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This is the only word I've found where 面 has this reading. Is there any reason for this unique reading?

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  • It appears to be a weird combination of 熟字訓{じゅくじくん} and 当て{あて}字{じ}
    – Angelos
    Aug 9 at 9:42

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According to this answer on chiebukuro, assuming I understood it correctly, the word まじめ existed in Japanese before the kanji 真面目 were assigned to it and it came from the phrase まじまじと見る, which means to take a long hard look at; to look (someone) full in the face.

真面目 also previously existed as a separate word read as しんめんもく, which means one's true character; one's true self; one's true worth.

Related to this is the expression, 廬山の真面目(ろざんのしんめんもく)which comes from one of the works (題西林壁, Tí xīlín bì) of a Chinese author (蘇軾, Sū shì). It seems to have been a metaphor to express the idea that you should take a careful look at something before you can truly understand it as a whole; the idea being that 廬山, a mountain in China (Mt. Lúshān), is an extremely large thing with various peaks and points to stand upon and look at the mountain from. Viewing the mountain from each peak would give you a different view of the mountain, in another sense, it would be hard to visualize how the mountain looks from each spot alone, so I guess the only way to do so would be to carefully look at it from various angles.

The answerer seems to suggest this is one possible way to link the two words together to explain how it got the reading, but they also state that 真面目(しんめんもく)by itself also meant serious/earnest (this meaning of it is obsolete now), and since まじめ, the already existing Japanese word, also meant this as well, they hypothesize that まじめ was assigned as another way to read 真面目 as 当て字.

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