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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Grow

What's in a Name - Part 2: Why did you name him Sanshiro? Did you think he would do Judo?

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Being in an international marriage, what to name the children becomes an important issue.

For our first child, we wanted a name that could work in both our home countries. We tossed about many ideas and decided upon the name Mashu (which in English would be Matthew). That seemed like it would actually work!

In Japan, you need to also consider the Chinese characters for the name you choose. Each one carries a special meaning.

So for our first child Hidetoshi chose the characters:


真 Truth
秀 - Excellence

Hidetoshi also told me about a lake in Hokkaido called Mashu Ko. Later, we found out it, there is a legend known to those who live in Hokkaido. I will digress here to tell you about it.

The legend of Lake Mashu
Lake Mashu in Hokkaido

When Mashu turned four, we moved out of New York City to the suburbs of Westchester. Since our plan was to move to Japan in the next few years, we decided Mashu should learn Japanese. So, we enrolled him in a Japanese kindergarten. At the interview, the principal took him to the window and pointed out a squirrel and asked him "それは何ですか?” (What's that?) His answer was one of the few Japanese words he felt confident in using "大変" (trouble). Nevertheless, he was accepted and joined the Japanese kindergarten where he was the only half Japanese.

Mashu's teacher happened to be from Hokkaido and from an area near Lake Mashu. She told us the local legend. In the middle of Lake Mashu, there is a small island that is usually covered in fog. It is rare to actually see the island - BUT if you DO - you won't get married! And so, as luck would have it, the young teacher said that is why she ended up teaching kindergarten in New York.

From the onset of Japanese kindergarten, not only did Mashu's world change but so did mine. I had lived my life up until that moment as a person of the majority. Suddenly, the tables were turned and from that moment on - my children and I were a minority. It was a strange feeling.

Happily, Mashu quickly mastered Japanese and later when I met the ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, he looked shocked and said, "YOU are Mashu's mom? I didn't know he could speak English!" Not only had Mashu mastered Japanese, but he had also already mastered the Japanese way of thinking:

Be a member of the group and don't show off. There is a Japanese saying about this.

"出る釘は打たれる" (The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.)

On to child #2: Maya


真 Truth
矢 Arrow

This name was actually decided long before she was born and even before Mashu was born. Soon after marriage, my mother-in-law suggested the name Maya if we had a girl in the future. I quickly agreed. I loved it. It is a common name in many languages and it was easy to pronounce for my family. It was a keeper.

We moved to Japan when Mashu was 6, Maya was 3 and Sanshiro had just turned 1. When Maya started kindergarten in Yokohama, she had been watching Japanese videos and knew a little Japanese from her father. On the first day of kindergarten, I stood at the gate and watched her head off into Japanese life. I thought she might be nervous but she never looked back. After about a month, I asked, "Do you know everything the teacher is saying?" She reacted to my evidently absurd question by saying, "Of course, I do." She was off and running.

Now - why was Sanshiro given this very Japanese name?

We actually did not know what we were going to name our third child. I thought we had a pattern going with the character Ma.....We already had a Mashu and a Maya. When we didn't find a name that starts with Ma that we liked, we started checking other names. We considered Taiyo as an option, 太陽 (sun). But at around 8 months of pregnancy, we still did not have a name decided.

One afternoon, Hidetoshi announced, "His name is Sanshiro!" "Sanshiro?" I suddenly pictured myself in the not so distant future calling out this very Japanese name. "Sanshiro! Time to come home for dinner!" It seemed too much. Then my second thought was that my parents can't pronounce it! Actually, they still call him "San". But the name Sanshiro was decided. Hidetoshi said it was like an inspiration. As it turns out, it is the perfect name for him.

The characters themselves don't carry a special meaning but put them together and it conjures up a traditional, powerful young man.


三 Three
四 Four
郎 Indicates strong young man and is often used as an ending in traditional male names in Japan

Everyone in Japan knows the name Sanshiro, although you don't meet too many boys or men with this name. The name is associated with some very famous fictional characters:

One is the hero of Soseki's coming of age novel, Sanshiro published in 1908. Perhaps the only common thread there is that the hero is from Kyushu and the Murao family is from Kyushu. But there was no thought of that.

The next reference is the directorial debut of famous Japanese filmmaker, Kurosawa entitled Sanshiro Sugata. The movie is about a young man who learns judo and in doing so learns about himself. So when Sanshiro began doing judo, many people thought we must have had judo in mind all along, but it is not true.

A Sports Family

Mashu 7, Maya 4 and Sanshiro 2
Murao Siblings 2002

Hidetoshi assigned a specific sport to each baby at birth, but it didn't quite work out according to his plan.

Mashu, the oldest, would play rugby. Hidetoshi played club rugby and was sure Mashu would love rugby. Turns out, he was right and Mashu became a professional rugby player.

Maya was to be the judoka of the family because even as a baby she was incredibly strong. It is thanks to Maya that Sanshiro began judo at all. More on that later. Maya did, in fact, do judo for 12 years from first grade to twelfth grade. So right again, Hidetoshi.

Sanshiro he declared would play BASEBALL. Ah well, two out of three. Not bad. Luckily, Sanshiro found his passion for judo early on.

The next episode will tell how Sanshiro got into Judo and the crazy workout routines and spartan life of the Murao Siblings. See you next time!

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