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Glossary of historical Japanese terms

People's names

  • Adams, William
    One of the first Englishmen to reach Japan, in 1600. He became a trusted adviser to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and was made a samurai. He was one of the most influential foreigners in the history of Japan. He Japanese name was Miura Anjin.

  • Itō Hirobumi
    Leading Meiji-era statesman and first prime minister of Japan.

  • Meiji
    Emperor of Japan from 1868 to 1912, also known as Mutsuhito.

  • Oda Nobunaga
    Major daimyō during the Warring States period and the initiator of the unification of Japan.

  • Perry, Matthew Calbraith
    American Commodore who forced Japan to open its ports to the Western powers in 1853, which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa regime and the modernization of Japan under Meiji.

  • Saigo Takamori
    One of samurai from Satsuma supporting the Meiji Restoration. He is often considered to be the last real samurai to die as such, and inspired the 2003 film The Last Samurai.

  • Shōwa
    Emperor of Japan from 1926 to 1989, also known as Hirohito.

  • Taishō
    Emperor of Japan from 1912 to 1926, also known as Yoshihito.

  • Tokugawa Ieyasu
    Founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate.

  • Toyotomi Hideyoshi
    Sucessor of Oda Nobunaga, who completed the political unification of Japan during the Sengoku period.

  • Yamagata Aritomo
    Prominent Meiji-era statesman and founder of the modern Japanese army. He served twice as prime minister.

Place names

  • Chōshū
    Former name of Yamaguchi prefecture.

  • Echigo
    Former name of Niigata prefecture.

  • Echizen
    Former name of Fukui prefecture.

  • Edo
    Former name of Tokyo until 1868.

  • Heian-kyō
    Old name of Kyōto from 794 to 1185.

  • Heijō-kyō
    Former name of Nara when it was the capital of Japan, from 710-740 and from 745-784.

  • Ezo
    Old name of Hokkaidō until 1869.

  • Hida
    Old province in the north of modern Gifu prefecture.

  • Hitachi
    Old province of Japan corresponding roughly to the modern Ibaraki Prefecture. It is also the name of one of Japan's largest technological corporations, although the province and the company are not related and their names are spelt with different Chinese characters (respectively 常陸 vs 日立).

  • Miyako
    One of the former names of Kyōto.

  • Musashi
    Former province comprising most of the Greater Tokyo today, including most of Saitama Prefecture and part of Kanagawa Prefecture (Kawasaki and Yokohama).

  • Naniwa
    Old name of Ōsaka until the 16th century.

  • Satsuma
    Former name of Kagoshima prefecture.

  • Tosa
    Former name of Kochi prefecture.


  • Bakumatsu
    Final years of the Tokugawa shogunate (1853-1867), from the arrival of Commodore Perry to the Meiji Restoration.

  • Daijō Daijin
    Chancellor of the Realm presiding over the Great Council of State. It was the highest government position during the Heian period, and remained a prestigious honourary title until the Edo period.

  • Harakiri
    Ritual suicide. Usually called seppuku by the Japanese.

  • Kabuki
    Traditional Japanese theatre.

  • Kamon
    Traditional family crest of the aristocracy. Also called "Monsho" or just "Mon".

  • Katana
    The most common of the traditional Japanese sword used by samurai (average lenght of 70 cm).

  • Kodachi
    Literally "small Tachi". A short Japanese sword (average 59 cm in length) that would be carried by non-samurai, such as merchants.

  • Koto
    Traditional 13-stringed instrument played flat on the floor.

  • Meiji Restoration
    Historical period coinciding with the Westernization and industrialization of Japan.

  • Ninja
    A covert agent or mercenary of feudal Japan specializing in espionage, sabotage, infiltration, and assassination.

  • Nodachi
    Literally "field sword". Large two-handed Japanese sword often exceeding 90 cm in length. Roughly the same as ōdachi meaning "large sword".

  • Onnagata
    Male actor playing a woman's role in Kabuki.

  • Sadaijin
    Literally "Minister of the Left", the Sadaijin was a Senior Minister of State. It was the second highest government position after the Daijō Daijin during the Nara and Heian periods.

  • Samurai
    Member of the military caste of feudal Japan.

  • Sengoku
    Warring state. Name of a historical period of civil war spanning from the mid-15th to the early 17th century.

  • Seppuku
    Ritual suicide. Also known as harakiri.

  • Shinsengumi
    Elite samurai corps of the late Tokugawa era.

  • Shōgun
    Military ruler in feudal Japan.

  • Shuninjō
    A shogunal license to trade sealed with vermilion wax, used during the Sengoku and Edo periods.

  • Tachi
    Japanese sword that is more curved and slightly longer than the katana, with an average length of 78cm. Mostly used by high-ranking samurai during the Sengoku and Edo periods.

  • Tsuba
    Sword guard as used on "katana".

  • Udaijin
    Literally "Minister of the Right", the Udaijin was a Junior Minister of State, deputy of the Sadaijin. It was the third highest government position during the Nara and Heian periods.

  • Ukai
    Cormorant fishing. This has been practice for a very long time in Japan and can still be observed in some rural areas such as the Gify prefecture (see Inuyama.

  • Ukiyoe
    Traditional Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced between the 17th and the early 20th centuries.

  • Wakizashi
    Traditional Japanese sword with a short blade (between 30 and 60 cm, i.e. between 12 and 24 inches).

  • Yari
    Traditional straight-headed spear used by foot troops and samurai. The martial art of wielding the yari is called sōjutsu.
Wedding of Crown Prince Yoshihito and Princess Kujō Sadako
Wedding of Crown Prince Yoshihito (future Emperor Meiji) and Princess Kujō Sadako

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