History Japanese

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:

Picture from Shirakawa.

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


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

Picture from Shirakawa.

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

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:


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

5 replies on “Shells, Kanjis and Money”

I noticed that all the shells have holes in the middle, could have been that they’d string multiple shells onto something so they wouldn’t get lost in travel.

Hey there, thanks interesting read and so is the rest of our blog. My spanish is… well nonexistent so thank you for blogging in english too 🙂

I remember in Spain back when it was illegal to mint coins they’d melt the gold into chain links.

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