That’s the original Japanese title (元禄忠臣蔵) of the 1941 Kenji Mizoguchi film known in English as The 47 Ronin; I finally watched it (it’s hard to fit a four-hour slot of time into one’s day) and enjoyed it greatly. I’ve long loved the 1748 puppet play by Takeda Izumo et al. (which I have in this translation), which changes the historical names and dates because it was too close to the incidents of 1701-03 (the Tokugawa shogunate, like many governments, was made nervous by topical art), while the Mizoguchi film reverts to the original ones, but the basic story is the same, simple and effective: a rash young noble is ordered to commit suicide after attacking an older one, and his faithful retainers (now masterless samurai, or ronin), after going their ways and waiting over a year to dispel suspicion, rejoin and avenge their master. I enjoyed the film a great deal, though I was taken aback when after three hours and what I thought was the climax it went on to explore a completely unexpected and rather kinky romantic subplot. But I’m left with a couple of language-related questions.

1) The title means ‘the Chūshingura (treasury of loyal retainers) of the Genroku era,” but what does “Genroku” mean? The Random House Dictionary says it’s from “M[iddle]Chin[ese], equiv. to Chin yuán original, first + good fortune,” but A dictionary of Japanese loanwords (1997) by Toshie M. Evans says it’s “gen big + roku fortune”: is the first element ‘original’ or ‘big’? Or is there no way of knowing what they meant by it back in 1688?

2) The suicides involved are by seppuku, and that is the word used almost all through the movie—but when the ronin gather before their master’s grave, they start using the word harakiri, which surprised me, as I always thought it was a vulgar term (used by ignorant Westerners). Is this a case of warriors letting their hair down once they’ve achieved their goal, or is something else going on? As always, I will be grateful to those willing to share their knowledge.


  1. You might want to see this version.
    Chushingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki – 1962 color film directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.

  2. blahblahblah says

    onyomi vs. kunyomi

  3. A Japanese emperor, upon ascending to the throne, takes a name for his reign. That name is used to mark the date on official documents during the reign and is later used to refer to the emperor after his death. Genroku was the name chosen by Higashiyama when he began his reign. Wiki gives it as “Original fortune”.
    As far as seppuku vs harakiri, I think that these days the former is a more literary term while the latter is more common in speech.

  4. A Japanese emperor, upon ascending to the throne, takes a name for his reign. That name is used to mark the date on official documents during the reign and is later used to refer to the emperor after his death.
    That sounds like the Roman emperors too.

  5. The 元禄 era, fyi, ran 1688-1703.

  6. As far as meaning of the reign name 元禄, it probably meant or signified something like the “origin or source of good fortune.”

  7. Betcha can’t wait for the Keanu Reeves version…

  8. According to the Wikipedia page all pronunciations are in usage (but they seem to point out that the ‘harakiri’ reading was introduced by [Japanese] scholars around 1900:腹切り#.E5.88.87.E8.85.B9.E3.81.AB.E9.96.A2.E3.81.99.E3.82.8B.E7.A0.94.E7.A9.B6).
    According to my own anecdotal knowledge, the ‘harakiri’ reading is indeed mostly a westerner “misread” of the word (it is much easier to infer ‘harakiri’ than ‘seppuku’ from the kanji 腹切 for somebody with only limited knowledge of Japanese). However, I was also told that, following Western overuse of the “wrong” reading, it had re-entered Japanese as an acceptable alternative to ‘seppuku’, even for native Japanese. Don’t quote me on that.
    1941 sounds a little early for that, but since the whole seppuku/harakiri mistranslation probably dates back to early Meiji, it is credible.

  9. As it has with so many, many things, Sanrio (Hello Kitty) has made their own version of the chushingura.
    Sadly, I only managed to collect five of these before they disappeared off the shelves….

  10. Funny, I thought Genroku had something to do with revolving sushi restaurants….

  11. Wiki gives it as “Original fortune”.
    I know, but this is the kind of thing I don’t trust Wiki on unless there’s a convincing reference. I’m happier to take Doc Rock’s word for “origin or source of good fortune.”
    You might want to see this version.
    I think I did; at least, I definitely saw one non-Mizoguchi version years ago, and it may well have been that one.
    Betcha can’t wait for the Keanu Reeves version…
    I thought you were kidding, but sadly, no. I can only hope it never makes it to the screen.

