Meaning behind Hansei 反省

Hello. 反省 is one of my dearest leeches. Today I discovered that it is a ‘cultural concept’ of Japan and everyone gets down to some hansei after their project’s finished at work, or indeed they do a bit of hansei on themselves - to reflect on the things that could be improved upon and take ownership of changing for the better. I kind of wish I’d known this before through WK having more detail about words like this. (But that’s by the by really, you could say it’s up to me to study more deeply).

What I came to ask is if anyone had any words of wisdom about why it’s made up those two kanji, anti and conserve? I think that’s why I’ve made it a leech, not understanding the logic of it. Is it kind of about being anti-conservative and being open to change and not being full of hubris.

Perhaps I’ve answered my own question?

(I might forward this to this country’s prime minister)

As well as ‘conserve’ and ‘government’, 省 has the additional meaning of ‘focus’, which would be the meaning being expressed in this word.

The other kanji 反 means ‘anti’ but it also mean ‘bend back’ or ‘curve back’ so combining the two the idea would be ‘focusing back on yourself’ I think.


What you have to understand is that, while WaniKani teaches you a primary meaning for a kanji, it doesn’t teach all possible meanings. Sometimes in vocab you’ll see other meanings shine and may feel like it doesn’t make sense. Another thing to realize is that kanji in Japan have a very long history (almost 2000 years) and things that may have once made sense in a certain cultural context may look strange centuries later without that context.

If you think of 反省(はんせい) as an act of reflecting on something (past acttions, one’s own behavior), it makes sense that the kanji 反 is in it, since it’s also in 反射(はんしゃ). As for 省, it has another use as well besides “conserve”, (かえり)みる ( to reflect on (oneself, past conduct, etc.), to contemplate, to examine, to think over, to introspect).

My advice would be not to think too hard about how individual kanji meanings pair up inside words, because sometimes they won’t make sense unless you dig really deep and find the historical cultural context where the word was coined.

A good start would be a monolingual dictionary:


Yeah, it’s always a good idea to check monolingual kanji dictionaries.

かえりみる is listed first. The one equivalent to “conserve” comes third.


Mmm. Henshall’s A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, whose etymologies I think are generally trustable (though they’re now 30 years behind on any updates from modern scholarship) says about this one: “most scholars take the elements [‘eye’ and ‘few/little’] to be used ideographically to give a meaning of narrowing one’s eyes in order to scrutinise. Scrutinise led to examine, and became particularly associated with the idea of scrutinising in order to trim to an optimum, i.e. by removing unnecessary elements. This led to omit. Examining also appears to have become associated with government, leading by association to government ministry”. So the ‘scrutinise, examine’ sense is earlier than the ‘trim, omit, conserve’ one.


Thank you to everyone for all your kind and interesting replies.

(I do particularly like your ‘narrowing one’s eyes in order to scrutinise’, it gives some sense to the elements of the kanji and something tangible for me to catch onto in my brain. You may have just stamped on that leech for me.)


Thank Henshall, not me :slight_smile: His book is an interesting approach to kanji mnemonics – unlike RTK or WK, he does look at the actual etymologies of the characters rather than just their current forms, and he usually fits multiple meanings of a character into a mnemonic phrase rather than having a single keyword for each kanji. (For instance his full mnemonic for this one is ‘FEW EYES EXAMINE MINISTRY: AN OMISSION’.) I’m not sure it would work too well as a complete system, but I guess for dipping in to find some hints on dealing with persistently hard to remember kanji it’s nice.


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