The native Japanese word わかい means "young" (and I presume has done so for a very long time). A certain Chinese word that is pronounced ruò in Mandarin and written as 若 has quite a few meanings, but none of them are, as far as I know, "young".

How did it come to be that 若 is used to write 若い? Is there some intermediate set of borrowings or derivations that explains this?

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    FYI: gaus.livedoor.biz/archives/12816510.html
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Apr 8 at 2:48
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    @aguijonazo Your last link is sadly geo-restricted ("2022年4月6日 (水) よりYahoo! JAPANは欧州経済領域(EEA)およびイギリスからご利用いただけなくなりました"). If it has useful explanation, you could copy it and paste in answer.
    – Arfrever
    Commented Apr 8 at 3:18
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    They basically say that meaning was borrowed from other characters with similar sounds such as 弱 and 柔.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Apr 8 at 3:33
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    若 probably started off as a phonetic loan of 弱 (they sound identical in MC [which was when kanji was introduced to Japan], Japanese on'yomi, and Mandarin). Native Japanese words aside, several words spelt with 弱 in Chinese, notably those which have a meaning of young/immature, are spelt instead with 若 in Japanese (弱年・若年、老弱・老若).
    – dROOOze
    Commented Apr 8 at 7:10

3 Answers 3


For the meaning young, 「[若]{ジャク}」 (Middle Chinese: nyak) should be considered as a phonetic loan of 「[弱]{ジャク}」 (also nyak; weak, fragile).

In Japanese, 「若」 has long been used (appearing e.g. in the Man'yōshū) as a character which captured semantic extensions of 「弱」 originating from Chinese vocabulary which have meanings of young, immature (e.g. 「老弱」, the old and the [vulnerable] young). 「若」 is now officially accepted to represent both native Japanese vocabulary related to 「若い」 (young) and certain Sino-Japanese vocabulary meaning young, immature which would otherwise be spelt with 「弱」.

Despite these two characters being homophones, 「若」 (original meaning: submission) was never used to mean young and was never used interchangeably with 「弱」 in Chinese.

References & Further Reading:

  • 「広辞苑」



  • 「漢字摘要」 (1912), pp. 174-177
    This publication further categorises 「若」 as a simplified character of 「弱」, just like 「台」 vs. 「臺」; the two are or are near homophones, may not share glyph origins, but the former is situationally or wholly used to replace the latter and has less strokes.
  • Boy, those academic references were hard to find. Please let me know if there are better ones.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Apr 26 at 12:46

According to my kanji dictionary (Kanwa Daijiten, Ed. Gakken)若 was, in the ancient Chinese (antiquity), a sign (象形) that depicted tenderness and flexibility of a body "like that of a young woman combing her hair", as an adjective. (Later edit) The term is used for "young" in the earliest Japanese literary sources, such as 万葉集(5)「若ければ道行き知らじ」,(4)「梅の花いまださかなくいと若みかも」. This means that the sources for this meaning must be sought for in Chinese texts from that time, not in Japanese. I might search for some examples in early Tang dynasty texts, but this is out of this topic.

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    Unfortunately your source has misunderstood their Chinese sources. The original meaning (depicted pictographically as a woman combing hair) was "compliant", not tender or flexible. Commenters on the question have offered more plausible answers (which I can't accept since they just left them as comments). Commented Apr 22 at 17:16

According to Shirakawa Shizuka, 若 JAKU represents a 巫女 fujo, a woman who serves the gods and communicates their words. The original pictogram depicts such a woman who has long hair with both hands raised as she dances in prayer to the gods, and is seeking a divine response. Later, to the original pictogram depicting the woman, the character 口 "SAI" was added.

Oracle script of 若 JAKU.

口 "SAI" was discovered by Shirakawa Shizuka and completely changed the understanding of kanji. It is a sacred vase/vessel in which a prayer to the god/gods is inserted. In 若 JAKU, the vase is used to emphasize the meaning of praying to the gods, which is the act that the 巫女 fujo is performing.

In today's shape, the two raised hands have become a 艹 kusakanmuri.

JAKU represents the 巫女 fujo in a state of trance (Shirakawa uses the expression うっとりとした uttori to shita), as she has been possessed by the spirit of a god and is being communicated a divine message.

The act of communicating this message exactly as it is is called 若のごとし "KAKU no gotoshi" (KAKU is not a misspelling), and the character takes the meaning of "obeying" from the idea of submitting oneself to the divine will.

Since the 巫女 fujo that were used in this ritual were young women, the character also took on the meaning of "young".

As a character, 若 JAKU has been used in a similar way as 女, 如 and 而 JI, with the meanings of なんじ nanji (you/thou), もしくは moshikuwa and もし moshi (if/perhaps).

I am not going to look into it now but consider that なんじ nanji "thou" can be written as 汝 nanji, where you can see the familiar shape of 女 woman.

Another similar character is 如 NYO, which is the combination of 女 JO woman, and 口 SAI a sacred vessel, and represents a 巫女 fujo praying for a divine response.

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