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労働 and 労動



Japanese is a complicated language.


Japanese, a language with a rich history, incorporates Chinese symbols. Each symbol carries a distinct meaning, adding depth and complexity to the language.


There is this symbol 【労】. It means work, fatigue, effort, tiredness, and suffering. This symbol initially had the fire on the top. The bottom part represents power based on the shape of an arm, so it was a burning arm. (No, it’s not that feeling after going to a gym.)


One of the fascinating aspects of Japanese is its unique way of adding layers of meaning to symbols. The symbol 【労】 is a prime example of this.


We read as “Itawaru.” 【労る】This means to care or to sympathize. It means sympathizing with those in a weaker position, connecting with care, and paying attention to their needs. It sometimes means treating or curing the problems the weaker are facing.


Another way to read is “Negirau.” 【労う】This means encouraging, cheering, or raising those in need. This word came from ancient Japanese “Negu,” which meant to calm the God or pray to the Gods. The Japanese myth thought that God’s “work” caused natural phenomena. Therefore, we have to thank them or sometimes calm them. As humans worked, we applied the same thinking toward that effort.


Note here that we haven’t ignored the original meaning from the ancient Chinese. The additional meaning is added as a combo to the original meaning. We should acknowledge the work or the effort; therefore, we should sympathize and encourage.


There are also some structures. The boss uses the word to cheer the subordinates or the doctor to raise the patient. Someone in a “less” stressed position uses for those in a weaker position. Unfortunately, as society changes, we see many thoughts like self-encourage, but initially, this symbol meant someone else providing care.



Japanese use another symbol for work. We invented this symbol 【働】. Yes, “invented.” Although this symbol looks Chinese, this symbol is not used outside Japan. We felt that we still required additional symbols to represent some concepts on top of the almost 10000 symbols we imported from China. (In actuality, we use about 2000. In China, there’s more.) “Work” was one of the concepts.


This symbol is created by combining 【イ】, which represents humans. The second part means moving and initially working. The second part consists of 【重】, which is heavy, and 【力】, which is power. The Japanese felt that “work” wasn’t just about dealing with weight by power. As Taiichi Ohno described, add human “wisdom” in the front.



Another complexity of Japanese is that by combining different symbols, we make idioms.


The symbols I have used in this blog combined will mean “labor.” 【労働】I can say this is the original Japanese idiom since the last symbol was invented in Japan. This is different from a similar idiom 【労動】, which also means “labor."


The Zen-like riddle is: which “labor” do you have in your company?


Labor 【労動】; those who work hard with arms “burning.” Moving around and lifting heavy stuff without thoughts.


Labor 【労働】; those efforts are encouraged, cheered, and sympathized. Movements are with human wisdom.


The other day, I was following the forklift driver. Since the forklift is doing the heavy lifting, there is no hard work, right? Well, the radio was making noises that the material was delayed. I went to the area calling for materials and found many Kanban sitting around, but they were not appropriately triggered. Nobody was informed until the material ran out. And the layout doesn’t consider any proper material flow. The quantity in the box represented more than daily production, causing a “bull-whip” effect. No 5S and the forklift needs to search a random location. This kind of “fire” was happening on multiple stations. Then, the downtime was blamed on the forklift driver. Why? And more importantly, why are we treating the forklift driver with enormous pressure? “Respect for humans” is not a poster on the wall. It is about providing work with human wisdom. And, “forklift” isn’t an almighty solution.


Every language has a unique way of describing something. By paying attention to that difference, it provides exciting thoughts that we can apply today. Which “labor” do you have in your business?

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