  12. Not that I have anything against Keanu Reeves, but I think we can all imagine what the film would be like from this:
    The film will tell a stylized version of the story, mixing fantasy elements of the sort seen in “The Lord of the Rings” pics, with gritty battle scenes akin to those in films such as “Gladiator.”

  13. To clarify what Ryan said, that is exactly the case for Emperors from the Meiji era onward. Before Meiji, there were many smaller eras within the reign of one emperor, created for a variety of reasons. The names are usually just hopefully auspicious re-phrasings of ‘good fortune’ and ‘strong virtue.’
    Also, the difference between ‘seppuku’ and ‘harakiri’ is one of on’yomi vs. kun’yomi. I wouldn’t say that one is necessarily more vulgar than the other, but ‘harakiri’ really evokes the whole slicing-the-stomach thing for any speaker of Japanese. With its “Chinese” sound, ‘seppuku’ can seem more abstract. Westerners probably favored ‘harakiri’ for reasons of phonetic ease. The corruption harry-carry fits in nicely with the established pattern of kayree-okee and ka-rahtty.

  14. Oh, and, the Genroku era was named quite appropriately. It is considered the cultural flowering of the Tokugawa period, with the author Ihara Saikaku, playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro I, ukiyo-e artist Moronobu and countless other seminal figures producing their greatest works. It’s a fascinating period to research!

  15. “I know, but this is the kind of thing I don’t trust Wiki on unless there’s a convincing reference. I’m happier to take Doc Rock’s word for “origin or source of good fortune.”
    Except that it is an ungrammatical reading because it puts the syntax backwards and also because the likelier word for “source” or “origin” is 源 in Chinese, and presumably for a formal usage like a reign title the Japanese would follow that as closely as possible.
    元 means “first, primary, original”. You find in the names of first-born sons, that kind of use. The meanings are expressed with one word in English; that’s a point of similarity. And the concepts are inded linked. But that doesn’t make the words interchangeable

  16. komfo,amonan says

    A Japanese emperor, upon ascending to the throne, takes a name for his reign. That name is used to mark the date on official documents during the reign and is later used to refer to the emperor after his death.

    That sounds like the Roman emperors too.

    marie-lucie, AFAIK the Romans indicated years by naming the consuls in office at that time, & then later also used the ‘ab urbe condita’ phrasing, counting the number of years from the supposed founding of the city (usually 753 BC).

  17. marie-lucie says

    komfo,amonan, I know about the consuls, but they did not take different names. At least some of the emperors did, starting with the first one. In older French literature, you also find dates referred to as, for instance, “in the Xth year of the reign of Henri IV”, rather than by numbers (although those were also used, but presumably not in ordinary conversation). And kings sometimes took different names on their accession, like Popes still do nowadays.

  18. komfo,amonan says

    Ah my bad, m-l. I oddly thought you were referring to the dating part, rather than the regnal name part.
    The emperors didn’t generally change their names upon accession, except to add Augustus and Caesar to them. Often they changed their names earlier in life. And generally the name we know them by is not the name their subjects knew them by.
    I have heard that if the Prince of Wales accedes he will reign as George VII, George being his fourth given name, & Charles, like John, being a name now discredited for British monarchs.

  19. Not so much discredited as tricky – what number would he use? Don’t want to alienate the Scots (more than they already are)…

  20. komfo,amonan says

    Aha! Haha!
    Wait, is that really why?

  21. By the way, I forgot to ask in the post itself: does anybody know anything about Mayama Chūshingura, apparently the source for the Mizoguchi film? (See, e.g., here.) I find it mentioned in that context in several places, but with no other information (date? author?).

  22. Hat: According to Brian Powell’s 1990 Kabuki in Modern Japan: Mayama Seika and His Plays, Mayama is the creator of the Genroku Chūshingura, so I would imagine Mayama Chūshingura is the same version.
    Another Genroku tidbit: The famous kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō I (1660-1704) from that era was a devotee of the “fire god” Fudō Myōō (‘Unmovable Wisdom King’) enshrined at Narita-san Temple (near the airport), and was chiefly responsible for making that temple a major popular pilgrimage site in the Edo area. It’s well worth a visit for anyone laid over at Narita for half a day.

  23. I understand 元禄 was a reference to a poem in the Wen Xuan (文選):
    I will leave the translation to a Sinologist, but I think it basically means that good old-fashioned merit and fortune (in the sense of luck, happiness) being the greatest of blessings.
    As for harakiri/seppuku, as folks above say (and as I think you already knew) it is a Chinese/Japanese pronunciation thing, and the Chinese version is indeed politer. The variation you describe might be meaningful, but it’s hard to say without knowing where else the word is used exactly. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was intended to convey some sort of rough camaraderie there, though.

