), Sun-(3.03cm) and Bun-(3.03mm)  for the traditional measurements used in Japanese text regarding swords, as well as the characters for the numbers 1 - 10,  . These are used in units of ten,  1-9 used solitarily, teen numbers like 14 would be 十四 (10 + 4), 27 would be 二十七 (2 x 10 +7) and so on and so forth.

This is only intended as a guide for enthusiasts who would like to attempt to read Japanese captions etc, for the basic information without having to read a whole book. There are various web-sites that are excellant to use for aid in reading kanji. I edited the above article from the original that was written by Paul Martin.


Useful Kanji


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