sci.lang.japan FAQ / 3. Word origins

3.6. Where did the Japanese get their names for the weekdays?

Japanese weekday
(romaji)
In kanji Kanji meaning Planet Planet in Japanese
Monday Getsuyōbi 月曜日 The moon The moon Tsuki (月)
Tuesday Kayōbi 火曜日 Fire Mars Kasei (火星)
Wednesday Suiyōbi 水曜日 Water Mercury Suisei (水星)
Thursday Mokuyōbi 木曜日 Wood; tree Jupiter Mokusei (木星)
Friday Kin'yōbi 金曜日 Metal; gold Venus Kinsei (金星)
Saturday Doyōbi 土曜日 Earth, soil Saturn Dosei (土星)
Sunday Nichiyōbi 日曜日 Sun The sun hi (日); taiyō (太陽)

Until opening up to Western influence, the Japanese used a lunar calendar with no weeks, and called the days of the month by basically numerical names (tsuitachi, futsuka, ... misoka). Yet immediately upon adopting the Western calendar, they had names for the seven days of the week. Where did they come from?

The words for Sunday and Mo(o)nday are "'sun'-yōbi" and "'moon'-yōbi" respectively. This should be a clue that they are translations of Western names.

The Romans (translating the Greek, presumably) named the days after seven celestial luminaries, the sun, the moon, and the five readily visible planets. The planets had the names of certain gods, so the result was names that would translate into English as "Sun day, moon day, Mars day, Mercury day, Jupiter day, Venus day, Saturn day." Except for "Saturn day" and "Sun day," which suffered the effects of Christianity, the days of the week in the Romance languages still reflect those origins. In English we have, for Tuesday through Friday, names based on more-or-less equivalent Norse gods, with Satur(n) apparently filling a blank.

The Chinese had named (renamed?) the "naked-eye" planets after the Five Elements, water, metal, fire, wood, earth (listed in one of two "citation" orders), so Mercury was "water star," Venus "metal star," Mars "fire star," Jupiter "wood star," and Saturn was "earth star." The Japanese renderings (go-on) of the Chinese names are, in the same order, kasei, suisei, mokusei, kinsei, and dosei.

The Chinese also distinguished the "Seven Luminaries" from among the luminaries 曜 (on-yomi エウ = ヨウ) in the heavens. They included 日曜 (nichiyō the solar luminary), 月曜 (getsuyō, the lunar), and the five planets with "-you" replacing "-sei" ("star") in their names. The names of these Seven Luminaries were obvious translations for the original Western weekday names.

Who translated the names, and when? This seems to be a bit of a mystery. Perhaps compounding the mystery is the fact that no common Western language except Dutch preserves the "luminary"-to-weekday correspondence intact for all seven days.

Disclaimer: Nothing in the above is intended to mean that the Greeks invented the names of the days, or even that it happened first in the West.

Acknowledgements

Contributed by Bart Mathias.


sci.lang.japan FAQ / 3. Word origins

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