A closer view of decorative grass on Tokyo balcony

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小さな植木鉢の草がもっと詳しく見えます。色と動きがあって、大好きです。

The color and movement of this grass growing in a small flowerpot are very enjoyable.

Red edged grass adds compact color and movement in wind

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小さな植木鉢の草の先は赤くて、風で動きます。今年の夏、大好きな植物の一つです。

In a narrow ceramic flowerpot, this red edged grass provides color and movement with the wind. It’s one of my favorite plants this summer.

These two weedy lots for sale attract bats at twilight

東京の夏は、草の背が高くなってたくさん茂ります。この売り出し中の空き地に、コウモリがよく来ます。いまのところ、虫が多そうです。コウモリには都合がいいですね。

A Tokyo summer quickly produces thick and tall weeds. These two empty lots are for sale near our house. In the meantime, they are supporting a large insect population, and attracting bats. There’s something wonderful about this temporary nature spot.

Lone line of wild grass on sidewalk near Shinjuku station

この草は自然にまかれた種から育ちました。長い線の形を描いています。去年もこの新宿駅の近くにある景色が好きでした。

This grass seeds itself alongside the guardrail leading up to Shinjuku Station’s JR South entrance. Exactly the same time last year, I was also captivated by this linear lawn at night.

Bright yellow bush is favorite in Tokyo rainy season

ビョウヤナギは梅雨で一番好きな東京の草です。明るい黄色のはなびらや軽い風で動くおしべがすてきです。立ち直りがはやい草です。ほかの都市でもこの草が育っていますか?

Biyou yanagi (ビョウヤナギ) is the perfect Tokyo rainy season bush. The flowers radiate with color when the sky is often overcast. Each flower produces dozens of delicate stamen that catch the smallest breeze, and the bush overall seems very hardy for urban life, with very attractive leaves. I think its Latin name is Hypericum monogynum. This one’s growing in the section of my apartment building garden that an elderly couple takes care of.

Does this bush grow in your city?

Weed in Kanji: The language of nature

Weed in Kanji: the Language of Plants

Kanji, the Japanese characters that borrows from Chinese, are not only ideographic but also modular. The secret to memorizing hundreds and thousands of kanji is to focus on their elements for meaning and sound. As an adult learner, I am struck by how many of these core kanji elements represent nature, such as water, tree, mountain, fire, stone, sun, valley, soil, tree, and so on.

As an example, the word zassou (雑草) or weed is composed of two characters– zatsu (雑) or miscellaneous and kusa (草) or grass– and a total of five elements, including three characters that represent life forms: tree, bird, and plant. That zatsu character’s use of the number “nine” is perhaps arbitrary, but there is also a meaning that can be inferred by the combination of nine, tree and bird. Many Japanese words and personal names have at least one character or element that represents nature.

I must clarify that the above image and explanations come from Daiki Kusuya’s wonderful Kanji Starter 2 (IBC Publishing, 5th edition, 2008). The book does a great job of presenting simple to complex kanji, offering memorable explanations, and cross-referencing by number. Still, the author warns that he created his explanations to help second-language learners, and that they should not be taken as true etymology. I like how the author privileges memory and imagination over historical accuracy.

“The pictographs or ideas explaining kanji characters in this book may not necessarily be based on their historical development. They may be alterations or even my own creations. Again, the purpose of this book is to know the meanings of kanji characters, not to study how they were derived.”

I am simultaneously studying Japanese language and why urban Japanese, like many global counterparts, want a greater connection with nature. To an outsider, it is curious how nature is so pervasive in Japanese language. Perhaps many Japanese do not reflect on this aspect of their language, much like no one considers it remarkable that so many Tokyoites tend  flowers outside their homes and shops. As an anthropologist, I view this lack of discourse, this invisibility of the everyday, as evidence that it is a key aspect of the culture.