Meiji-Era Dictionary: a look back 105 years ago

When I first married my wife in 2004, we visited Japan in 2005 to my wife’s home (実家, jikka) and I remember my father-in-law giving me a really old book. He knew that I liked history and such, so he felt that I might find it interesting. Back then though, I understood very little Japanese, and didn’t know what to do with it, so it stayed on my bookshelf for a long time.

Recently though, I decided to take it down and look it at a little. The book is a Japanese-English dictionary published in 1909 (click to see a larger photo) that is now 105 years old:

Old Japanese Dictionary

Notice how the Kanji (Chinese Characters) on this cover are the “old style”, not the block-print style you see in books today. Also, some of the kanji are older versions. The modern word for dictionary is jiten, written like 辞典, but here the first kanji character is written a little different. This old form is called kyūjitai (旧字体), as opposed to the modern shinjitai (新字体) form.

Here the author, Inoue Jukichi, wrote a foreword in flowing, scholarly English:

Old Japanese Dictionary

This foreword was pretty impressive. Mr. Inoue definitely knew English well, although I don’t know what his conversational English was like.1 The writing-style is very typical of English 100 years ago: long, wordy and indirect. You don’t really see that much anymore, except scholarly textbooks, but I kind of like it.

The dictionary itself is a just a dictionary:

Old Japanese Dictionary

Similar to the cover, there are kyujitai (old Kanji) used in many places, though you can’t see it in the photo. Also, this was made during the late Meiji-Period (1868-1912), when Japan was actively trying to modernize and become more like the West. So, the contents of the dictionary didn’t include a lot of traditional words and subjects. It’s mostly modern stuff. The kind of content you would expect in a dictionary from that era.

What was more interesting was the appendices in the back. Here’s an example page that shows how to compose an international letter (overseas, not domestic) in English:

Old Japanese Dictionary

A few things to call out that I found interesting:

  • Use of the term “Esquire“. No one really uses this term anymore except maybe lawyers. However, at that time, the Imperial Family of Japan, plus various noble houses, became more Western-like and used titles like “Duke”, “Marquis”, etc. I’m not sure which “esquire” Mr. Inoue intended, but it feels very old-fashioned to me.
  • The term “Imperial” for the Japanese consulate. During the Meiji-Period and until 1945, Japan was a Monarchy, and referred to itself as an Empire (teikoku 帝国). This was a common practice by Western-Imperial powers at the time: the British Empire, the German Empire, the Russian Empire, etc. In short, if you didn’t make yourself into an empire, someone would make you part of their’s!
  • Japan had an embassy in Belgium. Clearly, Japan had equal, bilateral diplomatic relations with Europe at this time. Things had changed a lot in 40 years.

I thought this photo was interesting too:

Old Japanese Dictionary

The term “Christian name” isn’t used anymore (people just say ‘first name’ now), but it shows how Western culture at this time was still a Christian culture. By default, every one was Christian (unless you were Jewish), and so many names were called “Christian names” because that’s what you received when you were baptized. My name, Douglas, is not on the list because it’s Scottish-Gaelic (i.e. pagan) in origin. ;)

This page was interesting too:

Old Japanese Dictionary

This is a list of famous Western people in history, and in Japanese, what they were famous for. So, for example, King Solomon is listed as a Great King (daiō 大王), Socrates as a philosopher (tetsugakusha 哲学者), etc. I think this page was intended to help Japanese students learn more about Western culture, and who the important people were. I thought it was clever. :)

This part also showed the “imperial” thinking at the time:

Old Japanese Dictionary

This is a list of places in East Asia, with their Western names, but also with Japanese names. Some where already part of the Empire of Japan, such as Port Arthur (Ryojunkō, 旅順港), while others were taken later. For example, Mukden (Hōten 奉天 here) became part of the Empire in 1931. Still others like Amoy (here called Amoi 廈門) became part of the Empire later during the Second Sino-Japanese War (World War II).

Anyhow, the Japanese-sounding place-names are interesting. For example, the Korean city of Pyeongyang, capitol of North Korea, was called Heijō (平壌). I think this is just a Japanese-pronunciation of the original Korean hanja (Korean version of Chinese characters) for Pyeongyang. I think this is also true with the Chinese-names above: the dictionary lists the Japanese readings of the same Chinese characters.

Also, the English names feel very outdated to me too. Usually, we use the “native” name now in English, so for Mukden is now Shenyang, Amoi is now Xiamen, Pyeongyang is of course Pyeongyang, etc. Modern Japanese often does the same thing, using Katakana to pronounce the native name, unless the old name is really well-known (e.g. pekin not Beijing). For example, Pyeongyang is now pronounced pyonyan (ピョンヤン).

Anyhow, enough about history. Here’s another page, but this one has Western place-names:

Old Japanese Dictionary

For each name, it explains in the parentheses what that place is (capitol 首, metropolis 都, island 島, etc). But also, it explains which country it’s from, using kanji. For example, Dublin the capitol of Ireland, was still part of England (英), while Baltimore is a city in America (米), and Delhi is a city India (印). Katakana was not used here because it takes too much space, I presume. But also, it was more common then to use kanji for foreign place names, though modern Japanese just uses katakana except for very formal situations (newspapers, etc).

Finally, every English-language students worst nightmare: remembering all the irregular verbs in English:

Old Japanese Dictionary

Mr. Inoue does a good listing out irregular verbs here. Being a native speaker, I don’t have to remember them, but I know many students now (some who read this blog) probably get very frustrated by them. ;)


This old dictionary is a fascinating look at Meiji-era Japan. Japan, like many Western Powers (UK, America, France, etc), was racing to compete with other powers, to modernize, to carve out its own Empire. This is what’s called High Imperialism or Neo-Imperialism now.

The dictionary reflects a very positive, progressive and forward-looking Japan that felt it was confident enough to go toe-to-toe with Western powers.

The book is pretty old and worn now, but I think it tells us a lot about what Japanese culture was like 105 years ago. TV Dramas like Yae no Zakura can tell us many things, but sometimes books like this can tell us a lot more.

1 Many years ago, I worked for the local university, and one of the computer-science professors was from Japan. He wrote excellent papers on computer-science, but his spoken English had a heavy accent (it was pretty difficult to understand). On the other hand, I have Japanese friends who speak perfectly fluent English with no accent, but can’t write a scholarly paper. I guess you can’t be good at everything. :)

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

5 thoughts on “Meiji-Era Dictionary: a look back 105 years ago

  1. More like a “hidden treasure”. I really never took a good look at it until recently because I didn’t understand Japanese or history enough.

  2. 1 nation of youth (5 parts each)

    2 great ambitions

    3 a Rumbling nation

    4 the Sino-Japan war

    5 an exchange student

    6 the Anglo-Japanese alliance

    7 the death of Shiki

    8 the Russo-Japanese war Unfolds

    9 the Death of Hirose

    10 An all-out Attack on Port Arthur

    11 203m Hill

    12 the enemy fleet arrives

    13 the battle of Tsushima

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