Secrets Hidden in Japanese Names

One of the most common questions I get asked while living overseas is what my real name Hiroshi means.

My usual answer is something like, “Hiroshi could mean many different things, but my name means to ‘break through life with ambition’.”

As you wise readers may know, the meaning of a Japanese name is not determined by its sound but the kanji or Chinese characters used in the name.

In the old days in Japan, most people didn’t bother spending hours referring to the ancient myths or fortune tellers to come up with the perfect names for their precious babies.

The first sons/ daughters often had a kanji character “一” (one) in their names. The second children “二” (two), the third “三” (three), and so on.

My grandpa was the third son of the family, so his name was “三都彦” (Mitsuhiko). As you can see, the kanji “三” (three) is used.

Two of the superstar characters in rakugo are Hachigoro (八五郎) and Kumagoro (熊五郎).

You may have noticed, but the kanji character “五” (five) is used in both of their names.

That’s right. They were probably the fifth sons of the family.

So… what does this imply?

In the past, the first sons were the sole heirs of the family unless there were special reasons why they couldn’t act as the head of the family.

Inevitably, they received preferential treatments from their family and were sometimes even spoiled by their parents and relatives.

However, the second sons onward were just the supporting acts for the first sons.

What usually happened in the countryside in particular was to send non-heir sons to Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, or other large cities so that they would find their own means of supporting themselves.

So the names Hachigoro and Kumagoro imply that they were sort of outcasts whom their families probably didn’t care much about.

Rakugo is the art of the commoners.

Rakugo performers during the Edo period (1603-1868) did not even belong to the four social classes of the day: samurai warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants in the order of importance.

In fact, they belong to the “non-human” status.

Rakugo was an interpretation of this world from the rock bottom of the society.

This is what makes rakugo immensely human.

Eishi’s Secret Film Project Revealed!

How are you all doing? Eishi here AGAIN!

Thanks to my voice issues, I’ve been finding my creative outlet in writing this week. Hope you are not sick of reading my version of War and Peace.

The title today is a…

click bait…

but I am telling you more about the film project that I mentioned in another post.

It is an Asia New Zealand Foundation funded film project, and it will be directed by the dangerously talented film director/ academic extraordinaire, Fiona Amundsen.

This will probably become one of the most important works in my life as a rakugo performer and a human being.

It is all Fiona’s concept, and I just happen to be someone with the knowledge and skills that she needs to complete her project.

As a film director, an aikido practitioner, and a good human being who understands the utter stupidity of war, she came up with a concept to combine the remembrance/ reminder of the mistakes humans committed in WWII, the aikido concept of Zanshin, and the Japanese traditional storytelling of rakugo.

We connected closely especially because of our stance on war, and we have decided to create something that would hopefully show better options for fellow humans.

As some of you may know, I lost my great grandfather and other family members in Nagasaki, and my grandpa and great uncle were both hibakusha.

So I have a very strong reason to get involved in a project like this.

We have just started working together yesterday, so I thought this is a good time to let you know.

For those who want to know more about this project, please read Fiona’s interview. It was written for Tokyo Biennale, but we are trying to create the New Zealand version of this film/ installation.

Booze Drinking Giant Snake

Hi all, how’s everything going? Hope things are well over there!

Let’s begin today’s post by addressing the elephant in the room.

The title does sound like an enigmatic phrase on one of those funky Japanese t-shirts… or perhaps a rock band from Tokyo.

English is my second language after all.


Have you ever heard a Japanese person say “You drink a lot! Like a giant snake (uwabami)!” (よく飲むねえ。ウワバミだ。)

This is a rather archaic expression that you often come across in rakugo, but it is still used to playfully describe a person who drinks a lot.

In fact, my sister’s nickname was “Uwabami” when she was at university.

She was (possibly still is) a heavy drinker…

Recently, this expression made me wonder what its origin would be.

When did Japanese people start believing that large snakes drink a lot of alcohol?

The answer lies in the books “Kojiki” (古事記) and “Nihon Shoki” (日本書紀) that recorded our foundation myths.

They are like Genesis in the bible, but there are two books written from different perspectives.

I am sure there are many theories, but I learned at high school that Kojiki was written to educate the commoners about our beginning while Nihon Shoki acted more like an official document for the government.

