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Why Japanese is Tough

The other day we had a guest in class who happened to be Japanese. He spends lots of time with his family in Japan and so is fluent. I always like to talk with native speakers since it helps me improve my Japanese which is…well…less than perfect. But I try to incorporate as much Japanese into my class as possible, so I was extra mindful of what I was saying in our guests native tongue.

We came to a technique called Uranami (浦波) which I was always told was “Inner Waves”. He then announced me that that was incorrect: “It actually means back or backwards wave.” I was a bit taken back, and I started to ask about ura and omote: “Depending on the context it means front and back – so Omote is the front of the hand (knuckle side), and Ura is the back (palm side).”

And it made sense, both in context of the technique, and in terms of the Torite Waza. Could it be possible that such a large swath of the Bujinkan community – foreigners at least – have gotten this wrong? Every translation I’ve seen refers to Inner or Inside; has no one checked?

It reminded me when we had a Judoka teach a seminar who was fluent in Japanese. He was talking about kote gaeshi and asked how we referred to it:

“We call it omote gyaku” I said.

He looked puzzled and asked “one hand reverse?”

“Outer reverse.”

“Huh, that sounds like it was made up by a non Japanese speaker. Omote means ‘one hand’.”

Yes it does, but it also means outside. And surface. And table. This reveals some of the challenge of Japanese and it’s inherent ambiguities, since one word can have so many meanings.

It turns out the Japanese guest was right (of course – he’s fluent in the language), as were those other translations I’ve seen in the Bujinkan (of course – someone would have picked up on such a common and basic term being totally wrong by now). Yet – none of them are really correct at all. Let’s look at the term “Ura” and the kanji using good ol’ Google Translate:

The most common usage for the kanji 浦 is “back” or “backwards“. However, it can also mean:

  • Reverse Side
  • Sole
  • Lining
  • Inside
  • Wrong Side
  • Under-surface
  • Palm
  • Last Half

Japanese is a very contextual language – words take on meaning depending on the context of use. So technically Ura means all of these, and somewhere between these.

English on the other hand is much more specific; inside means inside and palm means palm. So when things get translated to English some of the subtle nuances get lost when one thing is “picked” to be the meaning.

If we look at a technique that has Ura in it, we can compare it to these different ideas and see which ones are closer, and even where they overlap. In the case of Uranami (from Koto Ryu) we see several make sense:

  • Backwards
  • Reverse-side
  • Inside
  • Under-surface

Rather than pick the right one, each of these meanings fit and even add depth to our understanding of the technique:

  • The technique hook kicks behind the knee, like a backwards moving wave
  • The kick uses the heal to hit the back – or reverse side – of the knee
  • The kick pushes the knee to the inside, like a wave moving inward to their center-line from an edge
  • The primary counter attack happens to the knee, like something happening under the surface of a wave

Rather than being exclusionary definitions, they add perspective and meaning to different aspects of the technique. Some interpretations are more linguistically common, while others are more inherent to the context of the technique.

However, by embracing the ambiguity and nuances in the names of the techniques, you can understand them more holistically – as well as improve your understanding of Japanese as well. Each subtle shift in meaning reveals something different and insightful about the technique.

I think this may be way Soke likes playing so much with kanji and translations – a lot of meaning can be found with a little interpretation.

Shikin Haramitsu Daikoumiyo

If you’ve ever taken a Martial Arts class at a Bujinkan Dojo, you’ve heard those three somewhat difficult Japanese words shouted at the beginning and end of class: Shiken Haramitsu Daikoumyo. These words have profound significance – but only if you understand what they mean (much less say them). Here we’re going to translate this Buddhist mantra, and the meaning behind one of the most often used phrases in Bujinkan training.

Shu-Ha-Ri: Phases of Training

Shuhari – “Preserve, Break, Transcend”
There are considered 3 phases of training in Bujinkan Ninjutsu (and most Japanese Martial Arts) – “Shu, Ha & Ri”. These phases focus on what the intention and the approach of the student should be towards their training at a particular level.


  1. Sébastien Beaudry

    In martial art, most words we use sounds strange to the hear of japanese. There a lot of bad translation, bad use of grammar etc. I can’t explain why. Maybe because of lazyness. Someone influent gived a wrong translation and everyone of continued to repeat that (like birds!) or maybe this king of language was used to communicate with foreigners with simple terms. I study japanese since 3 years and I got 2 dictionnary. I searched meanings of many term we use in budo. And most definition I heards was not good.

    For exemple, this is the suposed kanji of the prayer
    Shikin Haramitsu Daikomyô 詞韻波羅密大光明
    詞 = shi (on’yomi) = kotoba (kun’yomi) = words
    韻 = In (on’yomi only) = rhyme (not kin!)
    we could translate these 2 kanji with poesy.

    波= Ha (on’yomi) = nami (kun’yomi)= wave
    羅 = Ra (on’yumi only) = I dont find the meaning of these kanji but on internet i found tissue.
    密 = Mitsu (on’yomi only) = density or intimacy/privacy exemple Himitsu (secret)
    These 3 kanji put together means paramita (in old sanskrit) if Google is right…. but in a buddhist prayer i found it is written another ways and use 4 kanji…. 般若 波羅蜜多 心經 Hannya haramitta shin-gyô (sutra of the heart)

    大 = Dai/Tai (on’yomi) = OO/Ookii (kun’yomi) = big/tall
    光 = koo (on’yomi) = Hikari (kun’yomi) = light
    明 = myoo (on’yomi) = akari/akarui/akiraka (kun’yomi) =light/certainty

    So we should say : shi in haramitta daikoomyo.

    Shikin hara(u)mitsu dai koomyo means: ingenious way to frequently pay fund. Thats what a japanese could understand when he ears that! 🙂

    Good meditation!

    • Shidoshi Hamilton

      Hey Sebastian,

      Very interesting. I actually wrote about the meaning of Shiken Haramitsu Daikomyo, but with different kanji: https://www.todaidojo.com/shiken-haramitsu-daikoumiyo/

      There is also a Wikipedia page about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiken_haramitsu_daikoumyo

      Indeed I think not enough people study the actual meaning behind the phrase, they take it on face value. Japanese is very complex though, so the more effort you put into understanding it’s intricacy – the better you understand not just language but the culture.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • shamilton1983

      I might see you there! Let me know what he says if you make it there first. When do you usually go?

  2. Junjie

    It looks to me as if you missed the huge issue when it comes to studying Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, or similar languages – homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings). Examples include “see” vs “sea” or “deer” vs “dear”. Homophones abound in the Japanese language. And that means we usually cannot be certain what word is used unless it is written down.

    The kanji 浦has 3 dots in a vertical row at the left. That is the dead giveaway that the meaning has something to do with water. And it does. That exact character means “inlet”.

    Another sound that gives confusion – “kata”. Without looking at the kanji you cannot be sure if the speaker is talking about “form” (型 ), “one-sided” (片) or “shoulder” (肩), but once you look at the kanji it is obvious. To say that the different words having the same sound add perspective to the meaning is like saying “sea” adds perspective to our understanding of the word “see”. Linguistically that starts to break down really fast! 😀

    Hope I didn’t put you to sleep talking about the intricacies of language… 😛

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