The Heart of Kanji: Great ambition


大 (dai, ookii) means “great or big.” This character represents a tall person who is standing.

Tai shi ­. calligraphy by Rev. Masato Kawahatsu

志 (Shi, kokorozashi) means “ambition.” The top part of this character depicts a samurai sword and the character below represents a human heart. Together, they depict a person with great ambition who will act like a samurai with a great fighting spirit.

A famous Japanese educator, Shoin Yoshida, wanted to see the Western world and snuck onto the first American ship that Japan had seen in its 270 years of isolation. However, he was caught and thrown in prison in Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

In confinement, he became a great intellectual. He studied and read books everyday. While the other prisoners made fun of him and told him that it was useless to read, he remained dedicated to the art of learning. He told the other prisoners, “It is better to read and study than to waste time being useless before death.” He believed that people should put their best efforts into improving themselves and helping society become better, despite dealing with a hopeless situation.

One by one, the inmates stopped taunting him and began to live with a more positive attitude. Seeking to possess his knowledge and wise spirit, more inmates began to ask him to teach lessons about what he had read and learned. Slowly, the behavior of the inmates who were learning from Yoshida began to affect life in prison. There were less fights and chaos, and many of the prisoners were released early for good behavior.

After Yoshida was released from prison, he started Terakoya, a small private school at his house. There was no entrance examination and no fee. He accepted anyone who wanted to study. Though he taught for only three or four years, many of his students became influential leaders in Japan. His school is said to have produced two prime ministers, seven members of the cabinet, governors and mayors, as well as two professors who established universities. During his lessons, he emphasized ambition.

The government ordered Yoshida’s execution because he had begun to criticize it publicly. Shortly before this occurred, he sent a letter to his student Shinsaku Takasugi. These were the answers that Yoshida provided in response to Takasugi’s questions about death:
• We may not love death, however we do not have to hate it.
• In this world, many people live physically, but are already dead spiritually.
• If we can work to live a life of value, we can die anytime and our legacy will live on.
• If we wish to accomplish something important in our life, we should live our lives working towards achieving this goal.
• We as humans should try to live with our best effort and not worry about death.
• We should keep great ambition beyond life and death.

Takasugi was moved by his teacher’s powerful messages. During political turmoil, Takasugi and 80 others defeated a group of 1,000 of their enemies in battle. The Meiji Era began soon after the battle. We can feel the effects of Yoshida’s influence and passion for ambition in the Japanese people even to this day.

With the fear of the coronavirus health scare in everyone’s thoughts, now is the time to remember and reflect on Yoshida’s thoughts on life, death and ambition. Let us try our best to maintain resilience and make sure that our actions continue to make this world a safer and happier place.

Rev. Masato Kawahatsu is a minister at the Konko Church of San Francisco and Konko Center of South San Francisco, who teaches shodo (Japanese calligraphy). He can be reached at or (415) 517-5563. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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