A lot of Japanese medical terminology is actually Sino-Japanese: whether imported from mainland China or invented here, the morphemes used are of Chinese rather than Japanese origin. In particular, almost all of the organs have Sino-Japanese names, and the exceptions like kimo ("liver") and harawata ("guts") carry so much synecdocheic and metaphorical baggage that they are basically useless for medical purposes.

But people have been hunting and cutting up animals out here on the archipelago much longer than they have been learning Chinese, and their native vocabulary of words for internal organs was surprisingly rich, given how entirely it was abandoned in favor of a more prestigious and specific Sino-Japanese substitute.

(Acknowledgment: This list of examples comes from Ōno Susumu's Nihongo Sōdan.)

  • Lungs (MJ: hai, 肺) were called fukufukushi, maybe related to fuku ("blow", "breathe", etc.) and/or fukureru ("swell") and/or fukuro ("bag").
  • The spleen (MJ: hizō, 脾臓) was called the yokoshi, maybe because it is to the side (yoko) of the liver/stomach blob?
  • The large and small intestine (MJ: daichō, 大腸, and shōchō, 小腸) were the harawata ("belly wata")/ōwata ("big wata") and hosowata ("skinny wata"). Wata may be related to the wata that means "cotton". Note that harawata as a word is still around, although now as then it can also mean "guts" or "sub-stomach digestive system in general".
  • The stomach (MJ: i, 胃) was also known as the kusobukuro ("shit bag"), although again this term could apply to the entire digestive system. (Kusowata, "shit wata", was another of the general wata terms.) In Donkey-Saddle Bridge (驢鞍橋), SUZUKI Shōsan famously said that to "discard this bag of shit" (i.e. body) without regret or hesitation was the essence and indeed entirety of Buddhism ("後世を願うというは、この糞袋を何とも思わず打ち捨てること也。ここを仕習うより別の仏法を知らず"), but I am not sure if this usage can claim direct descent from the word meaning "stomach" or whether it was invented anew out of contempt for the body in general.
  • On that note, the bladder (MJ: bōkō, 膀胱) was the yubaribukuro ("piss-bag"). Yubari is from yumari, yu (warm water) + mari (evacuation). (The verb maru is obsolete now, but it appears in Manyōshū poem #3832: kura tatemu/ kuso tohoku mare, "I'm going to build a shed/ Do your business far away from it".)

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great post. I can't wait to say 糞袋がすいた

Akaki Kuumeri:

I can't wait to say ゆばり袋が増えた and go toilet.

Tom Hunter-Watts:

Thank you for another fascinating post. I can't tell you how much I've learned from this blog. Have you come across any discussion of anatomical terms in Aleut? I have been reading a very interesting book I picked up for a pound the other week called "Aleuts - Survivors of the Bering land Bridge" by William S. Laughlin, published in 1980. Apparently the Aleuts have native terms for an astonishing number of anatomical features for which English makes do with Latin - the linea alba, the septum, the aorta, the pericardium, the bronchial tubes, etc. The Brachio-radialis muscle of the forearm is called "the daylight of the hand" apparently, but the book doesn't give the Aleut words directly. Their expertise came in part from the daily butchering of sea mammals, and in particular the sea otter. To quote from page 116, "The detail to which the Aleuts have carried their anatomical classification may be demonstrated by their nomenclature for muscle and hair. Muscles are grouped under three forms. The word "kayugh" means "strength of muscle" and describes a muscle as a motor organ and a source of strength. It is applied primarily to the biceps brachii of the arm and to the quadriceps femoris of the leg. The term "sayutigh" refers mainly to a flat muscle. The term "igachigh" is applied to a long stringy muscle and is also the name for tendon/sinew. All terms for hair are in the plural. Head hair is distinguished from pubic hair and beard hair. Heavier body hairs, such as axillary (of which most Aleuts have none or little) and eyebrows are "cngan" (the singular of this word means fur), and fine fuzzy hairs are "cngaquudan", "tiny little body hairs". The similarity in words is based on similarity in physical appearance. The name of the sea otter is based on this stem, as well as the name for the yarrow plant, used for a medicinal tea, which is furry in its appearance. Ear and nose hairs bear the name "imliliighun", "those resembling head hair"...

It would be fascinating now I think about it to learn from an Aztec priest how preceisely Nahuatl distinguished human anatomical terms - I wonder if any precise distinctions survive in the modern language?

language hat:

Fascinating indeed. When did the changeover happen, and how long did the native terms hang on in (say) rural use?


I'm certainly no expert, but google suggested the spelling of synecdochic for your ten dollar word thar when I looked it up to see what the heck it was.


Claytonian: I thought I made that word up. Foiled again!

Tom: That's some great information, thanks! I must confess that I am shamefully unfamiliar with Aleut culture.

Akaki: That would mean that you are developing additional bladders, which would probably surprise people more than necessary. My wife suggests "ユバリ袋がパンパンだ!" (with the caveat that going out of one's way to use these terms is a lot of foolishness etc.)

LH: Ono quotes a late Nara and early Heian dictionary that contain "fukufukushi", and he apparently got all the examples I used from the mid-Heian Wamyō ruijushō. He then notes that in the Nippo jisho of 1603, the only Japanese organ words remaining are "harawata" and "kimo"-- everything else has gone Chinese.

He also notes that some variant of "fuku" is still used for "(animal) lung" in places like Kagoshima, Wakayama, Amami, Okinawa. Just for good measure, he notes that the word "puxua" is used for "lung" in some old Korean dictionary, and because he is Ono Susumu he cannot resist proposing some Tamil links: J "wata" and T "vaṭṭi" ("intestines" or "stomach"), J "maru" and T "moḷ" (to urinate).

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