“Hara”: A Japanese Lesson

“Hara”, The Character

The Japanese word “hara” is variously translated as: : abdomen, bowel, belly, gut, mind or courage. It is a very important concept in both Chinese and Japanese culture —  even in their religions.  Below I offer a a playful linguistic romp to introduce some of the uses of “hara” in Japanese culture:

First, the Chinese character for “hara” is shown to the right.  In Japanese it can be read as either “hara” or “fuku”.  In Mandarin Chinese it is read as: fù (4th tone–falling).  Japanese is tough that way; each character may have multiple readings — 3 or 4 readings per character is not uncommon.  The Chinese language, on the other hand, is much easier– each character usually has only one reading.

Like many Chinese characters (the source of Japanese writing), “hara” is composed of several parts: On the left side of the character is the radical for “meat”.   And for this character, the right side of the character only gives it the sound “fuku” and has no meaning related to the word.

Hara Wrap

The cool weather today reminded me of staying warm in Japan.  In cold weather, the older people often wear a haramaki (腹巻き) — an abdomen-wrap.  It is a warm piece of cloth either wrapped around the abdomen or made from elastic tube cloth which slides over the abdomen.

In Asian culture, the hara is felt to be the seat of vitality and power. Thus keeping it warm during the winter is felt to protect one’s vitality — one’s health.

Here is a scene from a famous Japanese movie where this old man is seen wearing a HaraMaki.  Since a haramaki is considered rather out-dated, this scene illustrates the character’s lack of concern for appearance and his old-fashion nature.Most Japanese houses do not have central heating, so these haramakis are very nice item to keep you warm in winter.  When I lived in Japan, I had one to wear around my house but would not wear one in public!

Cutting Hara

Since the hara contains the vitality of an individual, a famous way to commit suicide is to “cut the hara” or “Hara-Kiri” (abdomen-cut).   When Americans pronounce “HaraKiri” they ironically slaughter its  pronunciation by saying “HariKari” (Hairy-Carry).

The characters for HaraKiri are 腹切りbut interestingly, if you change the order of the words, you get a more classic samurai word for this type of suicide : 切腹  “Seppuku”.  This is one of the many difficult traits of Japanese — the pronunciation for a character depends on context.

Apparently, not only is the cutting open of one’s hara very painful, but one then dies slowly and painfully.  Thus, to save “face”, a samurai committing harakiri will have a friend stand behind him so that once he has slit his belly open and sealed his fate, the friend would quickly chop off his head to save him a groveling and groaning death.

Hara Stands

With the hara being the center of vitality, it is from the hara that anger arises.  A common expression for “getting angry” is “Hara ga tatsu” or (“stomach stands/arises”).   As the stomach stands, heat rises to the head!  A very visceral description of anger.

So those were two unhealthy uses of the hara, let me end with two healthy tips on how to use your hara.

8/10 Hara

Don’t eat until your stuffed!  Or, as they say in Japan, “腹の八分” (Hara no hachibun) which means “[only fill your] hara 80%”. In the picture to the right we have the good boy (symbolized by the “0”) eating small portions  and the bad boy (symbolized by the “x”) who is stuffing himself.


Here is another picture showing the 8/10 hara idea in more literal terms.  Before leaving this notion of  eating small portions, I must tell you another common Japanese saying used to steer people away from obesity.  It is said that if you eat right before going to bed you will turn into a [fat] cow.  It turns out that this is partially true.   When your body digests food, it does not produce human growth factor which is primarily made while sleeping.  This in turn slows down your metabolism and thus causes weight gain.  Or so I have read.

Hara Method of Breathing

腹式呼吸 (Hara Shiki Kokyū) is Japanese for “diaphramatic breathing”.  This breathing method is taught in meditation styles of Zen, Yoga and many others.  Here your lower abdomen expands with each inhale and contracts with each exhale.  The chest does none of the breathing.  Try it by lying down and placing a book on your abdomen.  Then place one hand on the book and the other on your chest.  Now, try to breath by only moving the book and not your chest.  Once you have mastered is lying, it is easy to do while you are sitting.  This sort of breathing is very calming.  If you don’t believe me, try breathing only from your chest and watch your mood change!

In my next Japanese Character post, I will show you how this sort of breathing can help prevent a very nasty aliment.


See other “Word!” posts, here.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to ““Hara”: A Japanese Lesson

  1. This made me think of “Bang Ye“. Used to do it when I was a kid, and in China it’s perfectly normal for adults to do. Do they ever do that in Japan?

  2. Ian

    Awesome, awesome. Thanks for compiling this Sabio. Fascinating stuff.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    @JS Allen
    No, I hadn’t heard of the Chinese word, but saw a lot of that in China. Rarely in Japan.
    You’ll notice that the character has the “meat” radical on the left — for part of the body, again:

    膀爷 [bǎngyé] (noun) shirtless men (Beijing dialect); usually refers to middle aged or older men, who can often be found dressed in this fashion relaxing in a cool place in summer; 膀 (upper arm, whole arm) is short for 光膀 (to be stripped to the waist); 爷 is a respectful form or address for an elderly man or uncle

  4. Sabio Lantz

    @ Ian
    Thanks — glad you appreciate — I know you can understand the amount of work that goes into something this simple. I was hoping a few readers would enjoy it. You made my day!

  5. I’m not sure what use this knowledge will ever provide in my real life…but I enjoyed reading about it!

    The picture of the “bad” boy eating everything in sight makes me wonder if that’s why almost every anime cartoon has a character that goes crazy and overindulges in food when its time to eat.

    I can think of quite a few cartoons that have flaky characters that act like that.


  6. Very interesting post. I like it because I’m nosy and like learning weird things about other people.

    That’s interesting, that they put so much emphasis on the tummy. I didn’t know that diaphragmatic breathing was of Japanese origin.

    I found the breathing most interesting because ever since I sprained my ankle in August, I haven’t been able to do aerobics, and I’ve been forced to follow a program 100% base on that sort of thing. It’s very good for weight loss.

  7. DaCheese

    Diaphragmatic breathing is also taught in acting and related disciplines, mostly for better breath control when speaking/singing.

  8. Diaphragmatic breathing can be found in many fields. It was not discovered by the Japanese by any means. It is recorded by meditators of India thousands of years ago and I imagine it was known by warrior, farmers and many more prior — as DaCheese says.

    In horse riding, there is a tradition too.

  9. Fascinating entry, dude. I love when people take a close look at Hanzi and their cultural implications. One thing, though: In Chinese, it’s not true that most characters usually only have one reading. 多音字 are also quite prevalent in Mandarin (though, granted, not as much as in Japanese), and include not only changes in pronunciation, but also in tone.

  10. @ Zach,
    I guess it is a matter of definition of “usually”.
    My information was based on my personal language studies in Taiwan, Mainland and Japan. But after your comment I looked around for some stats on the issue but they are hard to find. Nonetheless, I found this page (in Japanese) that lists the main 多音字 in Chinese. They are just a handful, compared to the number of Chinese Characters! This page agrees that “in principle” Chinese characters have only one reading but there are exceptions and gives a list of many of the exceptions. But note that in the list, many of the exceptions are merely tone changes. Whereas in Japanese multiple readings is the rule.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not bragging that Japanese is harder than Chinese — but it is. 🙂
    The State Dept (my former employer) ranks languages for the difficulty of their employees to learn as an adult learner. Japanese is significantly above Chinese. Not to say that Chinese (esp. the tones and sounds) is not very hard!

  11. i LOVED this! learned a lot. thanks for putting this together.

  12. Glad you liked it Zero. Hope you like the follow-up one too.

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