Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Up, Down, Left, Right in Japanese - And Words With 上下左右 Kanji

If you're reading this article, chances are you are trying to setup the controls in Japanese PC game and can't remember which kanji is for "right" and which one is "left." But worry not, I'll tell you which ones are those and "up" and "down" too!

As you can see below, half of the directions in kanji are easy:
  • ue
  • migi
  • shita
  • hidari

Here's an image:

Up, down, left, right in Japanese as an image showing the four directions and their kanji: ue 上 shita 下 hidari 左 migi 右

To say the axes, "vertical" and "horizontal" there are two ways. You can say tate 縦 and yoko 横 if you mean actually "vertical" and "horizontal," or you can say jouge 上下 and sayuu 左右 if you mean "up and down" and "left and right."

The word sayuu 左右 is also a verb that means "to influence" so watch out for that.

A given "direction" in English is a houkou 方向. The directions up and down plus eight cardinal directions are sometimes called jippou 十方, literally "ten directions," or pretty much "every direction."


Now I'm pretty sure nobody is ever going to need a mnemonic for ue 上 and shita 下. I mean, look at those things, they are literally pointing up and down respectively. You can even draw a triangle around them and you'll have an upward and downward pointing triangle.

The 上 kanji, Japanese word ue meaning "up," morphing into an upwards triangle and then into an illuminati meme

For migi 右 and hidari 左, however, things might get a little complicated. If you look closely, the 右 kanji has a 口 radical. The kuchi 口 kanji looks like the ro ロ katakana, and ro starts with r, which is the same letter which the word "right" starts with. So there is one.

If you are right-handed, just imagine the square looks like a fist and envision punching someone with your "right" hand.

Similar Words and Kanji

As always, it's important to take care not to mix up one word with another, specially in Japanese where that happens all the fucking time. In case of these words, beware of:
  • tomeru. kinshi. 止める。禁止。
    To stop. Forbidden. (because the kanji is similar to ue 上)
  • shita. shita. 舌。した。
    Tongue. Did. (because shita 下 has the same reading)
  • ishi
    Stone. (because migi 右 looks like exactly the same thing)

Related Words

There are many Japanese words that have to do with direction, specially up and down, and because of this they share one or more of the directional kanji and of course their readings. Usually the on'yomi readings.

Since it can be very confusing when you find one of these words, here are the main ones for you.

Giving and Receiving

The kanji 上 and 下 very often appear in the words ageru ageru 上げる and kudasai 下さい. These words have to do with giving and receiving in Japanese and have (almost) nothing to do with up and down.

You can read about them in Ageru, Kureru and  Morau.

Raising, Rising and Lowering

The words ageru 上げる, agaru 上がる, sageru 下げる and sagaru 下がる refer to raising and lowering something or rising and lowering.
  • ageru. agaru. 上げる。上がる。
    To raise. To rise. (besides other meanings)
  • sageru. sagaru. 下げる。下がる。
    To lower. (besides other meanings)

The difference between ageru and agaru and sageru and sagaru is that ageru and sageru are transitive verbs (something raises or lowers something else) while agaru and sagaru are intransitive verbs. (something lowers or rises)

For example, in Japanese games there are often messages like this: X no shubiryoku ga agatta Xの守備力が上がった, "the defense power of X has risen." The intransitive verb is used here because the message doesn't say why or what has raisen the defense power of the X character, it only says it has risen.

Ascending and Descending

The words noboru 上る and kudaru 下る (or noboru 登る or noboru 昇る) mean something is ascending or descending.

Other kanji are used when it's more specific, for example, the noboru 登る one means to "climb" a mountain or something, not just generically "ascend."

In the manga and anime Initial D when they go uphill they call it the nobori 上り, literally "ascend," and when they go downhill, they call it kudari 下り, literally "descend."

Dropping and Handing Down

The words orosu 下ろす and kudasu 下す mean to "drop" and to "hand down" respectively.

Usually, in anime, kudasu 下す refers to giving orders, or "handing down" orders, if you want.

The word orosu 下ろす is also often written orosu 降ろす and can mean to "drop" something, to "drop off" someone (a passenger), etc. It is transitive. The intransitive "drop" would be ochiru 堕ちる.


The words jouzu 上手 and heta 下手, literally "up hand" and "down hand," are some common weird words that mean "skilled" and "unskilled" respectively.

Though I say "skilled" and "unskilled" their meanings are not exactly that because you never say these words in English. They can be used to say someone did a good job (jouzu), or they suck at drawing (heta).

The word umai 上手い is an adjective that's synonym with jouzu 上手.

Body Parts

The easiest one are body parts. Usually, when talking about a body part you have two of, you refer to the right one by prefixing migi and the left one by prefixing hidari.

So if you have two "eyes," me 目, the "left eye" is hidari me 左目, the "right eye" is migi me 右目. The "left hand" is hidari te 左手, the "right hand" is migi te 右手, and so on.

Although not as common, joutai 上体 and katai 下体 refer to the "upper part of the body" and the "lower part of the body" respectively. The "body"  being karada 体 in Japanese.

See the list of body parts in Japanese for more info.


Some words for articles of clothing in Japanese have ue 上 and shita 下 in them (or other reading). Examples:
  • shitagi 下着
    Underwear. Underpants. Panties.
  • uwagi 上着
    Jacket. Coat.
  • kutsushita 靴下
    Socks. (they go under the "shoes," kutsu 靴)


You must have gotten it by now. Most of the words with directions use "up" and "down," and up is always better. We all know it. Up is superior, down is inferior. Literally. Anyway here is some more Japanese vocabulary:
  • gehin 下品
  • jouhin 上品
  • joushi 上司
    One's superior. (manager, boss)
  • shitagaki 下書き
    Sketch. (drawing). Draft.
  • gekou 下校
    Leaving school (to go home).
  • geshuku 下宿
  • geshuku-ya 下宿屋
    Lodging house.

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