“Mu” (無): The Japanese word that means nothing

By | January 15, 2019

In this post I’d like to talk about nothing. No, I’m not trying to be nostalgic about the hit comedy show Seinfield from the 90s––I’m trying to describe the Japanese word “mu” (often written in kanji as 無), which essentially means “nothing”.

Unlike many of the words I talk about in this blog, the word “mu” isn’t used that often in everyday conversation. In fact, hearing this word for the first time in months is what triggered me to write this article. You will, however, see this word commonly used in kanji, especially as the first letter of a compound. In these cases, is generally stands for “nothing” or “not”:

  • 無理 (muri): impossible, unreasonable
  • 無限 (mugen): infinite
  • 無数 (musuu): innumerable, countless
  • 無意味 (muimi): meaningless

In English, you’ll see we have a few different ways to translate words with “mu”, such as “in-“, “im-“, or “-less”, though there are other cases besides these. Regardless, it’s good to know 無 can be used this way, as it helps you guess the meaning to new words you may have seen before (ex: 無宗教). While making up your own words is always risky, I think you could add “mu-” to many words and your meaning would still get across. (Note: there are some cases where 無 is pronounced as ”bu”, like in 無精 (bushou))

But back to the reason I decided to write a post about this word. While “nothing” roughly captures some of the nuances of “mu”, frankly I like the way “mu” sounds and think it’s great there is a single-syllable word for the concept of nothingness. I feel that often words that are fundamental or very important in life are written with a small number of characters or syllables (look at many of the parts of the body, for example, many are only one or two characters in Japanese: te, ha, me, kata, ude, ashi, etc.).

Also, 無 has additional connotations to it related to religion or philosophy. For example, besides the normal “nothing” (何もない) definition, my dictionary lists:

〘仏〙事物も現象も全く存在しないこと

This can be roughly translated to:

(Buddhism) the state where absolutely no things or phenomena exist.

Another dictionary (Goo) has this interesting definition:

禅宗で、経験・知識を得る以前の純粋な意識

Roughly translated to,

In Zen Buddhism, the pure state of consciousness before any experiences or knowledge has been acquired.

For sure, the various deep nuances of this word give it a mysterious atmosphere. Perhaps that is why there is a Japanese magazine named “mu plus” that is about UFOs, unexplanable events, and supernatural powers––although the “mu” there is actually written in katakana as “ム”.

Finally, it’s convenient to know that the Japanese word for the non-existence of nonliving things, nai (ない) can also be written with the same kanji, 無い (nai). Its antonym is aru (used for positive existence), which can be written with kanji as 有る or 在る. The former kanji (有) is used in many other words to mean “existence”, for example “有無” (umu), which is hard to find a single word in English for but conceptually captures the duality of something existing or not. This is used in phrases like 有無を確認する (umu wo kakunin suru), meaning to confirm whether something is present/existing or not.

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