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  • Juju Kurihara

What is Banzai in Japanese?

Updated: May 10, 2023

Only a month and a bit left this year. Some people are very aware of the year 2012 but the time goes by and 2012 will most likely to come. In Japan, New Year´s Day is just like Christmas in the Western world, spend time together with the family and relatives. Traditionally, people made a lot of food before the 31st of December and at least for the first three days of New Year, we just sat, ate food, ate mikan and watched special TV programs. But nowadays, many supermarkets open on the 1st of January so that people don´t get bored staying home.

Sounds silly but this is happening.

So, if you are at home, in your kotatsu (コタツ/ one of Japanese heating system) and watching TV, you may see this on the telly.

This is the Emperor´s New Year greeting, Shin-nen Ippan Sanga (新年一般参賀) in Japanese. Usually it´s on the 2nd of January and as you can see, many many people go to see the Emperor´s family in the showcase (no offence). To those who are interested in visiting koukyo (皇居), here is the information.

But what I want to talk isn´t about the Emperor family, it´s about what they say. Look the next video.

Can you hear it? Did you hear people say "Tennou Heika, Banzaaaai!!!".

Yes, it´s about this word, "Banzai".

Actually I´ve seen in some TV programs outside of Japan, people shout this word before they die or they do something that may kill them. I mean before some suicidal actions. Then I feel something strange about it.

Banzai is written 万歳 in Japanese. 万 means 10,000 and 歳 means years or years old. So Banzai means 10,000 years, of what? 10,000 years of life or prosperity.

It´s said that the first time this word appeared on the 11th of February 1889, when the Japanese Constitution was issued. On the ceremony, as the Emperor appeared people shouted "Banzai!, Banzai!, Banzai!". It´s called Banzai Sanshou (万歳三唱) because they shout Banzai three times.

heian kyo

There is another theory, too. In Sandai Jitsuroku (三代実録 / "The True History of Three Reigns of Japan") which was completed in 901, Heian period (平安時代) in Japan, it´s mentioned that when the Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇 737-806) returned to then Capital, Heian (平安), the crowd rushed to see him and shouted Banzai with joy. Although back then it was rather BanzEi BanzAi.

In 1889, when the Constitution was issued, there was an argument about how to shout. The other option was Houga (奉賀) which is quite common word for such occasions. However, someone mentioned that if they repeated this word many times, it´d start souting like "ahou (阿呆)" which means stupid in Kansai dialect.

Rinji Hennenshi Henshuugakari (臨時編年史編纂掛 / The Historiographical Institute) had suggested the word "Banzai" was more appropriate. They also discussed if they should read the word banzei or manzai, at the end they settled as banzai.

Banzai is often shouted in the current Japan, quite frequently. When they achieved something, they won a competition, a candidate won the election. In other languages, perhaps corresponds to "Hurray" in English or "Yippee!" in Spanish.

So Japanese people do Banzai for joy and celebrations but not when you throw yourself away from a cliff. To be honest it´s not my favorite way of celebrating. I prefer other word like Yattaaaa! (やったー!), just because Banzai reminds me too much of imperialism and militarism but perhaps people don´t usually relate to it.

Remember, Banzai Sansho, shout three times.





This is only Banzai I like. "Banzai" by Ulfuls

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