Having grown up in an army family, acronyms and military jargon (like AWOL — absent without leave) were a daily part of life.
One of my first encounters with Japan’s 兵語 (heigo, military terminology) came about when Kato-san, an older co-worker, jokingly made a reference to the term M検 (emu-ken, an “M inspection”), which in the old days doctors performed at military induction physicals to look for visible symptoms of sexually transmitted disease.
Ken, I supposed, was short for 検査 (kensa, test or examination). But what did the M stand for? Then Kato-san drew a letter M on a sheet of paper, and I immediately understood it to be a crude depiction of the anatomical shape of the, er, object being examined.
On a more serious note, because so much news coverage this summer is being devoted to the 70th anniversary of the end of 第二次世界大戦 (Dainiji Sekai Taisen, World War II), I’ve complied an overview of the words, phrases and concepts that found wide usage up to 1945, and which still crop up in news articles, TV period dramas and documentaries.
Between 1889 and 1947, Japan’s official name was 大日本帝国 (Dai-Nippon Teikoku, literally the Empire of Great Japan), just as 大英帝国 (Daiei Teikoku) referred to the British Empire.
With the country’s growing imperial ambitions came some undesirable baggage: 超国家主義 (chōkokkashugi, ultranationalism) and 軍国主義 (gunkokushugi, militarism), which led to 結集 (kesshū, regimentation) and 教え込み (oshiekomi, indoctrination) of the population, beginning from an early age. Every primary schooler was obliged to memorize and recite the proclamation, issued by Emperor Meiji in 1890, called the 教育勅語 (kyōiku chokugo, Imperial Rescript on Education), which reminded him or her of duties and obligations as a subject. A key passage went 一旦緩急アレバ義勇公ニ奉ジ (ittan kankyū areba giyū kō ni hō ji, “Should an emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the state”).
Typical wartime slogans included 滅私奉公 (messhi hōkō, “Deny the self, serve the public”), 贅沢は敵 (zeitaku wa teki, “Indulgence in luxuries is our enemy”) and 電力は戦力 (denryoku wa senryoku, “Electric power is fighting power”).
Western fashions were regarded as superfluous and decadent. Teachers and other public figures went about their business wearing the Japanese version of China’s “Mao suit”: brown- or khaki-colored tunics referred to as 一般国民服 (ippan kokumin fuku, wartime civilian clothes).
As the war dragged on, food shortages and other hardships became widespread. Small-denomination ceramic coins, called 陶貨 (tōka) were minted to conserve aluminum. While a few 戦争成金 (sensō narikin, war profiteers) flourished, 配給 (haikyū, rationing) became common and many basic commodities, such as rice, sugar and cooking oil, were available only by 切符制 (kippu-sei, the ration-card system). When gasoline supplies became depleted, cars were modified into 木炭自動車 (mokutan jidōsha, vehicles that ran on charcoal).
To enforce conformity and stifle dissent, people accused of lacking in sufficiently patriotic spirit were tagged with the epithet 非国民 (hikokumin — literally, “non-citizen”). Japan’s enemies were often referred to as 鬼畜 (kichiku, “demon-creature”), originally a Buddhist term meaning “brute” or “beast,” expanded to 鬼畜米英 (kichiku Beiei, bestial Americans and British) or 鬼畜米帝 (kichiku Beitei, bestial American imperialists).
While traditional tunes were not banned outright, recording companies cranked out plenty of 軍歌 (gunka, martial music), such as the mournful naval dirge 海行かば (Umi Yukaba, “If You Go to the Sea”), 同期の桜 (Dōki no sakura, “Cherry Blossoms from the Same Military Academy Class”) and 月月火水木金金 (Getsu, getsu, ka, sui, moku, kin, kin, “Monday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday”), whose message was that there were no days of rest for a fighting man.
The print media and cinema, needless to say, were subject to strict 検閲 (ken’etsu, censorship). Another policy, imposed in many sectors of society from 1940 onward, banned the use of so-called 敵性語 (tekiseigo, enemy language), which was extended to cover many non-native word borrowings. In sports, the term changed from スキー (sukii, skiing) to 雪滑 (setsukatsu, “snow sliding”), and スケート (sukēto, skating) became 氷滑 (hyōkatsu, “ice sliding”), to give two examples. In radio broadcasting, アナウンサー (anaunsā, announcer) became 放送員 (hōsōin, broadcaster) and マイクロホン (maikurohon, microphone) was 送話器 (sōwaki, “send-speech device”). Phonograph records were changed from レコード (rekōdo) to 音盤 (onban, “sound disc”).
The names of foods received similar treatment. コロッケ (korokke, croquettes) were renamed 油揚げ肉饅頭 (abura-age niku manjū, deep-fried meat buns). And カレーライス (karē raisu, curry over rice), a staple on Japanese navy ships, was dropped in favor of 辛味入汁掛飯 (karami-iri shiru kake meshi, spiced gravy poured over rice). In music, a piano became 洋琴 (yōkin, a “foreign lute”). And despite the fact that Italy was a fellow 枢軸国 (sūjikukoku, Axis power), even the almost universal “do-re-mi” musical scale was changed to ha-ni-ho-he-to-i-ro-ha.
For those wishing to expand their military vocabulary, I’ve assembled a separate glossary of useful terms that can be found below.
