Restoration or Renovation?

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.


  1. I’ve noticed this curious mistranslation of Japanese historical events too. Another example might
    be the “Onin War” even though in Japanese it is “Onin no Ran” 応仁の乱 and not “Onin Senso”
    応仁戦争. But then again words like “Meiji Restoration” have been so entrenched in English-language historiography that it would be a little jarring for me to see it translated as “Meiji Renovation” as some scholars have tried to do.
    To me, “renovation” sounds like you’re renovating your house and takes a little away from the more
    inspirational connotations of “restoration” even though of course it wasn’t really a restoration.
    There’s a similar translation issue in the “kakushin kanryo” 革新官僚 of the 1930s who are sometimes translated
    as “renovationist bureaucrats” which, although accurate, is more of a mouthful to say than
    “reform bureaucrats.”

  2. I’ve also noticed this kind of mistranslation of Japanese historical events. Another example is the “Ōnin War” despite the fact that it is called “Ōnin no Ran” 応仁の乱 and not “Ōnin Sensō” 応仁戦争. On the other hand, terms like the “Meiji Restoration” have become so entrenched in English-language historiography that it would perhaps be a little jarring (at least for me) if it was now called “Meiji Renovation” as some scholars have tried to do. To me, “renovation” sounds like you’re remodeling your house and loses the kind of inspirational connotations that come with “restoration” even though of course it really wasn’t a restoration. Still, when I hear the word “renovation,” images of contractors and carpenters running around a la Extreme Makeover: Home Edition first come to mind and not the dramatic moments and events of the late 1860s connected with Japan’s modern nation-building.

  3. “Renewal” might be a more exact translation (with the added virtue of integrating “new” into the terminology) but in both cases it was explained as a restoration of power which had atrophied/been usurped. The explanation carries a bit more weight with Kemmu than with Meiji, in the sense that Imperial authority was only a few generations removed at that point, but fundamentally both events, whatever they were called, were political recentralizations around an Imperial institution which was fundamental to Japan’s original nation-formation.

    I think “restoration” is a perfectly good term shared by fundamentally similar events. The sense it carries of refurbishing something tarnished and worn seems to me valid, too….

    It’s also worth noting that the Japanese do the same thing in reverse, with terms like Nanboku senso for the US Civil War.

  4. In Kenneth G. Henshalls “A history of Japan” the “Shimabara Rebellion” is acctually refered to as the “Shimabara Massacre”.
    I think there are several other terms, none pops up in the minds at the moment though. But it is possible to change the terminology used in english? I have gotten used to “Onin War”, should someone say “Onin Revolt” or “Onin disorder” I will probably get confused a second or two. Since english is not my native I can gladly support a change! (I have to create the swedish terms when teaching japanese history)

    Either way, thanks for the wake up call! I had not noticed at this problem was this extended. I only thought it was a few words here and there.

  5. Hey Thomas, thanks for the comment. I was especially amused to learn that you had seen it called the Shimabara Massacre, which I guess is an appropriate term going by content of the event…

  6. Is it? I just read Murdochs text about it. Even if not all is true its the most detailed description I have at hand at the moment. And if we hold his text close to the “truth” then I would use the word “chaos” more than massacre. If you have 37 000 people inside a castle which has withstand the attackers for a long time, and further, the anger of the attackers as only peseants have stopped their attacks, many will be killed. Two additional factors are that, according to Murdochs text, the attackers were not unified in their last attack. The Nabeshima attacked on their own and so forth (thus chaos) and that the rebells inside are not fighting unified. They will be divided into small gruops without contact and it is hard, if not impossible, to know what has happened to the other. In a field you can see the others running away but not inside a castle, thus the defence might be a lot more stubborn resulting in big casualties.
    In Murdoch text there are few fotnotes and I am not sure where he gets the information from. The amount of attackers are uncertain and discussed yet the amount of rebells, which should be a lot harder to get an exact number of, are simply mentioned as 37 000 by which 20 000 were fighting. How do we know this? In addition to this it says that only 105 were taken hostages. Who mentions this? Is this from a report that a dutch merchant was told by a japanese official? Are the non-fighting peseants included in this count or is it possible they were just sent home?
    My guess is that we are influenced by the european reports at this time due to amount of Christian peseants participating. From what I have seen are most of the writers, today, about the christian century in Japan have close ties to the chatolic church and therefore it is likely that they will use the word massacre.
    I think that I will keep calling it “Shimabara Revolt” or equivalent. I hope I did not go too far in my thoughts above.

  7. Hmm…well I honestly don’t know the early modern period very well…I only know what intro texts on that period have to say about it, like Marius Jansen’s Making of Modern Japan saying, “The end of the resistance was followed by the grisly slaughter of all who had survived.” (77) Looks like he cites Ivan Morris’ Nobility of Failure at the end of this, which says, “The massacre began on 15th April,” (171) and referring to the account of Duarte Correa says that the wounded captured were buried alive. “There were still thousands of survivors, however, and the government forces now set about exterminating them.” (172) “The few who managed to escape from Hara Castle were hunted down and decapitated. The slaughter on 15th April was one of the greatest in all Japan’s sanguinary history. The nearby rivers and inlets were clogged with decapitated bodies…A total of 3,632 rebel heads was counted in the Hosokawa ditch; we are told that the actual number taken was far greater…” (173)

  8. Since we’re discussion the Shimabara event, there is an interesting account of Duarte Correa’s report by a scholar of Portuguese studies available online at: As with other accounts of this event, I’ve always been struck by how this starts out like so many other peasant protests throughout Japanese history. To address the question of what it should be called, we first need to consider what it is that makes this one so special. The number of participants? the number killed? the connection to Christianity? the gathering in and defense of the fortress (distinctly un-peasantish behaviour, that!)? Referring to it as a ‘massacre’ places the focus on the unleashing of government fury during the final few days, diminishing the acts of the peasant participants. ‘Rebellion,’ on the other hand, focusses on their defiance. ‘Protest’ would locate it within the narrative of ikki. It seems to me that any of these could be appropriate, depending on the writer/speaker’s focus.

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