Will, Intent

意 is composed of two other kanji: sound 「音」and heart 「心」. If one listens to the sound of one’s heart (metaphorically), one attains consciousness or awareness 「意識」[ishiki] which enables you to form opinions 「意見」[iken]. (How do you see the topic under discussion in your mind’s eye?)

Your opinions express which way you lean on a topic; that is, tells us about your inclinations 「意向」[ikou] (in Japanese, it’s literally which way you face; in English, the way you lean) and perhaps even your intentions 「意図」[ito]. When your will, volition, and desire 「意欲」[iyoku] are strong enough you can act with resolve or determination 「決意」(ketsui).

If you pay attention 「注意」[chui] you can alway act in a thoughtful and purposeful way, with goodwill 「好意」[koui] and sincerity [誠意」[seii]. If not, you will get a reputation for being ill-natured 「意地悪」[ijiwaru].

Actions that are unexpected, unforeseen, or surprising seem that way because they are unintentional 「意外な」[igai na] (literally outside or beyond the bounds of willful action). Faced with unforeseen disaster, some question whether a purposeless universe has any meaning 「意味」[imi] (literally, the flavor of one’s intentions…I like how that colors the meaning).

Updated: (not on GPlus)

Willful. Too focused on one’s own intentions without regard to the feelings of others or the impact upon others.


Sep 21, 2013

Ethan Smith
Everytime I see a Japanese warning sign I think of star wars.

Sep 21, 2013

Niamh Brown
Interesting. I studied Japanese for two years and when I was learning kanji I always found it interesting to see how the pictograms evolved over time.

Sep 21, 2013

Alicia Noel
This character is also pronounced ‘yi’ in Mandarin, and means the same: meaning, idea or thought. Tongyi (同意) – agree, consent, approve. Haoyi (好意) – good intention, kindness, same as in Japanese. Buyi (不意) – unexpectedly, unawareness, unpreparedness.

I love finding overlaps between the two languages, especially when it’s both the character and the pronunciation!

Sep 22, 2013

M Sinclair Stevens
+Alicia Noel Thanks for piping up with the Mandarin readings. Those of you who have not studied Japanese might not know that it borrowed these characters from Chinese, hence kanji (literally Chinese characters) when developing its own writing system. However, Japanese and Chinese are not related, so using Chinese characters to write Japanese makes as much sense as using Chinese combined with phonetic roman alphabet to write English. For example, we could write “walk, walking, walked” as 歩, 歩ing, 歩ed.

Japanese also borrowed many of the Chinese readings. Words with the Chinese readings have a more literary, scientific, or formal “sound” to them—just like words in English that come from Latin or Greek via French. (dog versus canine).

It was actually Alicia’s example of buyi (不意) (literally “not intended, unintentional”) which got me thinking about this kanji, even though it didn’t make it into my post. In Japanese the “b” has morphed into “f” and it is pronounced fu-i but it means the same thing: unexpectedly, taken by surprise, or off guard.

I was wondering how the kanji for will and intention was related to being caught off guard. And then I realized that when we do not understand the intentions of others, or when we have credited the workings of the universe to the purposes of a higher being, then we can be thrown off guard by purposeless, meaningless actions: a tornado hitting a school or floodwaters washing away a village.

Even on a smaller scale, when we act thoughtlessly (that is without thinking something through and considering the consequences), then we may be surprised by the unintended consequences of our action.

Sep 22, 2013

Alicia Noel
The story I’ve heard in China is that a Japanese emperor sent scholars here to learn Hanzi (Chinese characters); diplomatic relations between the two countries broke off before they learned the entire written language, and the scholars returned to Japan. There is ~40% overlap between the two written languages.

When I was in Japan in 2011 I was able to read a number of street and shop signs, and even communicate (poorly) in writing, due to the overlap; the spoken language was incomprehensible to me. When I visited Korea in 2012 I was illiterate but able to understand some of the spoken language, due to a large number of cognates (Chinese ‘Meiguo’ sounds similar to Korean ‘Migu’ (America), Chinese “Zhongguo sounds like Korean “Zhinggu” (China)).

I agree with you that the relationship between different related words is both thoughtful and fascinating.

Sep 23, 2013

Chien-Ming Chen
Interestingly +M Sinclair Stevens , the fad in Taiwan is to add phonetic Roman alphabets to Chinese characters to denote in the process of. E.g. 吃飯ing