  24. Thanks, Joel and Matt! And I wish I’d known about Narita-san Temple when I was laid over at Narita back in 1979 (last time I’ve been in Japan).

  25. In the beginning of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign it was settled that all future monarchs would bear a number greater by one than the highest number yet borne by any monarch of England, Scotland, or the U.K. Thus if a David should come to the throne, he would be David III, since Scotland has had Davids I and II, and England has had none. Similarly, a James would be James VIII, since although England has only had a James II, Scotland has had a James VII (the same person, indeed). Thus Elizabeth is Elizabeth II even in Scotland.
    However, pre-Conquest monarchs do not count.

  26. Like all Japanese era names, Genroku (元禄) is taken from a passage in a Chinese classical text. Specifically from 宋史志, where it says: 以仁守位、以孝先祈福逮下、侑神照徳、恵綏黎元、懋建皇極、天禄無彊、霊体允廻、万業其昌. The characters really should not be interpreted individually outside the originally context.
    harakiri and seppuku are synonymous. seppuku is a more formal word for the act, whereas harakiri is a much more colloquial word. As for usage, early citations for seppuku are 12th century, while harakiri is 14th century. Foreigners had nothing to do with it.

  27. John Emerson says

    No Lear II. Damn.

  28. i hate kanjis without translations, cz won’t look them up by myself
    gen i thought is something true and real, so it’s more ‘original’ than big

  29. 元 is also the name of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, the first Chinese dynasty to be named after an abstraction instead of a place name.
    Simply plugging 元 into Google gives the Wiktionary page for the character as hit 3, and these are generally trustworthy and from sources.
    The translation as “big” appears to be completely unjustified.
    Harakiri vs. seppuku is cutting your belly vs. disembowelment. The former is vulgar but that doesn’t mean it’s not Japanese.

  30. Having had a chance to get home and consult my copy of Yoneda Yusuke’s dictionary of emperors and era names (歴代天皇・年号時点), which I KNEW would come in handy one day, allow me to revise my claim to a more inclusive form that allows for Kindaichi’s too.
    Yoneda says w/r/t to the name that contemporary Monjo Hakase (文章博士, an imperially appointed “doctor of letters”-type professorial position) Takatsuji (Sugawara) Nagakazu wrote in his commentary (勘文) on the topic: “宋史志曰 [“The 宋史志 says:”]、以仁守位、以孝奉先、祈福逮下、侑神照徳、恵綏黎元、懋建皇極、天禄無彊、霊体允廻、万業其昌、文選曰 [“The 文選 says:”]、建立元勲、以歴顕禄、福之上也.” So it sounds like both sources were considered relevant.
    I must disagree with the idea that the characters should not be interpreted individually outside the original context, however. It’s true that “元禄” does not constitute a straightforward word or phrase as such, and the reference is certainly important — but still, the final decision was made to go with 元禄, intimating “renewal/origins + fortune,” instead of some other combination suggesting “virtuous governance” or “respect for wisdom” or whatever. That does give us some vague insight into what _kind_ of message the power structure at the time wanted to send, even if we grant that every ruler ever wants the beginning of their reign to be seen as a positive event.

  31. David Marjanović says

    is also the name of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, the first Chinese dynasty to be named after an abstraction instead of a place name.

    Of course it’s a place name – “universe”!

  32. Wow, I think my questions have been comprehensively answered! Thanks especially to Kindaichi and Matt for their learned disquisitions on Genroku; I’d add the information to the Wikipedia article except that I don’t trust myself to boil it down properly.
    As for harakiri vs. seppuku, I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that the former wasn’t Japanese; by “used by ignorant Westerners” I simply meant that the Westerners in question unwittingly used a vulgar Japanese term in place of the proper one, sort of as if foreigners were to come to America and say “Where is the crapper?” thinking they were simply using the normal expression.

  33. “Where is the crapper?” thinking they were simply using the normal expression
    we call the restroom noliin oroo, means 0(null) room, b/c other rooms in the building are numbered, it’s the most polite word for the restroom and everybody understands it, the usual words are jorlon (outhouse, and it’s used for the in buildings now too) or bie zasax oroo (restroom)
    i wonder whether it’s our invention or it came from somewhere, i never heard that expression in Russian though

Speak Your Mind