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.

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