Japanese Ship Names.

Joel of Far Outliers is posting excerpts from Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013 reprint of a 1961 translation), and I thought this discussion of ship names was interesting enough to repost:

Names of Japanese ships must sound strange to foreign readers. Many Westerners during the Pacific War called a Japanese ship “Maru.” It must be noted, however, that warships or other government ships do not have names ending with Maru. Maru has always been and still is used only for merchant ships or fishing boats.

Maru literally means circle, round or chubby. In medieval Japan, Maru was frequently used for childhood names of boys. For example, in his childhood Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the famed warlord of the 16th century, often considered Japan’s Napoleon, was called Hiyoshi Maru, which may be translated literally as “chubby (or lucky) sunny boy”; and as a youth Yoshitsune Minamoto, the great 12th century general, was called Ushiwaka Maru, meaning “healthy and strong as a calf.”

The Japanese people, by way of personification, came to add Maru to ship names. In the last 100 years Maru has been dropped from the names of all government ships. Japanese warships, like those of other nations, are classified so that all ships of a given type have names of the same category. Hence anyone familiar with the system can tell at once from its name whether a ship is a battleship, cruiser, destroyer, and so on.

Japanese battleships were always named after ancient provinces or mountains. Famed Yamato was christened for the province of Japan’s most ancient capital city, Nara, in Central Honshu. This word was also used in ancient times to mean the whole country of Japan. This may explain the close attachment felt by the Imperial Navy for the greatest battleship ever built. Her sister ship, Musashi, was named after the province immediately north of Tokyo. […]

Heavy cruisers were traditionally named after mountains, and light cruisers were given the names of rivers. Carriers usually bore poetic names having to do with flight. Hosho, the world’s first keel-up carrier, built in 1921, means “Soaring Phoenix.” Hiryu and Sory[u], of the Pearl Harbor attack, may be translated “Flying Dragon” and “Blue Dragon,” respectively.

There’s more at the link; I knew Maru was used for ship names, but I had no idea of the complexities.


  1. Maru is also the name of the most famous cat on YouTube.

  2. Took me a moment to realize that the most famous battleship in Japan the passage refers to is not Space Battleship Yamato.

    The Wikipedia page has a nice list of translations of the title too. It’s interesting that only the Greek attempted to translate Yamato into a culturally relevant ship.

    The first two seasons (“The Quest for Iscandar” and “The Comet Empire”) of this version were broadcast in Greece in 1981-82 as Διαστημόπλοιο Αργώ (“Spaceship Argo”). An Italian-language version was also broadcast under the name Star Blazers in Italy, and a Portuguese-language version was successfully shown in Brazil under the title Patrulha Estelar (“Star Patrol”), Viaje a la Ultima Galaxia (“Voyage to the Final Galaxy”) or Astronave Intrepido (“Starship Intrepid”) in Spain and Latin America, a version called Stjärnbrigaden (“Star Brigade”) was released in Sweden, and Nusoor Al Fada’a (“Space Eagles”) in the Arabic version.

  3. Modern Greek words make excellent poetic synonyms for modern little gadgets. I, for one, wouldn’t object to calling spaceships “diastemoplœa”.

  4. Stephen C. Carlson says

    There’s also the Kobayashi Maru, whose name I now understand a little better.

  5. Maru is also the name of the most famous cat on YouTube.

    That title might be disputed by Henri the Existentialist Cat, who despite his lousy French accent – or even because of his lousy French accent – has a YouTube audience of millions.

  6. I have a sticker of Badz Maru on one of my many guitars. Can confirm it is not a battleship. (They said it would kill fascists, but that doesn’t seem to work.)

  7. @ pc:
    Took me a moment to realize that the most famous battleship in Japan the passage refers to is not Space Battleship Yamato.

    Well, but it is — that is, the titular spaceship is built around the recovered wreck of the original WW2 battleship.

  8. @Y: -maru is also a frequent suffix for ninja and samurai names in modern pop media. It doesn’t necessarily bring to mind ship names.

    While we’re on topic of Sanrio characters and Kobayashis, let me get all of you started on Hello Kitty hipsterism and introduce the obscure young poet, Ikku-chan (2). She only communicates through handwritten strips of haiku verse. I don’t ever see her anywhere (e.g. she’s missing from the English-language Sanrio wiki cited above). Her name, Kobayashi Ikku, is a reference to famed poet Kobayashi Issa. Issa is literally “one [cup of] tea” (possibly a reference to this Buddhist story); while Ikku can be “one line of verse” or “one section of verse” (including “one haiku”, since haiku are formally a broken piece – an open-ended prologue section).

  9. Squiffy: Try one of the many variants.

  10. I find the bad French accent in Henri very exciting. When English speakers try hard to speak French but botch it, it always comes out odd in idiosyncratic ways.

  11. US ships from the same time had similarly consistent naming schemes, for the most part: submarines after fish or other sea creatures, destroyers after naval heroes, cruisers after cities, battleships after states. (Carriers were either famous older ships — Enterprise, Hornet — or notable battles — Lexington, Yorktown). I think river names were used for oilers. Ammunition ships were named after volcanos, which always seemed to me like they were tempting fate….

  12. Now that I think of it, there were two Japanese aircraft carriers that broke the rules listed in that excerpt — but they were conversions from ships originally intended to be battlecruisers (Akagi, named after a mountain) or battleships (Kaga, named after a province).

