The Examined Life

Language: The Examined Life

改 KAI: examine, ameliorate
Perhaps my fondness for this kanji stems in part from my Catholic upbringing and the cyclical and ongoing practice of examining one’s conscience and making amends for one’s faults.

The verb 改める”aratameru” means roughly: revise, alter, rectify, correct, redo, renew, over again, and anew. In short, in order to improve, you must both examine and change.

Composition of 改

On the left side is the one of the characters for oneself, 己 「おのれ」”onore”.

On the right side the radical for to beat/strike. So, as a mnemonic, you could imagine a kind of self-flagellating course of improvement.

To my disappointment, Henshall* points out that while this mnemonic is useful, it’s not historically correct, as the left-hand side of the character is actually a simplified form of snake. So the original pictograph was driving off snakes. However, if we imagine either St. Patrick driving the snakes (pagans) from Ireland or an Old Testament symbol of the snake which tempts one to evil, then the visualization of striking at the root of error remains a useful mnemonic for improvement.

改札口 「かいさつぐち」”kaisatsuguchi”: Ticket Inspection

if you’ve ever visited Japan, you have likely encountered this kanji in a subway or train station. It’s the first character in “kai+satsu+guchi”, literally the inspect-ticket-gate (the wicket). Tickets are inspected both upon entering and exiting the platforms. In the place and time I lived in Japan, this inspection was still done by hand. Now it’s mostly automated.

改善 「かいぜん」”kaizen”: Ameliorate

Many non-Japanese speaking business people will be familiar with a compound using this character: KAI+ZEN, the “business philosophy” translated as incremental improvement. (The ZEN in this compound meaning “better”.)

Sometimes kaizen is misrepresented as a call for continuous change: change for the sake of change. Literally, however, it is closer to “examine and alter for the better”.

The reason for the business focus on change is that kaizen was promoted as an antidote to the “leave well enough alone/if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” style of management. Kaizen supposes that there is no such thing as “well enough”. Examine. Figure out if things can be improved. Improve. Repeat.

However, kaizen is not change for the sake of change, for novelty, for simply doing something to appear to be doing something, anything. For example, so many people discussing changes to the Google+ user experience become defensive when asked whether a change actually betters the experience for the user. “You Luddites are just against change.” No. We are asking how does this change improve the user experience? If it doesn’t, don’t make it.

That is the heart of kaizen: examine, look for ways to improve; then make any appropriate changes. The better translation of kaizen is probably, ameliorate: to improve over time, from the French melior meaning “to better”…The opposite, deteriorate, is to worsen over time. The implication of a process taking place “over time” is probably where we attach the sense of “incremental” improvement.


Another useful synonym is “alter”: especially if you imagine a ship’s skipper, constantly checking position and then making the fine adjustments necessary to stay or alter course.


You can also translate this kanji as amend. Mend refers to the fault, not the fix. So to “amend” is to remove the fault; in contemporary usage, the prefix got dropped. So now we mend clothes and fences, by way of fixing.

The “mend” is the tear, not the repair. To amend is to put right. Make amends.

Reform, Reshape, Restore

I often erroneously conceive of the idea of reform as progressive change. However reform conveys the perspective that the current situation is deteriorated or corrupted. Things are falling apart and must be re-formed…taken back to the original, more basic and pure form. Think Protestant Reformation. Reformers want to end corruption and restore the real to the ideal.

A slightly different mindset exists between people who want to fix a system because they see it as broken and falling apart and people who want to change a system because they can imagine something better.

Reformers assess the current situation as bad and bad because it isn’t the way things used to be. They are focused on restoring an idealized purity of a system. They quibble about fundamentals and focus on defining and defending core values. They cannot entertain the idea that perhaps the system itself might be fundamentally flawed or that with the knowledge gleaned from one failure and destruction of an untenable system, that we might figure out a better approach. Reformers see the ideal behind them rather than in front of them.


As such, “revise” is probably closer to the core meaning than “reform”.
• 改訂「かいてい」 “kaitei” revised (edition of a book)
• 改心する「かいしんする」”kaishin suru” alter+ heart: to change one’s heart, revise one’s position
• 改正する「かいせいする」”kaisei suru” alter + correct: to revise, amend
• 改変する「かいへんする」”kaihen suru” alter + change: innovate
* Kenneth G. Henshall: A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters

Note 1: The photograph is of the 2013 Boston Marathon, mile 26…in sight of the finish line and where the second bomb would detonate an hour later. Marathon runners, like Catholics, are obsessed with self-examination with the goal of incremental improvement. Let’s look and see how we can make this better.

2013 Boston Marathon

Note 2: This “kanji meditation is the third in a series.

GPlus Discussion

Feb 21, 2015

Peter Strempel
That’s right. You were there on the day the bombs went off, weren’t you. Is that your own photo?

As for reform, is that an assertion you are making? Or is it a conclusion on a linguistic basis.

I always thought of reform as being capable of both recursive and backward looking ‘improvement’, and the revolutionary kind of change that seeks to reformat an existing reality.

In my discussions with even those who share my politics, I sometimes run into brick walls when i talk about Burkean conservatism being capable of absorbing the new without contradiction. An organic inclusion of what already exists. I really flummox them when I say that marriage equality recognised at law is simply Burkean conservatism absorbing what already exists in the wider society governed by laws.

So would my kind of Burkean conservatism count as reformation or revolution? Or is there some other middling course which is about embracing what is already normal on the street?

Feb 22, 2015

M Sinclair Stevens
+Peter Strempel Yes, I was there in Boston the day the bombs went off to cheer on an Austin runner. At this earlier hour, the crowds were too thick for me to get near the finish line (about two blocks away) so I found the spot on the second floor of a department store from which I took this photo (That’s my runner in the center with the orange shirt and shoes and white visor). This was the same department store whose CCTV cameras helped authorities identify the suspects as the second bomb was detonated on the sidewalk across the street, at the spot on the very leftmost part of my photo.
On reform My meditation is purely linguistic. I, too, have always used the word reform in the sense of revolutionary change for the better. It wasn’t until I looked up these words for this post that I considered the more narrow sense.

My little dictionary defines reform both as “to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses” and “amend what is defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved”.

I find it useful to make the distinction between fixing something one perceives as broken and the concept of kaizen that we shouldn’t settle, become too comfortable, by deciding things are “good enough”. The question should always be, “But how can it be better.” It’s the difference between maintenance and invention. And I’m a tinkerer at heart.

This is not to say I have anything against reform. It’s necessary. Systems, especially human social systems, do become corrupt and deteriorate. People rig the system. People game the system. A system conceived 200 or 2000 years ago by people as fallible as we and no concept of contemporary issues cannot address the issues at hand without some rethinking.

And this is where you get into trouble talking about Burkean conservatism (or the Bible, or the US Constitution). For us there are principles which can be examined and applied to new situations. For others there are absolute truths and unless they are applied as narrowly as they were originally, any reinterpretation is degraded and deformed.

By that logic, I see we are all reformers in a sense, all trying to remold the ideal to our own vision of what is best.

Feb 25, 2015

Rob Ferguson
Another great post +M Sinclair Stevens​, I think your meditations on kanji deserve a greater forum than just G+.

Henshall’s book looks interesting, I might buy it at some point.

Feb 25, 2015

M Sinclair Stevens
+Rob Ferguson Thanks. Depending on your goal for studying kanji, I could probably recommend better books than Henshall’s. For example, Jack Halpern’s edition of the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary is the best for actually learning the Japanese language. Henshall is fine for a historical or linguistic perspective…much more academic than practical.