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.

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

Cosmetics of Edo: Am I Beautiful?

Our desire for beauty, whether you are a man or a woman, is universal.

If we had a choice, most of us would probably opt in for looking gorgeous than the other way around. (To avoid misunderstanding and potential loss of readership, I would like to add that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

The people of Edo (1603-1868) were no different.

Readers, be prepared to be surprised by what they used for cosmetics to stay youthful.

The most common beauty product was nuka or rice bran.

They put rice bran in a bag and washed their body with it.

It is still sold in Japan, and I have tried it a few times myself. It actually works, and your skin will be noticeably smoother.

They also used funori, a kind of seaweed.

It was used as hair product to keep their hair nice and shiny. They melted it in hot water and mixed with other ingredients like flour.

But the ultimate beauty product of Edo was…

Drum roll, please…

Japanese bush warbler or uguisu’s waste.

They smeared this bird’s… ahem… poop on their faces!!!

It was very expensive and cost a fortune.

I have no idea how they collected it, but that will be my next research topic.

And guess what, it is STILL used in Japan though it isn’t common, and you can purchase it online wherever you are in the world.

If you ever decide to give it a go, please send me the before and after photos.

I am very curious.

Photo Attribution

Alpsdake, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fox Deities and Japanese Fireworks

What I miss the most about Japanese summer is those amazing fireworks.

They are inseparable from my childhood memories of summer festivals and make me very, very nostalgic!

If you have been to a firework event in Japan, you might have heard some people shout “Tamaya! Kagiya!” (たまや!かぎや!). These calls are archaic, but I still heard them when I was growing up in a small town near Yokohama.

As you Japanese culture enthusiasts may know, these are the names of the most famous firework makers from the Edo period.

Kagiya (鍵屋 かぎや) started operating in 1659 and still exists even today. Tamaya (玉屋 たまや) was established in 1810 but shut down in 1843 due to an accidental fire.


You may have known the origins of the firework calls, but did you know where the names of these firework makers (Tamaya/ Kagiya) were from?

The answer is fox deities.

Fox deity worship was a very common form of spirituality during the Edo period (1603-1868). You can still see many shrines dedicated to them all over Japan.

There were at least three in my small neighborhood, and there was one at my primary school. They are literally all over Japan even today. Not many people now actually worship them, but they still treat these shrines with respect.

Now look at the picture above. Can you see that the fox has a key in his mouth? (It’s not a sword, by the way!)

A key is “kagi” in Japanese. So “Kagiya” literally means a “key shop”.

Another common item fox deities carry is a ball that is similar to the one dragons carry.

A ball is “Tama”…

You got it right. “Tamaya” literally means a “ball shop”.

So these two firework makers got their names inspired by the fox deities.

I don’t think many Japanese know this, so if you do your Japanese friends will be impressed 😁

See you next time!



Rotten Limbs and The Japanese Art of Tenacious Wish-Making

Hi all, Eishi here! How’s your week going so far?

The one-eyed ornament on my rakugo cushion above is called a daruma.

The word “daruma” is from a Sanskrit word dharma, which means the “cosmic law and order” as revealed by the Buddha.

It’s said that this Japanese lucky charm was inspired by the famous Shaolin monk, Bodhidharma, who is often regarded as the founder of Chan Buddhism in China.

“Chan”, by the way, is “Zen” in Japanese.

I don’t know if it’s true, but a legend goes that Bodhidharma pursued zen until his limbs rotted- this is why daruma ornaments don’t have their limbs.

Daruma is often seen as an incarnation of tenacity, and it is associated with a Japanese saying “Nanakorobi Yaoki” (七転び八起き ななころびやおき ), which means “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

Because of this origin, it is often used to make a wish in Japan.

“Making a wish” might sound a bit light, so it is more like setting a goal that you really want to accomplish and ask something beyond our understanding for a guidance.

Here are the steps we normally follow:

Step 1: Enter daruma’s LEFT eye as you make a wish.

Step 2: Work hard and achieve the goal.

Step 3: Enter daruma’s RIGHT eye.

Step 4: Return daruma to a temple/ shrine to be consecrated and burned.

* It is recommended to be returned at the end of the year whether you have accomplished your goal or not.

So… I brought my daruma to New Zealand about a decade ago.

My goal was quite vague, but it was to stand at the starting line as a performer.

Though I have performed on many, many stages, I didn’t feel like I was quite there yet (Japanese stoicism speaking).

But when the lockdown started, I suddenly felt like I was finally ready to start the race.

I think I am ready.

So I finally filled my drauma’s right eye.

I am just about to begin the new chapter of my life as a performer!

I will take my daruma home when I can finally visit Japan after all this is over 🙂

Portuguese Words That Became Japanese- There Are More Than You Think!

Some time ago, I was listening to a rakugo story called “Gamano Abura” (蝦蟇の油 がまのあぶら) and came across a word that I did not understand.

The word was “manteika” (マンテイカ).

It made no sense whatsoever to me.

I looked up the word in my beloved rakugo dictionary (yes, there is such a thing!) and finally found out the meaning!

Of course, I didn’t understand it because it was a Portuguese word that meant “butter” (manteiga).

But in Japan, manteika meant fat from inoshishi (猪 いのしし; Japanese wild boars) or pigs, and it was used as an ointment for medical purposes.

You may not be aware of how crucial Portugal was to Japan as these two countries are literally located on the opposite sides of the word- the west end of Europe and Far East.

In 1543, the Portuguese arrived in Japan and became the first westerners to land on the country of the rising sun (some theory says it was actually 1541). They even introduced us to… guns.

Soon after in 1549, the Spanish missionaries followed and brought Christianity to Japan. Therefore, Portugal and Spain became our first portals to the western world. As Portugal was under the Spanish rule between 1581 and 1640, they were sort of under the same umbrella back then.

Naturally, the Japanese language was influenced by Portuguese/ Spanish from very early on.

“Tempura” was originally a Portuguese word as well. It was from “tempero”. The Portuguese introduced the deep frying technique to Japan, so tempura was originally NOT a Japanese dish.

Here are other Portuguese words that have become Japanese, which we still use today:

Buranko (ブランコ; from balanço) = swing

Furasuko (フラスコ; from frasco) = flask (for experiment)

Jouro (じょうろ; from jarro) = watering can

Kappa (かっぱ; from capa) = rain jacket

Karuta (カルタ; from carta) = a kind of Japanese card game

Japanese women playing karuta (circa 1900)

Konpeitou (こんぺいとう 金平糖; from confeito) = Japanese sweets as in the photo below

Konpeitou (こんぺいとう 金平糖)

Koppu (コップ; from copo) = cup

Miira (ミイラ; from mirra) = mummy (as in an Egyptian mummy, not a British mummy 😉 )

Shabon (シャボン; from sabão) = bubbles from soap





Midori / CC BY-SA (