Traveler Trivia: Why does Japan use both Japanese and Western Names for Animals?
It's almost summer time, and at the top of your to-do list when you come to Japan may be to visit a zoo, aquarium, or a nature park somewhere in Japan, which I highly recommend because there are some fantastic examples of each in this country (my favorite is Ostrich Kingdom in Ibaraki). One question I frequently receive whenever folks go to zoos in this country is, "Why are some animals in Japan called by Japanese names, and others called by Western Names?" It is an interesting question, because as you walk around a zoo, you'll see a pen for Japanese Macaques, which they call Saru, and then one for Gorillas, which are called Gorira. You'll see kangaru (kangaroo) and tora (tiger), zo (elephant) and pengin (penguin), and many other examples of this disparity between Japan . So what gives? Why is there a difference in the naming conventions? There is a clear point of delineation between the traditional Japanese and Western naming conventions for animals in Japan: the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
The Meiji Restoration was when the power over Japan (in principle) transferred back from the Shogun (a military ruler) to the Emperor. It also ushered in a period of modernization after over 250 years of relative isolation from the international community under the Shogunate's policy of sakoku (closed off country). Under the auspices of Imperial order, Japanese scholars and warriors traveled across the globe to learn new languages, governments, cultures, histories, and sciences to bring back to Japan. During that time, Japan was introduced to many new species of animals, and it was when the Japanese government made that key decision that answers our question why animal names are sometimes Japanese, sometimes western. Ultimately, the government decided that any animal known to Japan before the Meiji Restoration would continue to go by its original Japanese name. Any animal introduced after the restoration would go by its western name.
Japanese diplomats and scholars on their study tour through Europe. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
There are three notable exceptions to this rule: Polar Bears, or Shiro Kuma; Zebra, or Shima Uma; and Giraffes, or Kirin. The justification for the first two is that bears (kuma) and horses (uma) were already known to Japan, so they just added the modifiers "white" (shiro) and "striped" (shima) to the names they already had; thus, white bear and striped horse--makes sense, right? The last one is a bit more unique, since when the Japanese first saw a giraffe, they immediately thought of the Chinese dragon, Kirin (the same dragon that represents the Kirin Beer brand) and decided that the Giraffe should adopt the name of something that was already part of the Japanese vernacular.
So there you have it: the answer to why some animals go by Japanese names and some go by western names! Now you'll be able to tell if an animal has been around in Japan for a while or was only introduced in the modern era.
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