Ins and Outs of Opposite and Interchangeable Kanji Pairs (熟語 Jukugo)

Sometimes I think that kanji have a life of their own, and like all life forms, you get some odd ducks.  I’m thinking specifically about those kanji pairs made up of opposing characters.

A number of examples (adapted from Mary Sisk Noguchi’s excellent article) of these peculiar combinations include:

  • 出入 – deiri (coming and going, respectively):  Which you may see in signs prohibiting entry onto private property.
  • 出欠 – shukketsu (present and absent, respectively):  This is a word for “attendance”, e.g., class attendance.
  • 兄弟 – kyōdai (older brother and younger brother, respectively):  This is the term for siblings or family.
  • 親子 – oyako, (parent and child, respectively):  This means, well, parent and child.  You may have come across this at a home-style cooking restaurant in the form of “oyako-don”, which involves the parent (chicken meat) and child (egg).  Come to think of it, it’s a rather dark name…

For a great, robust list of these eccentric kanji, check out this blog.

As if opposite kanji were not interesting enough, Japanese is also home to kanji pairs whose meaning differ depending on the kanji character order.  To wit:

  • 魚雷 – gyo rai (Torpedo) versus 雷魚 – rai gyo (snakehead mullet)
  • 社会 – sha kai (society) versus 会社 – kai sha (a business)

Some of these reversible devils even have different pronunciations depending on their order:

  • 凸凹 – dekoboko (rough; uneven) versus 凹凸 – ou totsu (unevenness; uneven)
  • 力学 – rikigaku (mechanics, dynamics) versus 学力 – gaku ryoku (scholarship, knowledge, literary ability)

A nice little list of reversible kanji words can be found here.

Identifying such patterns allows you not only to up your Japanese game, but avoid potential pitfalls of thinking you understand a word, when in fact you’ve just reversed the kanji.  Imagine the confusion you may cause when you order a torpedo rather than a delicious snakehead mullet, or suggest to your partner in a letter  that you will be heading to the open sea (外海) rather than to a foreign country (海外).  There’s probably a comedic song or drinking game somewhere in here…