For the past three years Japanese comedian Gorugo Matsumoto has been traveling around Japan giving lectures to juvenile delinquents locked up in some of Japan’s 52 detention centers. “I was curious what kind of kids where there, and for what reason and what crime,” says Matsumoto on his blog, which has been gaining attention as he writes and reflects on his visits.
On a recent TV show that aired June 30, 2014, cameras followed Matsumoto and documented one of his “classes.” He was teaching the 2000-year old logographic characters known as Kanji, which make up Japan’s writing system. But as Matsumoto showed, with deft and humor, they don’t just represent words. Upon closer observation they’re infused with values and wisdom passed down from our ancient ancestors.
You can watch the full clip above but I’ve translated and summarized a few of Matsumoto’s primary examples:
Meaning: to run away
Significance: the kanji is made up from the radicals 辶 (meaning road or path) and 兆 (meaning dawn, horizon or sign of change). If you’re scared or sense danger it’s ok to run away. It’s ok to change course. Your destination remains the same but you’re just taking a different path to get there.
Kanji: 幸 and 辛
Meaning: fortunate and painful
Significance: The two kanji are very similar. The addition of just 1 line turns pain into fortune. If there’s something missing in your life you’re in pain. But once you find it you’ll be fortunate.
Meaning: to spew (negative thoughts or words)
Significance: the kanji is made up of the radical口 (mouth) and the ± (plus/minus symbol). When something goes wrong and you’re in pain you think negative thoughts; you say negative things. But those who succeed are those who manage to stop thinking negatively. Once you remove the minus symbol from the kanji you get叶(to come true, as in dreams or aspirations). Note: the plus/minus symbol wasn’t used until the 1600s so this is a more contemporary interpretation of the kanji.
Significance: A life without difficulty is a life not worth living. When you combine the kanji 無 (none) with 難(difficulty) you get 無難 (not interesting, stimulating, or significant). But when you combine the kanji 有 (to have) with難(difficulty) you get 有難 (blessed) because without difficulties how do you appreciate life?
Significance: the kanji is made up of the radicals 人 (person), 一 (one) and 叩 (hit or beat). This is life. When you’re asleep or when you’re awake, that one beat – your heart – over and over again, is all that sustains life.
Significance: the beginning of all life comes from women; from your mother. The kanji for beginning is made up of the radicals 女 (woman) and 台 (platform or foundation). The foundation of life are women. And your mother risked her life to bring you into this world. Treasure your mother. And when you get out of here, get back to living your life.