(Friday Night History) Things Not to Say

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There’s a concept in Japanese religion called kotodama. It’s the idea that words have spirit– they have power. In the interest of a formal definition by people who specialize in Shinto studies, kotodama defined by Kokugakuin’s Encyclopedia of Shinto: 

Kotodama refers to the spiritual power that is contained within words, but also refers to the conception that spiritual power can be manifested through the intonation of words. 

While one interpretation of this can take a more supernatural tack, another is much more practical: words have some measure of power even in a mundane sense, so it’s best to watch your choice of words. That being said, Japanese has a lot of homophones. Some of them sound like ruling family names and their court titles, and it’s here that our story begins this week.

Let’s back up just a bit to the Heian era, first. Stay with me– I promise it’ll make some kind of sense.

So. Mutsu Province– Mutsu-no-kuni– was an old imperial province spanning the entirety of the modern Tohoku region’s Pacific Coast; the other one being Dewa Province, on the Sea of Japan coast. Its territory now comprises the territorial extents of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures. As one of two provinces in northern Honshu, it was originally called Michinoku, because it was michi no oku– beyond where the road from Kyoto ended in Shirakawa, and was thus the outback to the imperial court. It was a frontier province so it wasn’t exactly like other imperial provinces, in that its administration was partly military. Still, as with the other imperial provinces, it was governed by an imperial governor– as with other governorates, this ended in no kami, ergo the governor of Mutsu was Mutsu no kami. And long after governorships became sinecures, the title survived. While not all Edo period daimyo’s imperial titles corresponded to the province they lived in, sometimes they did. This was the case with the house of Date, whose ruling lord held the title of Mutsu no kami.

Referring to a daimyo by their given name was rude and exceedingly familiar, of course. That being the case, court title was one way that people (not everyone) referred to a daimyo. Starting in the early 17th century, the Shogunate promulgated laws like the Buke Shohatto and Kinchu narabini kuge shohatto, which strictly regulated not only the imperial court but also the purview of the Emperor and the constraints of granting and inheritance of imperial titles by people in the warrior caste. So with domain, Shogunate, and imperial bureaucracy tied up in all of it, one didn’t just simply throw this or any other title around. The house of Date itself also carefully regulated the use of the word “Mutsu” and other words intersecting with the family names or court titles of the daimyo’s immediate family. Of particular interest to it were the titles of Mutsu no kami, held by the ruling lord, as well as Mimasaka no kami and Echizen no kami, two alternate titles that were held by the lord’s heir apparent. So a Sendai merchant or craftsman couldn’t have any of those province names in their business’s name or displayed on their shop curtain (noren). According to folklorist and local historian Mihara Ryokichi, anyone who was in violation of this regulation would be identified by the city magistrate’s patrol officers and investigated by the magistrate’s office. More than a few people ran afoul of this prohibition particularly early in the Edo period.

But there’s plenty of words in Japanese that only happen to overlap because they’re homophones– this is, after all, partly the basis of how Japanese poetry works, too, and how puns are so easy to make. So, you may well ask, what would people do to get around these sorts of prohibitions on certain words, and words that sound like those words?

A particularly notable case, according to Mihara, is the case of the dawn hour– by the old Japanese clock, the “rising six”– akemutsu. Remember, there’s that “mutsu” in there– a no-go, if you’re living in Date lands. But rather than phrase “six” as “mutsu,” people in Sendai learned to call that hour of the clock by the other reading of six– thus, akemutsu in Sendai was akeroku. The introduction of the western method of timekeeping notwithstanding, older people in Sendai were still calling it that into the early 20th century. Other things affected by this ban include a type of fish called mutsu, and even diapers, which with honorific are called o-mutsu to this day.

This wasn’t the only case of this kind of prohibition and enforcement; some Date vassals also did this within their territories.

Let me back up and sidebar again for a moment, here.

Sendai domain was unique in that it had a microcosm of the Shogunate-domain (bakuhan taisei) system in place. Sendai domain was very large, and unwieldy to manage from one or two castles, as most other domains were managed in the Edo period. Thus, Date vassals held landholdings throughout the domain and performed alternate attendance on the lord in Sendai just as the lord performed alternate-attendance on the shogun, his overlord, in Edo. This was a system the Date had used for centuries, dating back to before the Edo period’s onset in the 17th century. Senior vassals held castles– called fortresses (yogai) to stay within the letter of the Shogunate law on castles– but many Date vassals, great and small, held landholdings throughout the domain where they lived at least part of the time. Yet it was only the seniormost– many of them cousins of the daimyo who held daimyo-level (10,000+ koku) income, who had similar prohibitions to the daimyo’s rules about commoners’ use of titles of interest like Mutsu no kami. The Date of Watari forbade commoners use the word Awa, which was part of its family head’s court title of Awa-no-kami– with the result that the grain coincidentally called awa (millet) was called kigane (“yellow-gold”) in the Watari-Date lands. In the holdings of the Wakuya-Date, the season of autumn– aki in Japanese– was called koharu (little spring) instead, in order to avoid a namespace collision with the hereditary Wakuya title of Aki no kami. And in the lands of the Watari of Sanuma (not the same as the Date of Watari!), a broom (hoki) was called a hahaki, to avoid sounding like the Watari title of Hoki no kami. In all, a heck of a lot of circumlocutions, there.

But Sendai wasn’t the only domain where this was the case, even just in northern Honshu. North of the Date lands, in the territory of lord Nanbu of Morioka, a straw overcoat was called a kera, in order to avoid using the more common term of mino, as the Nanbu lord’s hereditary court title was Mino no kami. And to the south, in nearby Nihonmatsu, home of the Niwa family, even holidays were influenced by this practice of avoiding the daimyo’s name. The house of Niwa was a daimyo family in the Edo period, which ruled the Nihonmatsu domain in what’s now Fukushima Prefecture. Its claim to fame is that it once served the house Oda of Owari Province; Niwa Nagahide was one of the clan elders who served the great Oda Nobunaga during his 16th century campaigns of unification in central Japan. Only a few decades later, the Niwa family eventually came to rule Nihonmatsu domain, a modestly sized domain– 170,000 koku, later growing to 200,000 koku– in what’s now east-central Fukushima Prefecture. Meanwhile, setsubun is a holiday that takes place today, 3 February. As a symbol of welcoming good fortune and driving away misfortune, people gather at shrines and pelt with beans people dressed as oni (ogres) while chanting “oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Out with the ogres! In with the fortune!) So what does setsubun have to do with house Niwa of Nihonmatsu? “Oni wa soto” (out with the ogres) sounds a lot like “O-Niwa soto” (out with the august Niwa). So in the interest of avoiding potential trouble, people in Nihonmatsu learned to talk around it, and say “Oniisodo!” (Ogres out!) as they threw their beans. Rather surprisingly, this also continued through the early 20th century!

If we stop to think about it, this sort of practice of subtly changing what we call a thing, in order to talk about that thing while talking around that thing, is not all that strange even in the modern world. On the internet, many of us have substituted letters for asterisks in a word likely to attract the wrong kind of attention– like d*gecoin or T*rkey– or have resorted to circumlocutions about political figures, like referring to holders of certain exalted offices by their number in the pr*sidential succession prior to the forty-sixth.

See what I mean?

Anyway. Thank goodness laws change– and yet, regardless of the laws in force in the world, for better and for worse, words will always have power.


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