A useful lexicon of military-related Japanese terms
Here is a glossary of military terminology — 順不同 (junfudō, in no particular order) — to brush up on in time for the 70th anniversary of the end of 第二次世界大戦 (Dainiji Sekai Taisen, World War II):
兵隊募集 (heitai boshū, military recruitment)
軍事義務 (gunji gimu, compulsory military service)
徴兵 (chōhei, military conscription)
軍服 (gunpuku, uniform)
軍人手帳 (gunjin techō, a pocket-sized booklet carried by every soldier and sailor, containing the bearer’s identity and military record)
腕章 (wanshō, armband)
はちまき (hachimaki, headband)
千人針 (senninbari, a “thousand-stitch sash,” a sash sewn by women and worn by soldiers for good luck)
二等兵 (nitōhei, private [the lowest enlisted rank])
気をつけの姿勢で立つ (ki o tsuke no shisei de tatsu, to stand at attention)
安めの姿勢で立つ (yasume no shisei de tatsu, to stand at ease)
立ち番 (tachiban, person on guard duty)
階級 (kaikyū, rank)
将校 (shōkō, officer)
勲章 (kunshō, medals or decorations)
軍刀 (guntō, military sword, carried by officers)
鉄帽 (tetsubō, literally, “steel hat,” i.e., a helmet)
防暑帽 (bōshobō, a pith helmet)
帽垂れ (bōtare, cloth strips attached to the rear of a cap to keep the sun from the wearer’s neck)
背嚢 (hainō, a back pack)
落下傘 (rakkasan, parachute)
工兵 (kōhei, combat engineer)
十六条旭日旗 (jūrokujō kyokujitsu-ki, rising sun flag with 16 rays)
民兵 (minpei, militia)
兵営 (heiei, barracks)
本営 (hon’ei, headquarters)
司令官 (shireikan, commanding officer)
起床らっぱ (kishō rappa, morning reveille)
点呼 (tenko, roll call)
装備 (sōbi, equipment)
飯盒 (hangō, mess kit)
水筒 (suitō, [water] canteen)
歩兵銃 (hoheijū, infantry rifle)
機関銃 (kikanjū, machine gun)
弾丸 (dangan, bullet)
銃剣 (jūken, a “gun sword,” i.e., bayonet)
引鉄 (hikigane, trigger)
雷管 (raikan, detonator)
遊底 (yūtei, bolt of a rifle)
手投げ弾 (tenage-dan, a hand grenade)
前線 (zensen, front line)
迫撃砲 (hakugekihō, mortar)
戦車 (sensha, tank)
塹壕 (zangō, military trench)
蛸壺 (takotsubo, foxhole)
鉄条網 (tetsujōmō, barbed wire)
停戦線 (teisensen, armistice line)
無人地帯 (mujin chitai, no-man’s land)
爆弾 (bakudan, bomb)
地雷 (jirai, a land mine)
魚雷 (gyorai, a torpedo)
火炎放射器 (kaen hōsha-ki, flame thrower)
トーチカ (tōchika, a pillbox [from the Russian tochka])
占領軍 (senryōgun, army of occupation)
民間人 (minkanjin, civilian)
非戦闘員 (hi-sentōin, non-combatant)
衛生兵 (eiseihei, combat medic)
衛生下士官 (eiseikashikan, corpsman)
救急救命士 (kyūkyūkyūmeishi, paramedic)
担架 (tanka, a stretcher or litter)
従軍記者 (jūgun kisha, war correspondent)
従軍牧師 (jūgun bokushi, military chaplain)
軍票 (gunpyō, occupation currency or military payment certificates, used outside of Japan)
防空壕 (bōkūgō, air raid shelter)
防空電球 (bōkū denkyū, light bulbs for observing blackouts)
非常袋 (hijōbukuro, emergency kit)
観兵式 (kanpeishiki, military parade)
出征 (shussei, departure for the front)
休暇 (kyūka, leave)
除隊 (jotai, military discharge)
開戦準備 (kaisen junbi, preparation for war)
同盟国 (dōmeikoku, allied country)
枢軸国 (sūjikukoku, countries of the Axis pact)
連合国 (rengōkoku, the Allied countries)
最後通牒 (saigo tsūchō, ultimatum)
宣戦布告 (sensen fukoku, declaration of war)
遠征隊 (enseitai, expeditionary force)
掃討戦 (sōtōsen, mopping-up operation)
戦争症候群 (sensō shōkōgun, “shell shock” or post-traumatic stress disorder)
空襲 (kūshū, air raid)
持久戦 (jikyūsen, protracted warfare)
抵抗運動 (teikō undō, resistance movement)
略奪 (ryakudatsu, looting)
悪虐 (akugyaku, atrocity)
軍事裁判 (gunji saiban, military court martial)
戦犯 (senpan, war crime or war criminal)
銃殺刑 (jūsatsukei, execution by firing squad)
戦死 (senshi, to be killed in action)
殉国 (junkoku, to die for one’s country)
大和魂 (Yamato damashii, the Japanese fighting spirit)
玉砕 (gyokusai, literally “jade shards,” meaning an honorable death or death without surrender. Sometimes referred to in English as “banzai charge.”)
弔電 (chōden, telegram of condolence informing of someone’s death — also called お悔やみ電報 okuyami denpō)
竹槍 (takeyari, bamboo spear or, figuratively, people’s last line of defense against invaders)
白旗を揚げる (shirahata o ageru, raise a white flag of truce)
無条件降伏 (mujōken kōfuku, unconditional surrender)
捕虜収容所 (horyo shūyōjo, prisoner of war camp)