According to these books, our first recorded giant snake was called Yamata no Orochi (やまたのおろち 八岐大蛇). This monster had eight heads and eight tails. As you can see in the pictures, he could’ve been more like a dragon.

Once a year, this rogue snake appeared and demanded the eight daughters of earthly deities called “Foot-Stroking-Elder”(アシナヅチ 足名椎命) and “Hand-Stroking Elder” (テナヅチ 手名椎命).

Their eight daughters were eaten, one by one, every year.

Now there was only one daughter left.

Then comes our hero Susanoo no Mikoto (スサノオノミコト 須佐之男命).

He was a god who had been kicked out of Heaven for tricking his sister Ameterasu-Ōmikami (天照大御神 あまてらすおおみかみ), the sun goddess of Japan.

Susanoo had an excellent idea!

He decided to take a lot of alcohol for the giant serpent (who probably should’ve dealt with his alcohol issues before too late) to get him drunk before slaying this monster.

His plan worked, and the last daughter of the couple with the unfortunate names survived.

Inside one of the eight tails was a sword called “Kusanagi no Tsurugi” (草薙の剣), which became one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan along with Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡) mirror and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉) jewel.

So there you go…

The Japanese expression “Uwabami” (giant snake) comes from the Yamata no Orochi story.

That’s all, really.

Hope you enjoyed it!

Image Attribution

Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年, Japanese, *1839, †1892), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Yamata no Orochi

The Next BIG Show!!!!!

Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind. 

– Terry Pratchett

Hi all, Eishi here!!!!! Hope you are doing well wherever you are in this world!!!!!

As Great Grandmaster Pratchett revealed, I am aware that an overuse of exclamation marks would make me look insane, but…

what would you expect from a rakugo performer, eh?


I am letting you know that I have just been invited to perform at the Taste of Japan in January 2021! (OK, one exclamation mark is sufficient now…)

Before committing to the gig, I really wanted to see the venue to make sure it was suited for rakugo, so I visited ASB Waterfront Theatre this afternoon to check it out and have a meeting.

OMG… it was one of the most beautiful theatres I’ve ever been!!! No wonder it is the home of Auckland Theatre Company!!!

I am only given 15 mins max, though…

Hmm, I am not known as the most succinct person.

What shall I perform… but WOW I am really excited!!!!!

Japanese Street Wisdom Podcast Episode 2 [Shimizuno Jirocho]

Hi all, Eishi here!!! How’s everything going?

As I mentioned in another blog post, I was voiceless for a while, but my voice is now about 90% back!!!

It’s about time for Episode 2 of my Japanese Street Wisdom Podcast.

In this episode, I will be talking about a very famous yakuza called Shimizuno Jirocho.

If you still remember what I said in the first episode, I did promise that this podcast would not be about yakuza, but here you go.

Me being me, I couldn’t resist it! Hope you’ll enjoy it!

My podcast is now available on Spotify as well!!!

Photo Attribution

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eishi’s Rakugo Commentary No.1 [Chotan 長短]

[The video is at the bottom.]

Hi there, how are you doing? Hope everything is well with you 🙂

As a part of my Online Rakugo Project, I have just decided to write commentaries about my stories so that you can understand and enjoy them better.

I am also secretly hoping that it would increase viewership magically.

I will be talking about the origins of the stories, techniques, and other trivia.

The first up is “Chotan” (長短) or “Long-Tempered vs. Short-Tempered”.

It is said that this story is based on “Wakan Rikutsu Monogatari” (和漢理屈物語), which was published in 1667.

This title, by the way, roughly translates as “Logical Tales from Japan and China”, but I have no idea what is so logical about it…

As the title suggests, the concept of “Chotan” originated in China, and the same story is found in “Xiao Fu” (笑府: Pronounced “Shouhu” in Japanese) written by Feng Menglong (1574–1646).

So this is actually a Chinese story if we go all the way back.

The premise of this rakugo is what would happen if someone with the shortest-temper becomes the best friend with someone who is extremely laid-back.

I was told by my master that this story is performed with face.

So… pay attention to my facial expressions to enjoy this story!

Feel free to ask me questions in the comment section below.


落語手帖 矢野誠一