Translation 101: Understanding Old & New Japanese

Translating Japanese into one’s native language is a skill of its own. Depending on area of interest, some prior independent or specialized study & research is required when attempting to transcribe info from one language to another. It is separate from just studying the Japanese language alone; even for a native Japanese person, attempting to explain the contents of something they have never heard of or are unfamiliar with is a very difficult task. For those individuals who wish to go down the path of translating, years of exposure to said field of interest, along with lots of trial and error is needed in order to get a proper grasp. 

In the case of older Japanese documentation on martial & military-centric topics, it is imperative to be familiar with the time period the document was written versus modern day standards in order to understand the differences. For instance, when reading older Japanese texts, it is common to see the use of kanji (漢字, Chinese-derived written characters) that differ from the ones used for the same words used today, yet need to distinguish if there are any similarities at the same time.  As an example, here’s an entry from Buyō Benryaku (武用便略), an 8-volume compendium of general items, gear, and practices used by warriors, martial artists, guards, and the like. This was compiled by Kinoshita Yoshitoshi in the early Edo period. In the 6th volume, there is a section regarding methods of arresting wrongdoers, which also contains a short entry and picture regarding the mittsu dōgu¹ (三つ道具), which are staves with special implements on one end.


Below is the aforementioned page, followed by the original text and my translation.


挟脵 今云桎
捻ル ヒネリという


Picture of the mittsu dōgu (from right to left)


Sasumata (known as a shackling tool nowadays)

Nejiru (called “hineri” as well)

To the right are some of the tools you will find in a guardhouse, called the mittsu dōgu (3 tools). These are also known as the “torite no mittsu dōgu” (3 arresting tools).

In 2 other articles² I had mentioned about the mittsu dōgu. What’s interesting is the difference between how they are written in their respective sources. Below I will explain the kanji used for those mentioned in the Buyō Benryaku, and compare them with the modern day writing style.

DESCRIPTION: Tsukubō is a T-shaped tool that a person would thrust at one’s target to push and pin them down. The barbs on the T-shape implement helps to increase its effectiveness.

tsuku・bō / 釻・棒 
The reading of tsuku (釻) is a unique one. Originally the name of the metal fittings that secures the string on a bow, it was later used to describe the 2 metal bars that protrude outwards at the end of a stick. Bō (棒) means “stick”.
Comparing this with the more modernized written version:

tsuku・bō / 突・棒
This tsuku (突) means “to thrust” or “to stab”. It’s pronounced in its plain verb form, which is unusual. This may have been done so the same “tsuku” pronunciation could be retained. The kanji for bō remains the same.

It can be said that the older kanji for tsuku is more descriptive to design, while the modern version indicates the manner to which this tool is used.

DESCRIPTION: Sasumata has a U-shape implement on the end, and is used to capture a part of the body to hold a person down.

sasu・mata / 挟・脵
The use of sasu (挟) here can indicate “to grip from both sides”, “to sandwich inbetween” or “to trap”. Although used in this older document, this kanji is still used in modern times. For mata (脵), this is an older kanji that refers to the crotch or thigh. At times the kanji used for mata is “叉”, which is another older version that means the same thing.

If we compare this to modern written form:

sasu・mata / 刺・股
The kanji used for sasu (刺) here generally means “to stab”, but also has an alternative meaning of “to catch”. The modern-day version of mata (股) is used.

On a technical note, both versions of sasu are in their plain verb form. Although still a name, it is done so in an unusual manner. Also, while both versions imply catching a supposed criminal by their leg, sasumata wasn’t only used there, but could manipulate other parts of the body when necessary.

DESCRIPTION: The purpose of the nejiru is to snag a person’s clothing, with the sleeve of the jacket being the main target.

nejiru / 捻る
There is only one kanji used here. Actually, an action verb is used as the name. Nejiru means “to twist” or “to wrench”. The name actually describes the action used, which is to twist this tool once it’s snagged onto a person’s clothing in order to capture them.

While the reading “nejiru” is correct, it seems to be an alternative name…or that there were other names used depending on group, area, etc. “Hineri” (ヒネリ) is also used, and, despite being written in katakana³ (片仮名, a written form that indicates the phonetics of words) in the text above, is an alternative pronunciation for the same kanji. Another name that was used during Edo period was “mojiri” (錑). In this case, it was viewed that there’s a technical approach to using the mojiri, which was called “mojirijutsu” (錑術). For the most part, all names indicate the physical motion of how this tool is used.

sode・garami / 袖・絡み
In modern times tools like this are universally called “sodegarami” (袖絡み), which means “sleeve-snagger”. This is probably due to its effectiveness to control a weapon-wielding suspect with the sleeve of a jacket being the target area. This is a more direct labeling that identifies its purpose.


Why are there different ways to identifying the same thing? There are some factors that play a role in this. For starters, since the time when when Japan adopted the writing style of kanji from China, there was no one universally accepted style of using the Japanese language. Before a standard was developed in the early 1900s⁴, there were different colloquial speeches depending on the prefecture, education, area of residence, group of association, and so on. As an example, within a group that lives in the south of Japan they may identify one thing with a particular label, but within another group that live in the North may use a different label.

This lack of standard also can be seen in the written style individuals used hundreds of years ago. In some cases a writer may have used one version of a kanji because it was what was familiar to him, yet another writer may choose to use a different kanji that had the same meaning just because that is what he was familiar with. This happened a lot if the contents were learned verbally, and had to be transcribed however the writer could do. Fortunately, furigana (振仮名, identifying kanji phonetically with kana next to or above it) was used in some older documents, which help to understand not only how to pronounce an unfamiliar kanji, but to understand what it’s describing in case it’s something that most are familiar with verbally.

Finally, some things were coded intentionally through aliases. This was possibly done to hide the real identity of a topic from those who are not part of a certain group. This was common practice in many martial systems and military manuals. Since guardswork and policing were also performed by martial artists, this practice also came into play. The downside to this is if the original term is forgotten and only the alias has been documented, it is hard to figure out what is being discussed if there are no pictures associated.

After the Japanese language became standardized, many older, unusual words & kanji were dropped, and replaced with modernized versions. If the change is minimum, it could be as small as replacing with modernize kanji that help making the reading easier. However, if the change is more drastic, some labeling could be replaced entirely with a new word. It’s points like this that make doing research important.


To sum up, it is important to learn how to research older documents to compare the contents to that which are known in modern context. This is important to remember for those who wish to be a translator of topics that have an old history. It’s impossible to think you’ll know everything no matter how related it is to your area of interest, or that you’ll remember every single word or kanji that you’ve come across. Keeping notes, having reliable sources for referencing purposes, and further updating one’s knowledge on said area of interest is critical in order to produce acceptable work.

1) This is not the only case where the term mittsu dōgu is used. It is a common one used to identify 3 things that are considered valuable or important. For example, in the same document used above, the jutte (十手), manriki (万力, nowadays known as the kakute [角手]), and hananeji (鼻捻) make up a unique category called “Kingoku no mittsudōgu” (禁獄の三つ道具), which were essential for handling imprisoned criminals. Next, there was 3 methods for shackling those who were held in captivity, which was by the hands, feet, and the neck. Then there are 3 different types of Japanese designed boats recognized at one point in time. Finally, 3 important farming tools necessary were the. suki (鋤, plough), kuwa (鍬, hoe), and kama (鎌, sickle).

2) Those two articles are here and here

3) Generally, katakana is used to indicate foreign words, unusual words, and visualizing sounds. However, it was also commonly used alongside with kanji in official government documents, books, manuals, and so on before modern times.

4) Small details about this effort to reform the Japanese language was discussed here

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