For big events in people’s lives, you may congratulate them, say they deserve it, and wish them well, but this isn’t exactly something that, taking decorum into account, you can do for a king or emperor. While Western countries with a monarch typically have a variation of “long live the king/queen,” many Japanese, immediately after the recent formal ascension (Sokui no rei) of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne, raised their arms and shouted “Banzai!” Though this isn’t exactly an unfamiliar phrase with outsiders – frankly, most often associated with the Second World War – the true meaning behind it is often cloudy and misunderstood.
Understanding the phrase itself, it can be used generally as an applause or an enthusiastic cheer; however, in a strictly imperial sense, the phrase is a variation of “long live the emperor.” Literally translated as ‘ten thousand years’ (Ban meaning ‘10,000’, and sai/zai meaning ‘years’), the actual number “10,000” isn’t meant to be taken literally. Much in the way that our term myriad can be taken to mean either “10,000” or simply, “a great many,” the use of the number is based on East Asian languages’ use of 10,000 as the largest individual number in the counting system.
The origin of this phrase – as well as similar phrases in Vietnamese and Korean – can be found in ancient China, where, during the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu of Han was honourifically called wansui (萬歲) while on Mount Song in 110BC. Though legend has it that Emperor Wu was called wansui by the mountain itself – which is quite an achievement – the term had, by the Tang Dynasty (about 7 centuries later), started to be used exclusively as a way of expressing long life to the emperor.
By the 8th century, our term was being used in Japan. According to stories, walking among the dried trees in his garden during a 5-month drought, Emperor Kanmu stopped and implored the gods for rain, when the skies soon darkened and it began to rain, his attendants began shouting “Banzai!” Still, there is speculation that the term is even older, with a possible reference being found in relation to the Empress Kōgyoku during 642 in the Nihon Shoki.
Modern usage of the term can be traced back to the late 1880s and, specifically, the creation and adoption of the Meiji Constitution, when, in front of the emperor’s carriage, university students were heard shouting Banzai. Though a different type of “carriage,” the introduction of the word into English also comes from this time period, when poet and journalist Sir Edwin Arnold wrote in his 1893 play Adzuma: “At the departure of the Imperial train, the citizens raise loyal cries of ‘banzai! Banzai!’”
In an even more recent development and only a few weeks after the Japanese imperial succession, our UK Marketing Manager, Lucy Kikuchi, spent a week in Tokyo for a series of successful business meetings – and here is our Banzai applause for her!