Kanji For Lake Biwa: 琵琶 湖 (びわこ)

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Lake Biwa

Lake Biwa


Lake Biwa (琵琶 湖) is the largest freshwater body in Japan. It is located in the Shiga prefecture and provides a supply of fresh water to nearly 15 million people in the Kansai area. Therefore it is an important geographical part of Japan. Knowing the kanji for it when you want to look it up on the map would be helpful as well.


As I was trying to think of a way to remember these two kanji, I wasn’t so much focused on the characters themselves at first. What I wanted to know is why 琵琶 was chosen as the name for the lake. Coincidentally upon looking up the definition, this is actually a name of a Japanese stringed instrument, 琵琶, a short-necked fretted lute.

Biwa (琵琶) Lute

Biwa (琵琶) Lute

Supposedly it used to be quite popular before the Warring States Period (or Sengoku Period), which lasted from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century. During this time, the 琵琶 started to lose support. The Meiji Restoration period did not help either since Japan was trying to modernize. In the 1940s the 琵琶 was pretty much replaced with Western instruments.

As for why 琵琶 湖 was named the way it was, there is no definite answer. But it is largely believed that the name derives from this instrument, hence it uses those kanji. It may be the area where the instrument was first discovered or became very popular.

I decided not to focus on the individual definitions of the kanji since you will most likely not find them used outside of the name of this lake. But as a whole, you will see that each kanji has two 王 (おう) radicals on top, 王王. I like to think of those as the strings and frets of the instrument. Heck it may even be the reason why those kanji strokes were chosen. This might be enough to be able to recognize this compound without remembering the bottom parts. Just look for four 王 across a compound, and it is most likely 琵琶.

If you are more advanced, there is another interesting thing I found that might shed light in the naming. The bottom radical in 琵 is , which reads as ひ. And the bottom of the right one is , which reads は. ひはdoesn’t sound quite right, but at least the vowels match. However if you write them with their secondary sounds, like び and わ (actually は can also be pronounced like わ anyway as a topic marker), you get the びわ sound for 琵琶.

This not only helps me remember the kanji when I see them, but now I think I will be able to recall them from memory and write them out.