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Restoration or Renovation?

Posted By Nick Kapur On 2/21/2005 @ 12:17 am In General,Medieval,Translation,幕末,明治 | Comments Disabled

I’ve always found it interesting how certain events in Japanese history have become indelibly associated with a canonical English translation that often has little to do with the actual Japanese name. 島原の乱, for example, is almost always translated as “Shimabara Rebellion,” even though “乱” is translated in other contexts into all sorts of other words, including “war,” “chaos,” “uprising,” “revolt,” “riot,” and “disorder.” A more glaring example is 西南戦争, which is always translated as “Satsuma Rebellion” instead of something more literal, such as “War of the Southwest.”

Another curious term is the “restoration” in “Meiji Restoration” and “Kenmu Restoration.” I was surprised to find out recently that these two events, strongly linked in English historiography by the use of the same English word to describe them, are labeled in Japanese with two different terms, neither of which means “restoration.” In the case of the Meiji event, the term is of course, 明治維新 (Meiji Ishin), while Go-Daigo’s coup is usually known as 建武新政 (Kenmu Shinsei). What is so odd about calling these events “restorations” is that they both make use of the character 新, which implies something entirely new, rather than a “restoring” of something old from the past. Thus, not only does the term “restoration” in English historiography imply a link between these two events that may not be so clear to the Japanese, but it also is simply not a very accurate translation of the Japanese terms in question. Perhaps a new English word should be chosen, such as “renovation” or “renewal” or somesuch.


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