Dear Alice,

This past weekend I was having a relaxing wander around Shimoda harbor, enjoying the boats and birds, when I wondered for the umpteenth time why the heck all Japanese boats seem to be called the something-or-other maru . And I remembered that my grandfather, who was in the merchant marines, used to refer to Japanese vessels as "maru boats." Is there some law that requires Japanese ship names to have maru at the end?
Stephen J., Shizuoka

Dear Stephen,

I've wondered about that myself and was more than happy to take up your question. In particular, I was intrigued by what you said about your grandfather, and curious to know if the term "maru boat" was widely used or just one sailor's personal figure of speech. After a bit of research, I learned that it was once common parlance in international shipping circles to refer to Japanese commercial vessels as "maru boats" or "maru ships." And with good reason: there's a very long tradition in Japan of naming ships with "maru" on the end.

One of the oldest recorded examples is a ship called the Bando-maru, mentioned in a text from way back in 1187. A few centuries later, you've got the Nippon-maru, the flagship for General Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). And in the late 19th century, the Tokugawa shogunate ordered a warship from Holland and named it the Kanrin-maru.

There are various explanations for how the suffix came about, but the most accepted theory seems to be that it evolved from the now-archaic male pronoun maro. Around the Nara Period (710-794), it was common, as a sign of respect and affection, to attach maro to the names of people, dogs and important objects such as musical instruments and swords.

Eventually, there was a phonic change from "maro" to "maru," part of a more general shift of some "o" sounds to "u" sounds.

The suffix is not only attached to the names of ships. Examples of maru names in the world of music are a koto named Shishi-maru and a shakuhachi named Fuji-maru. In terms of fighting instruments, there was a famous sword named the Onikiri-maru. I toyed with possible translations of that because I find it ironic that anyone would give a pet name to a lethal weapon. How about "Devil Slicer, Ol' Buddy?"

In 1900, the Meiji government passed a law stating it was "desirable" (nozomashii) to use maru on the end of ship names, and virtually all mercantile vessels were in compliance. But as history buffs can tell you, maru wasn't used when naming military and other noncommercial boats. Japanese battleships were generally identified using the old names for regions of Japan, the most famous examples from World War II being the battleships Yamato (the area now called Nara) and Musashi (the old name for most of what is now Tokyo, Saitama Prefecture and Kanagawa Prefecture). Similar conventions existed for other types of vessels.

As an aside, another reader asked why Japanese ship names are sometimes written "backward" (i.e., from right to left horizontally) on the prow. That's because boat names are written from bow (front) to stern (back). So on the port (left) side of a boat, the name will be written left to right. But if you go around to the starboard (right) side, you'll see that the name is written right to left.

The Meiji shipping law was eventually repealed and it's becoming more common to give commercial ships non-maru names. I'm all for variety, but I think there's still some mileage in the old maru pattern. How about a boat named the Marsh-maru? The Skip-2-maru? The Chotto Ko-maru?