So, we have the kanji 上・下 which can be read as either かみ・しも or うえ・した, and as I understand it, those two are antonym pairs. But what are the differences between the two?

The thesaurus isn't very helpful. For instance, it says, for うえ


and for かみ it says


If I understand this correctly, this is saying that うえ is simply the place or position above some reference level, while かみ is the state of being above, or the start of a series. But the dictionary entry for かみ goes on to give definitions like


which bring it right back into the territory of うえ, or at least very close. It almost looks like the distinction is supposed to be relative vs absolute, but this just confuses me since, at least in my mind, above/below are inherently relative.

Question. What are the differences between かみ・しも and うえ・した? Are there minimal pairs illustrating these differences?


AFAIK, うえ・した is just "(on) top/above vs. (on) bottom/underneath".

かみ・しも is usually "upper vs. lower", meaning talking about different parts of the same thing. The easiest example of this to remember is "upstream" vs. "downstream" (川上【かわかみ】 vs. 川下【かわしも】) or "upwind" vs. "downwind" (風上【かざかみ】 vs. 風下【かざしも】). Also, more generically, 上手【かみて】 (upper part) and 下手【しもて】 (lower part).

Other than these few examples, the only other ways I've seen かみ・しも used are referencing place names (地名). An example in Osaka is [上新庄]{かみ・しん・じょう} and [下新庄]{しも・しん・じょう} (upper and lower Shinjou). You can see on the map that they are pretty even north-south-wise, so the 上 and 下 probably refer to their positioning along the Kanzaki river which empties into Osaka Bay to the southwest. Another is [桂]{かつら} and [上桂]{かみ・かつら} near 嵐山 in Kyoto. Also, [上京区]{かみ・ぎょう・く} and [下京区]{しも・ぎょう・く} districts in Kyoto.

TANGENTIAL NOTE: notice that 上手 and 下手 both have multiple readings that mean different things.


  • 上手【じょうず】(じょうず)/上手【うま】(うま)い → Skillful; clever; good at
  • 上手【かみて】(かみて) → the upper part; stage left
  • 上手【うわて】(うわて) → to be better than someone else at something; to "have the upper hand" (advantage); overhand (sumo throw / baseball pitch)


  • 下手【へた】(へた) → lack of skill; poor; bad at
  • 下手【しもて】(しもて) → the lower part; stage right
  • 下手【したて】(したて) → take a lower position; being humble/modest; underhand grip (sumo / baseball)

Your dictionary definition seems to be saying that:

  • かみ, しも are used when the objects in question are lined up along a single dimension monotonically with respect to the height/degree in question.
  • うえ, した are used when the objects are distributed within two or more dimension.

This matches with my intuition.

  • I do not know where you got “when the objects in question are lined up along a single dimension monotonically with respect to the height/degree in question.” That is not what the quotation from the dictionary in the question says. – Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 9 '11 at 23:02
  • @TsuyoshiIto ひと続き means lined up in one dimension. And it can be clearly read that it is assuming a simple stream having a 初め 'beginning'. If it is not monotonic in any sense, you cannot assume such thing. – user458 Sep 10 '11 at 0:17
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    I don't want to offend anybody, but I find this trend to try to fit natural language, especially particular words, into little theoretical boxes extremely unconvincing. I find it hard to believe that any Japanese speaker, at any time in history, when faced with a choice between かみ and うえ, thought to themselves, even unconsciously or tangentially, "Well, that thing up there is part of a one-dimensional monotic system, so I'll have to say that it's かみ." – rdb Sep 10 '11 at 3:24
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    @sawa: Good snark. I'm serious, though. I think there's a real danger of leading oneself down a garden path with this sort of thing. These are very old words, and their usages developed historically, not systematically. I understand the impulse to impose a system on their usage, but in the end, I think it's much more likely that they're synonyms, whose usage differences arose due to custom and historical accidents, without any over-arching systematic constraint. Their meanings will converge and diverge in more complex ways than a two-sentence theory can describe. That's all I'm trying to say. – rdb Sep 10 '11 at 17:12
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    @rdb Naturally a native speaker won't stop to consider whether something is part of a one-dimensional monotic system, the choice would be automatic and intuitive for him. The problem is that as a non-native speaker, you can't learn that intuition, so you have to try and find rules that produce natural results. What I'm trying to say is that when you search for the difference, you're not searching for a systematic difference inherent to the words or anything like that. You're simply trying to find a difference in their usage so you can imitate it. – Hanne Feb 28 '14 at 13:44

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