Sunday, January 27, 2013

Transforming Symbols and Totemism: In the beginning was the Kanji

In this video my son Ray demonstrates the use of a Japanese toy called a "Mojibake" which means a transforming or morphing letter. The toy transforms from being a Sino-Japanese ideograph (kanji) meaning tiger into a little plastic model of a tiger.

Japanese toys and superheroes are always transforming by means of a symbol. Masked riders put symbols to their belts, inject USB drives into their blood stream, or are bitten by cosmic bats. Power ranges manipulate symbols, including Kanji (Shinkenja-) that also allow them to transform in to super beings.

This use of symbols to produce living entities is similar to the way in which people in totemistic societies (such as Native Americans) received totem badges containing ancestral spirit to become their own soul.

While there are some that claim that Kanji only mean things via phonemes - that they need to be pronounced in order to have meaning, Chad Hansen (1993) a scholar of Chinese philosophy claims that Kanji not only mean but that they mean things not ideas. The Western signification system is triparite: words mean ideas which mean things. The Chinese system is dual: characters mean things.

If this is the case, then from a radical social constructivist or Sapir-Warphian perspective, the existence of the character provides a symbolic tool for the cognition, and perhaps existence of the lion. In the far East, in the beginning was the kanji.

Since Ray was about three years old he has spent countless hours symbolically transforming things into other things. I think that he has managed to become Japanese without my help.

Hansen, C. (1993). Chinese Ideographs and Western Ideas. The Journal of Asian Studies, 52(02), 373–399. doi:10.2307/2059652

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