Shells, Kanjis and Money

There are many places where in the old times shells were used as currency. India and China used them during thousands of years and their shell-coins gradually entered the Japanese islands. It is interesting that even nowadays there is a Japanese and Chinese character that means “shell” but if you add strokes to it the meaning changes to “money”.

The Japanese character is 貝(kai) and the simplified Chinese is 贝 (bei / bu). Both are pictographs (They are supposed to look like a shell) and evolvee from and original character that you can see in the next picture:

Concha
Picture from Shirakawa.

The character evolved during thousands of years and it became this:

Concha

It doesn’t really look like a shell, but if we look at the shape of some money created from shells:

Concha
Picture from Shirakawa.

Look at the toothed hole in the middle, it looks like the lines that divide the body of the character 貝.

Concha
Picture from Shirakawa.

The character 貝 means “shell”, for example, 二枚貝, a word composed by three kanjis (two, thin things, shell) and it means bivalve, if you change the first character with 1 it becomes 一枚貝 that means univalve… Sometimes I’m amazed with the Japanese language “simplicity”, “intuitiveness” and representative power.

If you add extra strokes to the 貝 it looses the “shell” meaning and acquires the “money/exchange/commerce” meaning. Look at next kanjis where you can easily identify the “shell” part inside them and they all have meanings related with money:

Shell

There are many kanjis created from “shell” and they are used to build hundreds of words related with value/money. For the people who is studying Japanese here there is a list of some of the most common words constructed with kanjis with “shell” radical. For Chinese students from this link you have all the derived characters.

: savings, store / 貯まる: saving money, 貯金: savings.
: fortune
: sells / 販売: to sell, marketing
: freight, property
: to lend
貿: trade, exchange / 貿易 foreign trade
: buy
: precious, prize
: rent, fare, fee / 家賃 rent payment
: cost, expense
: poor, insubstantial / 貧しい : poor 貧乳: insubstantial breasts 🙂
: data, materials / 資料: data, documents 投資: investment
Other characters I can remind: 貼, 側, 測, 賄, 賂… If you want more info about these words and kanjis I recommend using JDic

Tokyo in 1935

This is a video of Tokyo before it was totally destroyed in the Second World War. My impression is that it was much more beautiful than now and it had a much more European style than nowadays.

The video shows Asakusa and Nihonbashi areas at east Tokyo that were the most popular places before the war, nowadays they’ve been replaced by Shibuya and Shinjuku at west Tokyo.

Heike crab

I read at lostinjapan.info an interesting article that remind me how much I liked the “Heike´s crab” history when I read Cosmos from Carl Sagan.

“The Heike crab” or “the samurai crab” is famous because it looks like samurai warriors from the beginnings of last millenium. As Carl Sagan explains in his book, Heike clan warriors lost everything in a decisive battle against the Genji. That battle was on 1185 near Japanese coaste. Most of the corpses stayed for long around the beaches where the battle occurred.

Local fishermen living started believing that the spirits from those dead Heike warriors were living inside crabs that had some similarities with a human face. An artificial selection process was triggered because fishermen were returning those human-like crabs to the sea and eating “normal” crabs. Doing that for centuries “created” not only human-face crabs but even Heike-samurai-face crabs! And of course, those are the ones who survive.


Heike warrior’s face.

Non-scientific explanation, the fishermen’s legend says that those crabs are real Heike warriors transformed. There are eve traditional Japanese fold tales where crab armies return to fight against the Genji. Next ukiyo-e paint represents some Heike phantom ships and Heike crabs attacking the Genji army.

If you wanna listen Carl Sagan’s explanation that is better than mine, watch next video: