Pre-basho warm up: a kanji review

A couple weeks ago, our reader Kiran asked me to write an article about usual kanji we see in the sumo world. What a great warm up idea, prior to the basho! I hope we’ll be able to translate a few new names without effort, come the last tournament of the year. I’d like to point out the fact that I’m no Japanese born speaker (actually, not a Japanese speaker at all), but did my best to produce a serious, reliable article. Please don’t recommand an intai, should you spot mistakes along the way!

Back to basics

A few kanji are not too hard to remember, I think:

  • 海 (“umi”, as in “Mitakeumi”) means “sea”
  • 風 (“kaze”, as in “Yoshikaze”) means “wind”
  • 竜 (“ryu”, as in “Kakuryu”) means “dragon”
  • 富士 is “fuji”, as in “Midorifuji”
  • 丸 (“maru”, as in Daishomaru”) means “circle”

Not as commonly seen, but not too difficult to remember are:

  • 若 (“waka”, as in “Wakatakakage”), meaning “young”, “youth”
  • 里 (“sato”, as in “Kisenosato”) refers to a small village, or “hometown”
  • 魁 (“kai”, as in “Kaisei”) means “pioneering”, “charging ahead” (thank you, @TheSumoSoul!)
  • 聖 (“sei”, as in, well, “Kaisei”) means “holy”, or “sacred”
  • 照 (“teru”), meaning “shining”, or, again according to @TheSumoSoul, “blasting”. Notable holders of that kanji are Isegahama beya rikishi: Terunofuji, Terutsuyoshi, etc.

Even less used, but as easy to spot are:

  • 碧 (“aoi”), meaning “blue”, as in “Aoiyama”
  • 翔 and 猿, giving the now famous shikona “Tobizaru”, meaning “flying monkey”!

Apart from the “Teru”, it has to be noted that these usual kanji do not give indication of the rikishi’s stable. Being common, they are used by everyone, so to say. For example, Mitakeumi and Okinoumi do not belong to the same stable; the same applies for Terunofuji and Hokutofuji.

Two kanji simply indicate the belonging: の and 乃, who both are pronounced “no”. More on that later.

Going further

What about 山 ? It means “mountain”, or “hill”. But here’s the first trick: it is pronounced either “yama”, or “zan”, like in “Asanoyama” or “Shohozan”, who share that kanji. That kanji is very interesting. It reminds us the fact that Japanese language has Chinese origins, which explains the fact that many words have at least two types of pronunciation. But both pronunciations refer to exactly the same thing – so it would be wrong to say that “yama” means “mountain”, while “zan” would mean “hill”, or the other way around.

Back to 山. Pronouncing it “zan” refer to ths Chinese origins of the kanji – where, by the way, it is rather pronounced “shan” (in Mandarin Chinese) or “san” (in Cantonese Chinese).

So, when should it be pronounced “yama”, and when is it “zan” (or “san”) ? Actually, the “yama” pronunciation is correct, only when the kanji is isolated. As a matter of fact, Mount Fuji (富士山) should be referred as “Fujisan”, not “Fujiyama”.

Less of a debate are:

  • 琴 (“koto”), actually a Japanese instrument, a kind of zither made of thirteen strings. That kanji is of course used by Sadogatake wrestlers: Kotoshogiku, Kotonowaka, etc.
  • 大 (“dai”, as in “Daieisho”; or “tai”, as in “Chiyotairyu”), meaning “large”, or “great”. Quite logically, a 大 横綱 is a “dai-yokozuna”, a great yokozuna. Contrary to common belief, it does not refer to each yokozuna who won at least ten yusho, but rather to one dominant champion, in a given period. For example, Harumafuji ended his career with nine yusho in his belt – but had he won a tenth, he would probably not have been given that title, as Hakuho naturally holds it.

Now let’s dig into the “taka” maze!

  • First of all, Takarafuji does start with “Taka”, but the first kanji, 宝 actually is “takara”, meaning “treasure”
  • 貴 (as in “Takakeisho”: 貴景勝) can mean “expensive”, “costly”, or can express nobility.
  • 隆 (as in “Takanosho”: 隆の勝) has a similar meaning: “noble,” “prosperity”.
  • 髙 (as in “Takayasu”: 髙安) means “tall”, “high”, and can only be used in first or last names.

If many rikishi possess another common kanji – the “Chiyo”, that one is fortunately easier to translate!

Indeed, 千 litterally means “thousand”, whereas “” refers to years, or eras. Put it together, the “Chiyo” – 千代 – is simply translated into “eternal”.

One kanji curiosities

  • 輝, Kagayaki’s only kanji, means “radiance”. That kanji is actually the last one of Kotoyuki’s shikona: 琴勇輝
  • 勢, Ikioi’s kanji, means “strength”
  • Sakigake’s kanji is actually the afore mentionned 魁 – “kai”!

A few entire translations

I hope not being miles off target with the last part of that article, but I think we have amassed sufficient knowledge for some not too difficult translations:

  • 碧山: “Aoiyama”, of course, means “blue mountain”.
  • Let’s try with former sekiwake Wakanosato: 若の里. We have 若, meaning “youth”, 里, the small village or hometown, and の, referring to the belonging. 若の里 could therefore be translated into something like: the hometown of the youth.
  • Nishinoryu is currently ranked sandanme 8. His shikona is written as follows: 西乃龍. 西 means “West”, 龍 is “dragon”, 乃 is also referring to the belonging. 西乃龍, hence, means “dragon of the West”.
  • Former komusubi Chiyotairyu: 千代大龍. 千代 means “eternal”, means “big”, means “dragon”: eternal big dragon!

Feel free to give it a try; there’s no nothing better than pre-basho practise! Hakkeyoi!

29 thoughts on “Pre-basho warm up: a kanji review

  1. Interesting. I also wanted to do a post about the meaning of Shikona.

    Or rather, the fact that you can’t rely on their meaning, and the kanji may just confuse you.

    I might still do that, because I think this is an important point. We westerners do it all the time – think that shikona mean something because that’s what the kanji means. But it’s only true some of the time.

    Other than that, I wanted to point out that の and ノ are actually not Kanji but Kana – different character sets.

    Also, 山 may still be pronounced “yama” in some kanji combinations (e.g. Aoiyama, Yutakayama, Asanoyama), including non-shikona (e.g. Toyama, where Asanoyama comes from).

    • Please, feel free to do so. I’m sure you’ll have tons of other information I have no idea of!

  2. Lots of Shikona have different valid readings. Some are quite a bit more deviously complicated than they seem at first glance. Others are less creative and pretty much taken at face value. Doreen Simmons used to occasionally talk about them.

  3. “Apart from the “Teru”, it has to be noted that these usual kanji do not give indication of the rikishi’s stable. Being common, they are used by everyone, so to say. For example, Mitakeumi and Okinoumi do not belong to the same stable; the same applies for Terunofuji and Hokutofuji.”

    That’s a fair comment, but in a few of those examples there are other indications, so it’s probably good to point them out

    13 of the 23 rikishi with the fuji suffix in the sport are in fact from Isegahama beya, so it is more likely than not that a fuji comes from there, with a name in tribute to the former Asahifuji (whose Asahi itself was lent by the former Asahikuni and the first kanji for which lives on today in the current Tomozuna stable, descended from the original Oshima stable from which he hailed). In Okinoumi and Hokutofuji’s cases, you are correct that the trailing kanji do(es) not necessarily give an indication of the stable, but the leading kanji in both cases very much do indicate someone who is likely from Hakkaku beya.

    • The current correlation is high, but still, the association is loose. It’s just Isegahama who decided to start using a common, general-purpose suffix as a heya trademark. There have been many Fujis all across the Sumo world throughout history, and when Isegahama retires, the heya’s pet suffix will probably change to one of Aminishiki’s Kanji.

      • Yeah, it’s fair enough to say it’s the reflection of this particular moment in time. One would think it would be Aminishiki’s first kanji (since there are yet still examples of it in the stable today) though stranger things have happened. But you never know, other stables have retained historic kanji through multiple shisho… I think a big question with Aminishiki is also whether he will retain the current Isegahama stable or revert it to Ajigawa.

        Surely it was the presence of Oshima as a going interest with plenty of prominent Asahis and Kyokus that inspired Asahifuji to use his suffix instead. The interesting thing is that Hokutoumi would have started his stable similarly at a time of other stables naming rikishi with the same first kanji (if perhaps a different reading), but instead of choosing to adapt a widely used suffix in Umi, he stuck with the prefix.

        • I think it’s likely Aminishiki will exchange his kabu with Isegahama once he retires. It’s considered a more prestigious name, which is why Isegahama changed into it in the first place. It’s also the name of the Ichimon.

  4. That interesting about Mt. Fuji. it makes me wonder if the kanji for the Fuji-Q Roller Coaster named Fujiyama is a play on that.

    BTW it is a wonderful roller Coaster and Park.

    • The whole “yama” or “san” thing seems quite arbitrary. Years ago westerners almost always said Fujiyama (see Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1964) and I recall hearing things like, “the mountain is so revered that it’s called Fuji-san by the Japanese.” As if it was an honorific rather than just the way it was named.

      Near Karuizawa, there’s a volcanic mountain, Asamayama. Near Tokyo, a different mountain, Takaozan. So it can go either way.

      Mountain range, though, is ‘sanmyaku.’

      • The Roller Coaster Database RCDB has a Kanji listed. Not sure how accurate that database is for kanji, but the are well respected. They have it as:


        • It is an amazing rollercoaster (owing to the unique “head chopper” feature) – I’ve been on it a couple times, and the whole park is incredible.

          It is indeed accurate in that that is the phonetic spelling in katakana rather than kanji, and normally a character name like that will be spelled out phonetically. This also happens a lot with mascots.

  5. 高い also means expensive, which is interesting, because 安い means cheap. However 安 can also have a meaning like relaxed, peaceful etc., like in 安心 or 安全.
    富士 is also interesting. 富 means rich or wealth, resourceful etc.. 士 is the second kanji of 力士(rikishi). it can mean warrior/samurai, gentleman or more generally a well respected male person.
    As for Ikioi, I always translated that with force in my mind, which seems quite fitting. Obviously there are different nuances to the meaning of strength, but I think if you speak about physical strength in Japanese one would use 力 in its various pronunciations.
    I think it’s also worth to mention that some of the kanji are rather uncommon in every day Japanese. Usually you would see 青い for blue or 飛ぶ for fly.
    Oh and there is a guy missing whose name translates into something like white phoenix I guess ;)

  6. The first kanji of Tobizaru is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. I can see that 翔 means “fly” or “soar” but I don’t see the “tobi” reading. Wiktionary gives “sho”, “zo” and “kake” but not “tobi”.

    • Try a dictionary that is specific for Japanese, like Literally all the apps I use and my old electronic dictionary show the reading to(bu) as well. However it’s not commonly used in modern Japanese. My guess would be that it’s more used in literature, but that has to be answered by a native speaker ;)
      If it helps, there is some old manga 翔んだカップル which features the same reading.

  7. On the topic of kanji that can be read in different ways (basically kun-yomi from Japanese origin and on-yomi from Chinese origin), you could add that 大 can be read “dai” or “tai” (on-yomi) in some names and “oo” (kun-yomi as on “ooki” = big) in others like the former 大砂嵐 (oo-suna-arashi).
    BTW, this name always sounded pretty interesting to me, once you know 嵐 means tempest and 砂 means sand : his stable name therefore meant “big sand storm”. Very appropriate for an Egyptian wrestler isn’t it ?

    • Oops, forgot to say it was a nice idea for an article : I love those peripheral topics about the cultural background, the trivia of sumo, etc.
      And also that it’s my first comment, eventhough I’ve been an avid reader for quite some time (counting in years maybe ? For how long Tachiai has been existing ?).
      Anyway, long live Tachiai !

  8. Thank you Timothee, for this nice article.
    Very informative, especially the timing of the is perfect, just before the start of the basho.
    Now with these information, it will be fun to read the match up for the bouts like,
    Blue mountain vs Flying monkey
    Radiance vs Eternal big dragon

    • That would be a fine idea indeed! Perhaps Herouth wishes to include these developments in her future articles on kanji?


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