/ Etymology and Onomastics, No. 1
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By Una Ada, July 25, 2023

Kinokuniya, the bookstore, has no relation to Kinokuniya Bunzaemon. This really threw me off when reading Reigokai’s translation of the TsukiMichi: Moonlit Fantasy (月が導く異世界道中) web novel. In chapter 324, Tomoe describes Rembrandt’s sudden interest in the construction methods of the main character’s company like so:

“I am impressed that that man is trying to replicate this. Not only Echigoya, he is even aiming for the Kinokuniya. He is capable.”1

This statement took me a while to process. See, my mind immediately associates the name Kinokuniya with a bookstore, which doesn’t have anything to do with construction methodology, right? Then there’s the parallels being drawn between Kinokuniya and Echigoya, which is a name I honestly don’t recognize. Tomoe and to a lesser extent Makoto constantly reference things from the Edo Period, so I was getting used to just glazing over this kind of thing. Like, the building they’re constructing is meant to be a yoseba, which is pretty esoteric. Kinokuniya, though, is a name I’ve seen before, so I just had to dig into it a little. Honestly, I have always wondered why the bookshop was called that, so this is basically just me forcing myself to actually figure it out!

If you ask the internet what kinokuniya means, English sources for learning Japanese will typically just tell you that it is the name of a bookshop. Obviously, this is not the whole story. Kinokuniya as a transliteration of the Japanese “紀伊國屋” is indeed the name of a bookshop, but also the name of the legendary merchant Kinokuniya Bunzaemon, the less legendary merchant Kinokuniya Bunemon,2 and some Kabuki actor. Still, kinokuniya could also be a transliteration of the name of a supermarket (紀ノ国屋) or the name of a sweets shop (紀の國屋).

This can seem fairly confusing due to a number of sources claiming that kinokuniya translates to “bookstore of the Kii province,” possibly based on a misreading3 of a part of the Wikipedia article on the bookstore. In fairness, the article is somewhat confusing regarding this, as the full Japanese name for the company, 紀伊国屋書店, could be translated as such. More literally, this reads as “Kii Province store bookshop” or just “Kinokuniya Bookshop.” Of course, it is for this very reason that the English name for the company is “Books Kinokuniya.” This distinguishes the company from those other stores and denotes the market of the business, which makes sense given that it did start out as a lumber dealer before the original store was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

The attentive among you may have noticed that these translations all refer to Kii Province, yet the name does not include that second i. This is one of the many cases where the Japanese language is simply fucking with you. While the kanji is certainly read as ki, as in the terms 日本書紀 or 世紀, the kanji would appear to be read no instead of i as one would expect. You should certainly expect this, it’s the same kanji you’d find in Iga (伊賀), like the ninjas, or the ateji4 name of Italy (伊太利). So why is this the case?

This is a question that definitely, probably, almost has some form of an answer. Let’s take a little stroll through history to the 7th century here. In the Kansai region, on a peninsula south of Osaka, the province initially known as Kinokuni (木国) was founded.5 It’s name was likely derived from the abundance of forests in the area; there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to this claim, but why else would you call it “tree country?” It’s immediately obvious that we’re dealing with one of those funny phenomena in the reading of this: the no is not written in the name. This is actually a common occurrence with place names in Japan,6 both no and ga are frequently left to inference, though the latter has in some cases been given the incredibly confusing character “ヶ” to represent it. This may seem like an absurd way to write names, but it makes sense when you consider the way kanji was merely adopted as a means to write preexisting words and names in Japan. With the initial adoption, some considered the writing to be a tad chaotic, obviously something had to be done about this.

In 713 (和銅 6 年), an imperial edict was issued to fix up this system by dictating that all provinces ought to have their names written with two ‘auspicious’ characters (好字).789 Evidently the kanji for tree wasn’t auspicious enough,10 so it was to be replaced, but what about that two character rule? This became a source of many inconsistent readings of kanji throughout the country, though in this specific instance they merely elongated the vowel, turning 木 into 紀伊.11 Despite it then being written kii, it was frequently still read simply as ki. Thus, it’s not that 伊 is read as no, it simply is not read at all, and the no is inferred separately. Isn’t that fantastic?

Just going to put this out here now, lest it suddenly pop up later and leave you all confused: Kinokuni was also called Kishu (紀州). Why? I don’t know, man, I don’t fucking know.12 Shuu (州) basically means ‘state,’ like it’s a suffix used for US states: ミネソタ州. All the provinces had aliases like this for some reason.

Is this a satisfying place to end? There’s a lot of other stuff I could talk about, but it feels a bit tangential. The history of the province is pretty interesting, there’s a whole bunch of stuff about warrior monks and samurai. Going over that stuff would give a somewhat clearer picture about the bookstore’s name. Then there’s the legend of Kinokuniya Bunzaemon. Of course, I could go on about the various things named after the place, like the mikan and the dog breed. So, if you want me to write about that, then beg?


  1. あずみ圭, “月が導く異世界道中,” 324, trans. Reigokai.

    For funsies, here is the original text of the line: 「あの男、よくもまあアレを実現しようなどと思いつく。越後屋だけでは飽き足らず紀伊國屋あで狙うか。やりおる」

    あずみ圭, “月が導く異世界道中,” 324↩︎

  2. This guy is mentioned pretty much exclusively on the Wikipedia disambiguation page for the name Kinokuniya. I cannot find a single other page that is not a reference to this. ↩︎

  3. Really doesn’t help that the Google page will just quote this without context, lmao. ↩︎

  4. Ateji comes up a lot when talking about names of things in Japan. I’m not going to get into it here, but might write a whole separate article about it specifically at some point. ↩︎

  5. Everything about the initial establishment of the province is taken from the Japanese Wikipedia article about it. ↩︎

  6. For further discussion on weird occurrences in Japanese place names, check out this WikiProject Japan article. ↩︎

  7. 諸国郡郷名著好字令,” ニコニコ大百科, Retrieved Jul. 25, 2023. ↩︎

  8. 湯本泰隆, “日本の地名や苗字に漢字2文字が多い理由。奈良時代の朝廷からの命令がきっかけ,” Japaaan Magazine, Aug. 31, 2021. ↩︎

  9. Fudoki,” Wikipedia, Retrieved Jul. 25, 2023. ↩︎

  10. From what I can tell, the idea of an auspicious kanji at the time was more or less just a vibe. It seems that, since the whole naming convention of the two kanji was based on place names in Tang Dynasty China, the kanji chosen to be in those names were also supposed to parallel the characters used in China. As far as I can tell, no name retained the character for tree, though some kept 松 which is basically the same who cares. ↩︎

  11. 漢字に惑わされるな! 古い地名は字面通りの意味ではない!?,” きびナビ, Jun. 21, 2019. ↩︎

  12. On the one hand, I could try to figure this out. On the other hand, it kinda just makes sense in its own way. On a third, secret hand, I searched for “Kishu” and the first two results were about a cryptocurrency likely trying to parallel Doge Coin and its Shiba Inu aesthetic with “Kishu Inu,” one of the common names for Kishu Ken. A lot of things are named after Kishu, including a breed of hunting dogs. How cute. ↩︎