  13. Oh, for… I was going to say “that’s not in my excerpt, but it’s in Joel’s, which you should click through to,” but then I noticed I forgot to add the all-important link to the post. It’s there now, to “this discussion of ship names”; I cut out the exceptions you mention because I was more interested in the rules.

    Also, thanks for the explanation of the corresponding US system, which I may have known when I was seven or eight and reading WWII comics, but had long forgotten if so.

  14. I had always, erroneously as it turns out, thought of Yamato as referring to the country of Japan, not the Yamato region.

    Slightly off topic, Australia has had two warships called HMAS Australia. The first (HMAS Australia (I)), a battle cruiser, was commissioned in 1913. According to the government website, “The Commonwealth Government decided upon the name Australia, and it proved a popular choice, carefully avoiding any suggestion of favouritism towards any one Australian State.”

    The second (HMAS Australia (II)), a heavy cruiser, was commissioned in 1928 and eventually sold for scrap in 1954.

    Apparently it’s unlikely that there will ever be a third HMAS Australia. The name is far too symbolic; the destruction of a warship named after the country would be devastating to morale and national prestige during wartime.

  15. To add to the linguistic side of things… As I understand it, “-maru” in personal names began as a confusion of the original “-maro” (cf Hitomaro) with “maru” meaning “round”. It’s not clear where “maro” itself comes from but some etymologists believe that it may have been something unclean/unpleasant (to ward off evil spirits), possibly related to /mar-/ “piss”! (But it was regularly used as a pseudo-pronoun by the Heian period at least, so presumably that origin was forgotten fairly quickly if so.)

  16. The case of the Montevideo Maru shows that when civilian ships were placed in government service the Maru was retained in the name. (The Montevideo Maru was Australia’s worst maritime disaster.)

  17. January First-of-May says

    The story I’ve read was that the Japanese used to put some kind of special symbol (sun? face? can’t recall) on the sides of their ships (for some kind of divine protection, can’t recall the details), and then they decided to just put circles there, and then they were too lazy even for that, so they just started adding the Japanese word for “circle” (maru) to the ships’ names.

    I don’t know if that makes more or less sense than the “personification” theory.

  18. The current US Navy naming scheme for ships has gotten pretty incoherent, what with the occasional pandering to Congress and uncertainty about what to do with state and city names now that battleships and cruisers (mostly) are obsolete.

    Aircraft carriers are now named after presidents, except for the ones named after an admiral, a Senator, and a Congressman (plus, Enterprise is going to be reused). There are submarines named after states, cities, fish (but just one), an admiral, a Senator, and Jimmy Carter. Amphibious transport docks are named after cities, except for the one named after a Congressman and the one named after Mesa Verde National Park. Littoral combat ships are also named after cities, except for the ones named Freedom, Independence, and Gabrielle Giffords. And so on…

  19. I don’t know if that makes more or less sense than the “personification” theory.

    It sounds dubious on the face of it, because it’s definitely more work to write 丸 than to just draw a circle…

  20. @January First-of-May: That definitely has the scent of folk-etymology; and, besides, I’ve never heard of historical or archaeological examples of the warding symbol or circle used in ships. By contrast, the personal name suffix -maro and its shift to -maru (as Matt described), and its use for “boys” in the medieval period, are historically documented (though the Internet says there were already -maru ships in Heian antiquity – 坂東丸 Bandōmaru (“Easthill-maru”; Bandō ~= Kantō) ­– and I’m not sure whether -maru would suggest “boy” in that period, much less “chubby”). Apparently -maro/maru was used to personify not only ships, but also cherished belongings such as pets and swords (like the 数珠丸 Juzumaru (Joe Rosary) or the 鬼丸 Onimaru (Jack the Ogre)).

  21. The use of “round” to denote broad-beamed merchant and fishing vessels (as contrasted with long, speedy warships and racing boats) seems like a very common phenomenon, perhaps because ship design is strongly constrained by physics and materials science. I think its attested in classical Greek and Latin, and its pretty old in the Germanic languages too. I noticed something similar with words for the round part of a helmet which sits on your skull: the word is Japanese hachi “jar”, English bowl, Trecento Tuscan coppo “pot”.

  22. And similarly with the head beneath the helmet: Latin testa ‘piece of burned clay’ > ‘cookpot’ > ‘helmet’ > Italian and Occitan ‘head’, French tête ‘head’. The other Romance languages retain descendants of Latin caput ‘head’ as their word for ‘head’, but some use testa in a figurative or restricted sense: in Portuguese, for example, it means ‘forehead’.

  23. There is a discussion of Japanese ship naming here:


    The theory I have heard (from some history of the Pacific war) is that “maru” suggests “round trip,” and is used only for merchant or fishing ships that are expected to come back to port; it is not used on naval ships, which may have to sacrifice themselves to carry out their missions.

  24. @David: That also seems like folk etymology, not only because it’s not as well-supported historically as the personal name (and miscellaneous object-personifying) suffix -maro > -maru, but also because “round trip” in Japanese would be one of 往復 ōfuku, 往返 ōhen, 往き返り yuki-gaeri, or (with a bit more of a pleasure-trip nuance) 周遊 shūyū, 回遊 kaiyū, but definitely not anything with a 丸 maru in it.

  25. John Cowan, also German Kopf, displacing Haupt.

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