In my Sisyphean quest to elevate my Japanese lexicon to a level comparable to my English, I’m forced to delve into regions of vocabulary that are not normally (ie, never) covered in language classes, no matter how advanced the course. I doubt very much, for example, that any non-mathematical student of Japanese would ever learn how to say “the sixth root of sixty-four”, or “different isotopes do not affect molecular structure”. Language classes will mostly cover pedestrian topics (ie, statistically likely domains of conversation), related to family, personal well-being, some basic anatomy (hair, eye, hand; but not spleen, kidney, liver), literature, and some politics and geography. But never math, or astronomy, or physics, or literary analysis, or music theory. I should mention that I’m not blaming language courses for not being exhaustive in covering all conceivable intellectual domains; I’m only lamenting the fact that I personally have not had the pleasure of being formally taught “tech talk” in other languages, and therefore do not possess an intuition for which expressions are natural, and which are formal. In math, for example, the exponent an is technically expressed as “a to the power of n“, but conventionally, we shorten that to “a to the nth power” or more simply “a to the nth“.

So continuing on my quest, I decided to learn the names of the planets in our beloved solar system. And, being the etymological nut that I am, was able to immediately see some interesting facts. But first, the planets:

English Japanese J-Translation
Mercury 水星 (suisei) Water Star (Aquastar?)
Venus 金星 (kinsei) Metal Star
Earth 地球 (chikyuu) Earth Orb
Mars 火星 (kasei) Fire Star
Jupiter 木星 (mokusei) Tree Star
Saturn 土星 (dosei) Earth Star
Uranus 天王星 (ten’ousei) Sky King Star
Neptune 海王星 (kaiousei) Sea King Star
Pluto 冥王星 (meiousei) Hell King Star

Two obvious observations: 1) there are two planets that are associated with the element of “earth”; and 2) the last three have one more syllable than the preceding six.

1. Two Earths
This one is easily explained, by the fact that ancient Chinese astronomers thought of their own land as being the centre of the universe, and therefore not a celestial body. They then felt at liberty to map the five elements (earth, fire, water, metal, plant) to the five known “stars” of the sky. Moreover, like in ancient Europe, our home was obviously not called “the planet Earth” for the obvious reason that we lacked the insight to recognise our own home as being a planet. The Japanese/Chinese for terra firma was therefore 大地、陸地 (literally “great earth; continental earth”). In a way, our home was seen as a centre of these five cosmic energies (as ancient Chinese philosophy classified everything as composed of the five elements, which was why we could observe all five elements in our natural world.

2. Three Kings
So the last three cover some uneven domains: Sky, Sea, and Hell. A funny story about the “hell” planet, is that one of my interlocutors had first incorrectly wrote Pluto as 明王星, which would be the “Light King”, but given the “king” part, I suspected that there might have been a deeper connection between the Sino-Japanese name for the dwarf planet, and the Latin version of Hades. I quickly surmised that perhaps the mei– was actually of meikai (冥界; the underworld), but I suspect he might have misunderstood me as having said meikai (明快; clear; lucid), which must have seemed superfluous. Happily, my intuition proved correct. And moreover, it also illustrates the historical twist in which the latter three (all solely discovered by Europeans), were imported into Chinese knowledge, and therefore translated accordingly, after the rulers of the skies, the seas, and the underworld.

3. Stars and Hell
I should also note my hesitation in glossing the translation of Pluto as being the “hell king”; the underworld (冥界) merely denotes the destination that spirits go after death, and carries no explicit inference of torture or punishment. As some of you may know, the ancients used to call anything they saw in the sky a “planet” (including comets, Mars, the moon, and the sun). However, as their understanding of the universe expanded, the scope of the word “planet” narrowed. In a similar vein, the sinic suffix –sei (“star”) denotes anything celestial. But rather unlike the Europeans, the East Asians have retained its broader scope, to denote planets (惑星; “confused star”), stars (星), and satellites (衛星; “defense star”). Finally, I’ve found that in Japanese sci-fi lingo, they often go by “star (星)” when referring to planets, either indicating a divide between vernacular and astrological lexicons, or simply that 星 still retains a wider currency in modern times.

It’s cool for me to see how plainly the shift in nomenclature of the planets reflects the time shift in intellectual spheres of influence; the first five (non-earth) planets retained their names, clearly influenced by the indigenous five elements. And later, the remaining planets were merely translated from the West. In another world, I’d be very curious to see how the Chinese would have independently named the remaining planets, if they had been the first to discover them. Since there are only five elements, I can’t imagine what later “elements” they’d use to append to the remaining planets.