When starting learning japanese it struck me as rather weird that 本, book, seems to have totally different meanings in its kun- and on-yomi compounds (i. e. 本気、基づく、本物), all vaguely centered around the concept of originality, even 日本 "the land of the rising sun", as it seems to refer to the originating of the sun in the east. Come to think of it, it's more likely that the meaning 本 was later derived from this original abstract meaning (propably by the Japanese since, I believe, chinese uses mainly 書 or its simplified equivalent for books). Could anyone illuminate the etymology of 本?

  • Alexander Wurdow suggests: "Books are the source (basis) of our knowledge". This is not necessarily about etymology but it kind of helps you "feel" this kanji better.
    – kuchitsu
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 17:18
  • Also he claims that the whole concept of a book came to Japan from Korea and that "hon" came from Korean "pon".
    – kuchitsu
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 17:23
  • So is the Korean word also of Chinese origin or an unrelated originally Korean word?
    – Dominik
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 17:37

1 Answer 1


According to 語源由来辞典「[本]{ほん}」, 本 original pictorial origin is the representation of the thick parts of the roots of a tree. In 漢語 it came to mean "the roots of a thick tree" or "roots of plants". In Japan it came to be used for the "model" writing over which paper would be laid to make a copy of that writing. From that it eventually came to refer to all books.

  • 3
    Ohh, so 「根本」(root/base) →「基本」(basis) →「手本」(model/example) →「本」(book)! 知らなかった~
    – chocolate
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 2:24

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