You may think learning the thousands of kanji you need to learn to read Japanese smoothly is more trouble than it is worth. You might be right. But they can sometimes be fascinating, too!
One of the most fascinating features of Japanese writing is 四字熟語 (yojijukugo). These are Japanese words and idioms consisting of 4 kanji characters. The first thing you might have noticed is that 四字熟語 is itself a 四字熟語. Okay, that might be less exciting for you than it is for me, but learning some of these can add rich flavor to your written and spoken Japanese. It’s also pretty fun to try and work out what a 四字熟語 means by looking at its parts.
The Wikipedia article linked above splits 四字熟語 into these categories:
- Non-Idiomatic: these compounds are basically the sum of their parts. 四字熟語 is one of these — 四字 is “four characters” and 熟語 is “compound word”. For the most part, these compounds are really just two two-character compound words mashed together. Let’s look at some more examples:
- 大学教育 (だいがくきょういく) a university education. 大学 is “university” and 教育 is “education”. Pretty simple, right?
- 異字同訓 (いじどうくん) different characters that have the same reading. 異字 is “different characters” and 同訓 is “same reading”. 訓 is the same “kun” as in 訓読み, or “kun-reading”, which you may have heard of if you’ve taken up the study of kanji.
- 屋内禁煙 (おくないきんえん) smoking prohibited indoors. 屋内 is “indoors” and 禁煙 is “smoking prohibited”. If you’ve ever booked a seat on a bullet train in Japan, you’re probably familiar with the second part because you were asked whether you want a smoking or non-smoking seat; that is, do you want a seat in a car that allows smoking or one that prohibits it?
- Idiomatic: these are the most fascinating 四字熟語 and are, in my opinion, the most fun to learn and can greatly enrich your Japanese if used correctly. I would advise against using these a lot for fear of sounding really bookish at best and condescending at worst, but sometimes they are just the right tool for the job. Let’s look at some examples:
- 十人十色 (じゅうにんといろ) looking at the characters, this literally means “ten people, ten colors”. Note the use of different readings for the same character, 十. This is translated as “to each their own” or “different strokes for different folks”.
- 異口同音 (いくどうおん) by the characters, this literally means “different mouths, same sound”. This expresses the idea of many different people echoing the same sentiment. The English translation I’ve seen for this is “unanimous(ly)”.
- 一期一会 (いちごいちえ) I’ve seen this one a couple of times in anime. It is often written with a calligraphy brush and ink for display in a traditional Japanese room. My cursory research on this one indicates that it comes from Buddhist scripture, or at least partially from it. The first part of it refers to one’s whole life, and the second part refers to one encounter. This compound tells us to treasure each encounter with others in our lives because they’ll only happen once.
Hopefully this has whet your appetite to start learning more 四字熟語. Some common ones may be found in your electronic dictionary or on WWWJDIC, but you can also find whole 四字熟語 dictionaries (like this) in print from your favorite source of Japanese books. There are also some good resources on the web, in case you don’t have a convenient source of Japanese import books: