Imikotoba (taboo words)

August 24, 2011

Imikotoba (忌み言葉), or taboo words, are words that are avoided  because they are believed to bring bad luck. The term can also mean the euphemism or replacement that is used instead of them (either an alternate pronunciation or a substitution word).

Some of these taboos are related to specific moments and rituals, while others are spread among the general population and condition the daily use of the language.

Those of you who understand some Japanese know how there are two series of numbers, one being based on Chinese reading or on-yomi (ichi, ni, san…) and the other on Japanese reading or kun-yomi (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu…). Now, the Chinese reading for “4” is shi, but Japanese people tend to avoid this pronunciation and substitute it with the kun-yomi for “4” which is yon; this use, so common to be the rule with many counters, is due to the fact that shi is also the pronunciation of the character 死, which means “death”.

Another example: the most common word for pear is nashi 梨. Nashi, however, is also the pronunciation of 無し, which means “none.”  To avoid the hazards of this association, the word ari-no-mi / 有りの実 (lit. “the fruit of abundance”) can also be used to refer to a pear.

Other substitutions are atarime (for dried squid, surume) and etekō (for monkey, saru, whose homophone means “depart” and is used as a euphemism for death).

Other words are to be avoided especially to preserve the purity of Shinto rituals. The Engi Shiki lists taboo words associated with the saigū (Chief Priestess) of the Grand Shrine of Ise and their replacements:

1. Inner seven (related to Buddhism)
buddha(s): nakago (“middle child,” i.e. seated in the center of the worship hall)
sutra: somekami (“dyed paper;” originally printed on yellow paper)
pagoda: araraki (Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese-based word, also pronounced araragi)
temple: kawarafuki (“tiled,” as in “tiled roof,” also pronounced kawarabuki)
monk: kaminaka (“long-haired,” also pronounced kaminaga)
nun: mekaminaka (“female long-haired”)
vegetarian food/abstinence: katashiki (“one tray”).
2. Outer seven (related to non-Buddhist words)
death: naoru (to recover)
illness: yasumi (to rest)
weeping: shiotare (“shedding salt”)
blood: ase (sweat)
to strike: atsu (caress)
meat: kusahira (vegetables and mushrooms)
grave: tsuchikure (clod of earth).
3. Others
Buddhist hall: koritaki (“incense burning”)
lay Buddhist (ubasoku): tsunohasu (“notch of arrow,” also pronounced tsunohazu).

Other taboos are still avoided by ordinary people in special events such as weddings and funerals.

For example, if you have to give a  speech at a weddings you should carefully avoid words such as  hanareru (離れる, to separate), kiru (切る, to cut) or wakareru (別れる, to split) because they can be seen as references to divorce; for the same reason, one should not use words that repeat the same sound, such as tabitabi (たびたび,  frequently) or iroiro (色々, various).

At funerals, one cannot use words that infer “something sad will happen again”, “your sould cannot rest in peace” or, again, repeated sounds. Some examples are tsuzuku (続く, to continue), ukabarenai (浮ばれない, your soul cannot rest), kaesugaesu (返す返す, repeatedly).

Also you cannot use words such as nagareru (流れる, to wash away) or kieru (消える, to disappear) when congratulating a pregnant woman, because they might sound like references to miscarriage.

There are taboo words for school tests as well: during the entrance exams season, one should avoid words that make one think to failure, such as chiru (散る, to disperse), suberu (滑る to slip over), ochiru (落ちる, to fall).


In 1868, with the Meiji restoration, Edo was made the new imperial capital and changed its name to Tōkyō (東京), menaning “Capital of the East”.

On July 17, Emperor Meiji  issued the Edict Renaming Edo to Tōkyō (江戸ヲ稱シテ東京ト爲スノ詔書 Edo o shōshite Tōkyō to nasu no shōsho).

In 1869, the Emperor himself moved to Tōkyō and made Edo Castle the new Imperial Palace.

On May 1, 1889, Tōkyō City (東京市 Tōkyō-shi) was constituted as a separate municipality, and lasted until  July 1, 1943, when it was merged with its prefecture of  Tōkyō-fu (東京府), becoming part of the newly formed Tōkyō Metropolis (東京都 Tōkyō-to).

Even though Tōkyō is known by the whole world as the capital of Japan, and it is surely its capital de facto, being the seat both of the Emperor and of the Governmen, its status as a capital de iure is still controversial.

Some state that Tōkyō became the capital when the Tōkyō prefecture was established in 1868, others that it occurred when Edo Castle was made an Imperial seat. On the other hand, while there was an imperial edict transferring the capital to Heian, there have been no document declaring the move from Kyōto to Tōkyō, therefore some people claim that Kyōto is still the capital of Japan, or that Tōkyō and Kyōto are both capitals simultaneously.

However, since after WWII the sovreignty was transferred to the Emperor to the people by the new Constitution, the general consensus agrees that the Tōkyō is the capital since it is the seat of the Diet.

While no laws have designated Tōkyō as the Japanese capital, many laws have defined a “capital area” (首都圏 shutoken) that incorporates Tōkyō .

Article 2 of the Capital Area Consolidation Law (首都圏整備法) of 1956 states that “In this Act, the term ‘capital area’ shall denote a broad region comprising both the territory of Tōkyō Metropolis as well as outlying regions designated by cabinet order.” This clearly implies that the government has designated Tōkyō  as the capital of Japan (although it is not explicitly stated, and the definition of the “capital area” is restricted to the terms of that specific law).

In 1941, the Ministry of Education published a book called “History of the Restoration”, that referred to Tōkyō as capital” (東京奠都 Tōkyō-tento) without talking about “moving the capital to Tōkyō” (東京遷都 Tōkyō-sento). A contemporary history textbook states that the Meiji government “moved the capital (shuto) from Kyōto to Tōkyō” without using the sento term.

In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, having seized the power, established his capital in Edo.

He had already occupied the castle city in 1590, during his war against the Hōjō, when, during the Siege of Odawara, Hideyoshi  offered Ieyasu the eight Kantō provinces which they were about to take from the Hōjō in return for the five provinces that Ieyasu currently controlled (including Ieyasu’s home province of Mikawa). Ieyasu accepted this proposal. He gave up control of his five provinces (Mikawa, Tōtōmi, Suruga, Shinano, and Kai) and moved to the Kantō region with all his troops and vassals. He himself occupied the castle town of Edo.

So after the battle of Sekigahara on October 21, 1600, and then when Ieyasu was officially appointed as a new shogun on March 24, 1603, Edo became the real centre of power, even though the official capital was still the seat of the emperor in Kyōto until the Meiji restoration.

The city was arranged arount the castle; the area immediately surrounding it was known as the “Yamanote” and consisted largely of daimyō mansions;  their families lived in Edo year-round. According to the sankin kōtai system (参勤交代 lit. “alternate attendance”), daimyō families had to stay in Edo as hostages, while the daimyō himself had to move periodically between Edo and his domains ( (藩 han), typically spending an alternate year in each place.

Hiroshige's famous ukiyo-e series. 'The Fifty-Three Stations on the Tokaido Highway', showing daimyo processions known as sankin kotai.

This is a way for the shogunate to control the vassals, similar to the way Louis XIV of France forced his aristocracy to move to Versailles; also the expenditures to move from one place to the other and to maintain two luxury residences places financial  strains on the daimyō, so that they were not able to afford wars.

While Kyōto was dominated by the court aristocracy, that character of Edo was made by the noble warrior class.

Other areas further from the center were the domains chōnin (町人, literally “townsfolk” ).

1844-1848 – Perry-Castañeda Map Collection – UT Library Online”]Edo [Tokyo] 1844-1848 - Perry-Castañeda Map Collection - UT Library Online lib.utexas.eduThe area known as Shitamachi, to the northeast of the castle, was a key centerof urban culture, with the ancient Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji, that still stands in Asakusa, marking the center of the “downtown” (literal translation of  “Shitamachi”). Some of the shops in the streets before the temple have been carried on continuously in the same location since the Edo period.

The northeastern corner of the city, regarded as a dangerous direction in traditional onmyōdō (cosmology/geomancy), was guarded from evil spirits by a series of temples, including Sensō-ji and Kan’ei-ji.

Just beyond these laid the districts of the eta or outcastes, who engaged in activities that were considered impure, and were thus separated from the main sections of commoner residences.

The  the Great River (大川), now called Sumida-Gawa, ran along the eastern edge of the city.

The Edo Bridge (江戸橋, Edo-bashi), also known as Nihonbashi, marked the center of the city’s commercial center, an area also known as Kuramae (蔵前, “in front of the storehouses”). Its development is largely credited to the Mitsui family, one of the most powerful families of merchants and industrialists in Japan, still active nowadays.

The Nihonbashi was the eastern terminus of the  Nakasendō and the Tōkaidō, roads that ran between Edo and Kyōto.

Near the Nihobashi, there were also the famous Yoshiwara district, Edo’s red-light district – but we might call it “red line”, since this is the translation of the  “Akasen” (赤線), the Japanse term to indicate it. It was created in 1617, after Tokugawa Hidetada ordered to restrict prostitution, that was widespread in the main cities od Japan, to designated city districts.

In 1656, due to the need for space as the city grew, the government decided to relocate Yoshiwara, and plans were made to move the district to its present location north of Asakusa. After it burned down in the Meireki fire of 1657, it was rebuilt in the new location. The new district was called Shin-Yoshiwara (“new Yoshiwara”), while the old one was known as Moto-Yoshiwara (“previous/original Yoshiwara”).