General Terminology

Note: Previous to April 2018, when I set up a separate page for Buddhist terminology, I was including buddhist expressions on this page. These have all been copied to the new page, I have left them at the bottom of this page for reasons of  existing page links.

Kōshintō  庚申: A type of stone monument which originated with the Taoist Kōshin faith. They were first introduced  to Japan by monks of the  Tendai Buddhist sect in the late 10th century, but it was not until the early Edo period that they became the object of a popular faith. They are mostly located in shrines and temples, though many can be found by the roadside. They are often found as Massha in shrines and are often dedicated to Saruta-hiko-kami (115). The meaning of the first character of this kami's name, Saru 猿, means "monkey," and the three wise monkeys are often carved on the Kōshintō The oldest surviving one which can be reliably dated is that in the Jissoji temple in Kawaguchi-shi in Saitama-ken, it dates to 1471.

Maneki-neko  招き猫: lit. "beckoning cat."  Figures of squatting  cats beckoning to people with either their left or right front paw. If it is the right paw which is beckoning it is said to be offering luck with money, if the left paw luck with people. Several places claim to be their originator, including the Imado Jinja in  Tōkyō's Taitō-ku, Dōtoku Temple in Setagaya-ku, Jishōin Temple in Shinjuju-ku, and Fushimi-Inari Taisha in Kyōtō. The biggest producers of Maneki-neko are to be found in Aichi-ken. September 29 has been officially recognized as Maneki-neko Commemoration Day and on the closest weekend to that day festivals are held in various places. 

Sanbiki no kashikoi saru 三匹の賢い猿 "The three wise monkeys." They are Mizaru (見ざる), who sees no evil; Kikazaru (聞かざる), who hears no evil; and Iwazaru (言わざる), who speaks no evil.

Setsubun 節分: lit. "season division." It refers to the day before spring begins and it is celebrated on February 3 as part of the Spring Festival.  Central to its celebration is the mamemaki (豆撒き, "bean scattering") ritual. This is now usually celebrated at shrines and involves the Gūji (chief priest), or at famous shrines invited celebrities, throwing handfuls of roasted beans to the gathered parishioners and all shouting "Oni wa soto, Fuku wa uchi" (鬼は外! 福は内! Ogres Out! Good Luck In!) essentially to celebrate the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new. 


Shōmenkongō 青面金剛 The main deity of the Kōshintō faith, but often replaced by Saruta-hiko-kami (115) following the Shinbutsu Bunri in 1868.

Shruti: The Four Vedas: These are considered to be the oldest Hindu scriptures and some Hindu commentary dates them to as early as 3,000 BC. Modern scholarship assigns their composition to the 1500-1000 BC period. They were compiled in the northwest of india. The oldest of the four is the Rig Veda, the others are the Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Vedas. It consists of some 1,028 hymns grouped into ten "circles" (mandalas) and was probably not committed to paper until around 300 BC. 250 of its hymns deal with the Indra, the God of War and of Storms.




Nakasendō  中山道 also known as the Kisokaidō (木曾街道): In the Edo period one of the two highways which linked Edo with Kyōto, the other was the Tōkaidō.

Osai-sakana-hachikaura (御菜肴八ヶ浦, lit. ”side dish fish eight creeks”). During the Edo Period these were the eight official suppliers of marine produce to Edo Castle, and they all fronted on Edo Bay. The eight locations were 1) Shiba-kanasugi-ura (芝金杉浦) 2) Honshiba-ura (本芝浦 3) Shinagawa-ura  (品川浦) 4) Ōi-Ohayashi-ura (大井御林浦) 5) Haneda-ura (羽田浦) 6) Namamugi-ura (生麦浦) 7) Koyasushinjuku-ura (子安新宿浦) 8) Kanagawa-ura (神奈川浦).

Tōkyō’s Big Three Alleyways 東京三大横丁



Bakufu 幕府: More properly known as the Tokugawa Bakufu, refers to the period from 1600 to 1868, when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa clan in the last of the feudal military governments. 

Boshin War (戊辰戦争

Chinjufu-shōgun 鎮守副将軍 : "Commander-in-chief of the Defense of the North". Position was created in 729 and abolished  in 1611 when the Tokugawa Bakufu assumed complete control.


Emishi  東夷: (also referred to as Ebisu or Ezo) the  aboriginal inhabitants of what are now known as the Kantō, Tōhoku, and Hokkaidō regions.

