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What’s in a Japanese name? More than you might expect

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Last year I went to Yumenoshima Park in Tokyo’s Koto Ward to see a museum housing the 第五福竜丸 (Dai-go Fukuryu Maru, aka No. 5 Lucky Dragon), the ill-fated fishing boat that inadvertently sailed too close to a 水爆実験 (suibaku jikken, thermonuclear test) at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in March 1954.

This led me to wonder why many Japanese ships were named 丸 (maru); but nobody I asked seemed to have a satisfactory explanation. It eventually dawned on me that the authoritative “広辞苑 (Kojien)” dictionary ought to know, and in it I found an amazingly straight forward explanation: Maru was simply a variation on the male suffix “maro,” which is applied to personal names, as well as to swords and ships.

なるほど (Naruhodo, I see). The first “maro” who came to my mind was 喜多川歌麿 (Kitagawa Utamaro), a famous woodblock-print artist in the Edo Period (1603-1867). At any rate, this answers the question as to whether Japanese regard ships as male or female — they are definitely the former.

I had previously noticed something curious about the names of Japanese medications, whose final sound, with few exceptions, seemed to be “n” — whether their name was written in kanji or the katakana syllabary, and whether the drugs were of the 漢方 (kampō, traditional herbal) or Western-style. Examples abound: ヒロポン (Philopon), リポビタン (Lipovitan), 救心 (Kyushin), 龍角散 (Ryukakusan), etc.

Actually there’s a practical reason for this. In earlier times, names were printed on containers using 縦書き (tategaki, vertical writing), so people always knew which direction to read. But that was not the case in later years, when labels began to be printed in 横書き (yokogaki, horizontal writing). Some of these were written out from right to left and others from left to right.

To avoid confusion that might result in someone mistakenly taking the wrong drug, names were created that ended with ん or ン (the final n) — which is the one character that can only appear at the end of words.

Some drugs have colorful names, such as the above-mentioned Ryukakusan, whose characters mean “dragon horn powder.” The name for Taiko Pharmaceutical’s odiferous intestinal medicine Seirogan, developed around the time of the Russo-Japanese war, was originally written with the jingoistic kanji 征路丸, which meant “subjugate Russian pills.” Even now, the label on Taiko’s bottles still features a 喇叭 (rappa, army bugle). The third character, moreover, could also mean bullet, since the second character in the word for bullet 弾丸 (dangan), is the same as the word for pill.

After peace was restored, Seirogan retained the same pronunciation, but changed its first character so that the name read 正露丸 meaning “righteous dew pills.”

I’ve encountered lots of fascinating stories behind the names of companies and their products. When visiting the corporate headquarters of game-maker 任天堂 (Nintendo) in Kyoto years ago, I was told by the late game-designer Gunpei Yokoi that its founder had named the company from an old adage that goes 人事を尽くして天命を待つ、運を天に任せる (Jinji wo tsukushite tenmei wo matsu, un wo ten ni makaseru, to do one’s utmost and leave the rest to heaven, and leave the vagaries of fortune to heaven) followed by 堂 (do), meaning a shop.

Datsun, a once-familiar car marque recently revived in several overseas markets by Nissan Motor Co., has its origins in its predecessor firm DAT Motorcar Co. DAT was coined from the surnames of the three founding partners, Messrs. Den, Aoyama and Takeuchi. A new compact model launched in 1931 was named Datson — son of DAT. But the romanized spelling was quickly changed from “son” to “sun” because “son” in Japanese is a homonym for 損 (son, financial loss).

In Japanese, Datsun is pronounced ダットサン (Datto-san). And it just so happens that the word 脱兎 (datto) means to dash off like a scared rabbit, which implies that a Datto-san is capable of brisk acceleration — so no doubt helping to endear the car in the minds of the motoring public.

Datto opens the door to quite a few compound words beginning with 脱 (datsu), which can mean to omit, to remove, to disconnect or to reject. At first glance, its classifier appears to be the 4-stroke 月 (tsuki, moon), but this is actually an abbreviated form of the 6-stroke 肉 (niku, meat) and is called 肉月 (nikuzuki, literally “meat-moon”). When used as a verb it is read 脱ぐ (nugu, to take off or remove). For instance, a snake shedding its skin is said to 脱皮する (dappi suru).

Other words, typically followed by the verb する (suru, to do), would include 脱帽 (datsubō, to remove one’s hat); 脱線 (dassen, derailment of a train); 脱税 (datsuzei, tax evasion); 脱臼 (dakkyū, dislocation of a joint); 脱水 (dassui, dehydration); 脱塩 (datsuen, desalinization of sea water); and 脱獄 (datsugoku, to escape from prison). Two fairly recent additions to the list would be 脱北 (dappoku, to defect from North Korea) and 脱サラ (datsu-sara, to quit a salaried job and go into business for oneself).

  • http://wotthehec.blogspot.com/ Richard Laidlaw

    What a lovely read!

  • Ken@Japan

    Fascinating! Though I’m Japanese, I didn’t know the “ん/ン” background. I’ve been exposed to those pharmaceutical words without thoughts while I grew up and spent my entire life time here in Japan… Gotta know more about it :D

    Thanks for the article.

  • Haru

    Intriguing article. I’d like to gently point out that this part is incorrectly worded: “ん or ン (the final n) — which is the one character that can only appear at the end of words.” What the author meant to say was “ん” is the one character that can never BEGIN a word, which is why it was used in pharmaceutical nomenclature to indicate the direction from which the name should be read. There is a difference, because the author’s wording implies that “ん” cannot be found within a word, which is untrue. Please correct this.