Japanese vocabulary: the power of 力 (“chikara”)

By | June 21, 2021


In this article I’d like to go over the Japanese kanji 力 (which can be read “chikara”, “ryoku”, or “riki”), including some compounds that are made with it. This kanji has a bunch of meanings, but the majority of them can be categorized as “power”, “force”, or “energy”. 

But before we get too far I wanted to talk about how the kanji 力 can be deceiving because it looks almost exactly like a hirana “ka” letter (カ). At first you might think there is some key difference, but if you compare them back-to-back you see they are nearly identical: 力カ. Can you tell which is which? The first is “power” and the second is a katakana “ka”. While the former is slightly larger and the horizontal stroke is straighter, for the most part you just have to use context to figure out which is which. (Note: in more elaborate fonts you would likely be able to tell apart the difference more easily.)

When 力 is used by itself (in other words, not in a compound), it is pronounced “chikara”, and can be used as noun. There are many uses, but I’ll cover a few I see somewhat frequently, starting with this:

  • 彼の肩にが入っています。 (kare no kata ni chikara ga haitte imasu)

Literally this says something like “There is power/force in his shoulders”, and at first this may be a bit hard to understand what it really means. It turns out this can be understood in terms of having unnecessary strength or tension in the body, as in:

  • He has tension in his shoulders.

This use was intransitive (meaning there is no direct object for the main verb). Now let’s look at one more usage that is transitive (meaning there is a direct object for the main verb):

  • 最近、マーケティングにを入れています。 (saikin, maaketingu ni chikara wo irete imasu)

Literally this says “recently, [subject] have/has been putting power into marketing,” where the subject is inferred from the context. But again we need to think more metaphorically to understand things properly. It turns out “力を入れる” (chikara o ireru) is a set phrase than means putting focus or effort into some endeavor. (It’s an expression that is used more in business than daily life, in my opinion.)

So we can translate the above as:

  • Lately, I’ve been focusing on marketing.

For another example, let’s imagine that you are in a difficult situation. You could ask someone the following:

  • になってもらえませんか? (chikara ni natte moraemasen ka?)

This literally means something like “Can I have you become power for me?”. But once we understand “力になる” (chikara ni naru) is a set phrase meaning “to provide aid or support” it makes more sense.

  • Would you be able to help me out?

I should point out that this expression sounds a little stiff to me, and I wouldn’t expect people who are on very friendly terms to use it. 「手伝ってもらえませんか?」(”Would you able to help me?”) would be a more broadly applicable expression.

While I could go over more examples of using 力 as a word, to be honest I think it is much more frequently used in compounds, where is is often pronounced “ryoku” (though there are some other readings which I will talk about below). I feel the most common usage is when it is used as a suffix to represent the ability to do something, often measured in degrees instead of just yes/no.

One of the simplest example of this (especially helpful for Japanese learners) is how you can add after the word for a language to make a compound word that expresses the ability to read/write/speak/listen in that language, basically the degree of fluency. Let’s look at an example of this usage:

  • 僕の日本語はまだまだです。 (boku no nihongoryoku wa mada mada desu)
  • My Japanese ability isn’t good enough yet.

You might have noticed that “good enough” isn’t literally in the Japanese sentence. Things are often expressed in Japanese using the bare minimum words, and the sentence here literally says “My Japanese ability is not yet,” which doesn’t quite sound good in English, hence the nonliteral translation. 

Another expression that is often used with ~力 words is 身につける (mi ni tsukeru). This literally means “attach to the body”, but as an expression it means closer to “learn”.

  • どうやって日本語を身につけますか? (dou yatte nihongoryoku wo mi ni tsukemasu ka?”)
  • How do I improve my Japanese ability?

Another way to talk about improving an ability is with the verb 上げる (“ageru”), which means “to raise”

  • 英語を上げる方法を教えてください (eigoryoku wo ageru houhou o oshiete kudasai).
  • Please teach me a way to improve my English ability.

There are many words that have 力 as a suffix. Here is a list of a few common examples of this pattern:

  • 行動力 (koudou ryoku): Ability to take action
  • 判断力 (handan ryoku): Ability to make decisions
  • 思考力 (shikou ryoku): Ability to think
  • 表現力 (hyougen ryoku): Ability to express (oneself, etc.)
  • 会話力 (kaiwa ryoku): Ability to have a conversation (often referring to a foreign language)

Be careful though, as there are words that contain 力 at the end that don’t follow this same pattern. For example 腕力 (“wan’ryoku”), which means “physical power”.  Another one that is easy to remember is 馬力, which comes from “horse” + power”, and unsurprisingly means “horse power” (like that which is used to measure the strength of an engine). But the reading of 馬力 is not what you would expect, it is actually “bariki”.

It turns out that “riki” reading is also used for some other words, such as 力士 (“rikishi”) which means “Sumo wrestler”.

There are actually some compounds that use the “chikara” reading (what is called the “kunyomi”), or a variation of it:

  • 持ち (chikara mochi) = a strong person (literally: “holder of power”)
  • 馬鹿 (baka jikara) = an unbelievably strong power (literally: “stupid power”)
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