Ishibashiyama, Battle of 石橋山の戦い: Fought on September 14, 1180 between the Minamoto clan led by Minamoto Yoritomo and the Taira clan under the command of  Ōba Kagechika (大庭 景親). The heavily outnumbered Minamoto were defeated but Yoritomo survived to see the Taira overthrown in the battle of Dannoura in 1185 and set up the Kamakura Shōgunate in 1192.


Kakiagechō 書上帳: During the Edo Period, documents provided to feudal lords by town and village heads detailing the costs and prices and other information of a wide range of agricultural products.

Tengyō no Ran 天慶の乱:  (War of the Tengyō era). The name given  to a rebellion led by Taira Masakado against the central government in Kyōto. The rebellion broke out in 939 and ended Masakado's defeat and death in 940.

Zenkunen Kassen 前九年合戦, “Early Nine-Years War:” Fought from 1051 to 1063 in Mutsu Province, between the Abe clan, the de facto rulers of the province, and forces led by  Minamoto Yoriyoshi, who was sent by the central government in Kyōto to reaffirm the control of their appointed provincial governor.

Boshin War (戊辰戦争



Kimon 鬼門: lit: "Devil's Gate." In Taoism/Yin Yang theory refers to the northeast direction, from which misfortune is thought to emanate and hence must be guarded against. 

Ura-Kimon 鬼門: lit: "Reverse Devil's Gate." In Taoism/Yin Yang theory refers to the southwest direction, and has the same inauspicious qualities as Kimon.


Units of Measure

Koku 石/斛measure of volume, approx. 180.39 litres​

Shaku 尺: a unit of distance, approx. 30.3 cm

Shō  unit of volume, approx. 1.8 litres

To: : measure of volume, approx. 18 litres

Tsubo  : unit of area, approx. 3.31 square metres


Supernatural Creatures

Baku 獏/貘: supernatural beings that devour dreams and nightmares. Legend has it that they were created from scraps left over after all other animals had been created.

Kappa 河童 lit. "river child,": Probably best translated as "river sprite." Along with the tengu one of the most common supernatural creatures found in Japanese folklore. As the meaning of the name suggests Kappa are often considered to be water kami (水神) in Shintō. 

Shōshō 猩猩: Usually translated as orangutan or heavy drinker, sometimes depicted as a sea spirit with red face and hair.  There is a Noh play with this name as well as a Noh mask for the character.

Avalokiteśvara: the Goddess of Mercy,  the Bodhisattva in whom the compassion of all the Buddhas is to be found. She is known as Kannon (観音) in Japan.

Bodhisattva  菩薩 (bosatsu) lit. "enlightenment being:  A person who has achieved spiritual enlightenment but defers attaining Buddhahood until all sentient beings have been saved.

Cintāmaṇi (Nyoihōju, 如意宝珠 Sanskrit Devanagari) : "Nyo" means one's wishes, "hōju" gem/jewel, hence "wish fulfilling gem." "Mani" also means jewel and there are serveral Mani Jewels to be found in Buddhsi scriptures. This particular one, the wish fulfilling gem, is particularly associated with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and Ksitigarbha.

Golden Light (Suvarṇaprabhāsa) Sutra 金光明経 (Konkōmyōkyō): Translated from the Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmakṣema. Chapter six of this sutra was of great appeal to Emperor Temmu and subsequent emperors as it seemed to promise protection for states and their leaders:-"the Four Deva Kings, the Guardians of the World, promise with all their numberless followers (demons and spirits) to protect the kings (together with their families and countries), who attentively listen to this sutra and respectfully make offerings, receiving and keeping this holy text." (Hall, p393). It also has extensive sections on Sarasvati and Lakshmi.

Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra  金光明最勝王経 (konkōmyō-saishōō-kyō): An eight century Japanese annotation on the Golden Light Sutra

Ksitigarbha: In Japanese  Jizō (地蔵). He is best known for his vow to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the six worlds between the death of the historic Buddha and the rise of Maitreya, the Buddha yet to come. He also vowed not to achieve Buddhahood until all hells have been emptied.

Maitreya: The Buddha who is yet to come.

Shitennō 四天王: The Four Heavenly Kings tasked with protecting the Buddhist Law (the Dharma) and each is assigned to one of the four cardinal directions. They are:

    1) Protector of the north, Vaiśravaṇa, 多聞天 (Tamon-ten)/毘沙門天 (Bishamon-ten)

   2)Protector of the south,Virūḍhaka,   増長天 (Zōjō-ten)

    3) Protector of the east, Dhṛtarāṣṭra,   持国天 (Jikoku-ten)

    4) Protector of the west, Virūpākṣa,   広目天 (Kōmoku-ten)

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© Rod Lucas 2016-2020

All text and photos by Lucas unless otherwise stated