While preparing materials for a Japanese course, we read that the kanji meaning “come back” or “return” (帰) comprises two parts, the left meaning “follow” and the right, “broom” and “woman”. Together, it represents a woman following her man. This kanji, we read, also means “wed” or “return to the house of one’s man”. Such etymology caught our attention and, out of curiosity, we checked some dictionaries and found that some have dedicated more space than others to detail this kanji’s origin.
One dictionary in particular, which has been written for primary school children, explains that the right side, representing a broom, actually means “move in” because brooms are used to clean the house; the left side means “go for a walk”. Together, it ends up meaning “return to where one has come from”. According to yet another dictionary of kanji etymology, it was used to mean a woman following her husband, in order words, “wed”, but later came to mean “return”. In short, etymological explanations vary depending on the dictionary.
The kanji meaning “adult woman” or “married woman” (婦) also comprises two parts: the left side is the kanji’s root and, in this case, means “woman” (女). The explanations behind the etymology of the former kanji are also different depending on which dictionary you consult. A children’s dictionary will define the right side as “broom”, reflecting how traditionally, the job of keeping the home clean and tidy was assigned to a woman. The kanji as a whole, therefore, represents this idea. However, according to the Jôyôjikai dictionary by Shizuka Shirakawa, the right side represents a utensil that was the same shape as a broom, but which was used by families to purify the mausoleum that held the souls of their ancestors. The woman whose task it was to carry out this purification is depicted as 婦, which means “daughter-in-law”, “wife” and “woman”. A daughter-in-law comes from another family and had to attend to the souls of her new family in order to be accepted into it. For that reason, she also assumed the task of purifying the mausoleum and attending to the family’s ancestors, which was a task of great importance.