~ Maru ~
The word "maru" originated in the seventh century and has since come to serve as a popular name for a host of Japanese vessels. The first ship to use the suffix is said to have been the 16th century ship called the Nipon Maru, built by the legendary Toyotomi Hideyoschi. However, despite its widespread use, the word has never been graced with a definitive definition.
Our attempts to muster a universal meaning of the term maru have all ended in frustration, with each possibility smothered in a down-pour of vaguery. For instance, one Japanese reference worker gave as many as fourteen meanings for maru, while another offered at least five additional meanings without including all the other fourteen.
These misunderstandings and discrepancies have arisen from the fact that maru is a word laced with suggestiveness. Here is a selection of some of the explanations we have found.
The term maru originally seemed to act as a form of compliment when attached to certain personal names.
For example, people seemed to be bestowing respect upon the eighth century poet Hitomaru Kikinomoto by attaching the term to his name. It could also be seen as a term of endearment rather like a diminutive, as in the juvenile name Ushiwakamaru, of the twelfth-century general Yoshitsune Minamoto.
Gradually the word was thrown to the dogs, literally, as people became accustomed to bestowing it upon their pet animals. Other names which received the maru blessing included a precious utensil used perhaps in some kind of tea ceremony or even the favoured tool of a deft craftsman. Another example of this maru phenomenon can be found in the mighty sword Mura-same-Maru; this famous blade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was supposed to be so potent that whoever owned it, regardless of his own intent, was destined to kill somebody sooner or later.
The term maru also became associated with the concept of a circle. This circular affinity suggested completeness, entirety, wholeness; notions which the image of a circle seems to symbolise.
Indeed, the connotation of 'wholeness' perhaps led to the use of maru to mean 'one entire hour' and also as a term for the fanciful frying of a 'whole' animal, as opposed to a mere handful of giblets.
In addition to all these other meanings, it also has an association with 'dust', while at the same time referring to 'those naive in love', hence the wistful phrase "dusty lover".
Having sashayed through the multifarious meanings of maru, it is now time to cut to the chase, examining it in the context of ships. The use of maru in a ship name would seem to express the hope that the ship will defend those aboard against all perils of the sea, being as complete as a circle, as trustworthy as a sword and as virile as a master craftsman's favorite tool. In addition to this, it also carried a feeling of attachment or endearment, such as that felt by one "dusty lover" for another. Also, unlike most other countries, a ship in Japan is referred to as a male and in adding "maru" to the ships name, as was done with young boys in olden times, the ship was protected from harm.
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