On atlases currently published in Japan, Ursa Major is called Ooguma, and Ursa Minor is called Koguma. As in much of the West, modern Japanese understand these to be the Big Bear and Little (Child) Bear respectively. However, these Japanese words for Western names have a bit of historical confusion. Depending upon context, the word "kuma" (or "guma" in the above names) can take on two very different meanings. Kuma (or "guma") is the pronunciation of two Japanese Kanji (Chinese characters): one is translated as "bear"; the other is translated as "corner" or "nook". As applied to the two constellations of the north, "kuma" as "corner" seems to predate most Western influence, and "kuma" as "bear" seems to have been gradually mixed into common usage up to the present day (with an especially large push following the late 19th century Meiji Restoration).
The use of "kuma" meaning "corner" appears to have Chinese and Buddhist origins. In Chinese divination, North was (and is) viewed as a very bad direction, with the northwest perhaps the worst direction. While "kita" is the word for the direction "north" in modern Japanese, this direction was and sometimes still is referred to as "kuma", that is, the dark and shadowy "corner" or "nook" of the heavens, a direction definitely to be avoided. Hunters and soldiers traditionally did not point guns or weapons in this direction. Interestingly, the most southern star of the big dipper asterism, Alkaid ("Hagunsei" in Japanese, literally meaning "the military breaking star") is also often called the "most corner star".
In modern Japan, when one is faced with extreme trouble, he or she may use the phrase "mukahiguma" (mukahi=face). Young Japanese associate this phrase with the idea of "facing the bear". Older Japanese still recall the idea of "facing the corner". Obviously, the term "kuma" (or "guma") may be used in phrases with somewhat interchangeable meanings, and the same appears to be true for the use of "kuma" in names for UMa and UMi.
The stars that compose Ursa Minor and the Big Dipper asterism were and are often called "Kuma Boshi". Does this mean "bear stars" or "corner stars"? In some prefectures of Japan, Polaris, the north star, is traditionally called "Kumaoe Boshi". The term "oe" means "to carry, as on ones back". Does this mean that Polaris is the "corner carrying star", the star that "carries the dark corner on its back"? Or could it mean the "bear carrying star", the star that "carries the bear(s) on its back"? The use of the word "kuma" or "guma" in these names could mean either and would be determined by the historical era (pre, post, or mid Westernization) in which they were used as well as the locale and personal experience of the particular Japanese individual.
It would seem that as Japan continued to "modernize", association of the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor with the dark corner of the sky grew less and less. Perhaps ironically, however, as one looks at the influx of Western astronomical tradition into the everyday life of Japanese, the concept of "bears" in the northern sky had an easy route to acceptance, with the word for "bear" easily replacing the word for "corner".
While we sometimes feel it is sad that much ancient lore is lost in current Japanese usage, perhaps even now, either use of "kuma" is appropriate... a bear is certainly no less ominous than a dark shadowy place, especially when cornered.
Supplementary sources are conversations with local Japanese in Kochi and the following books:
Hideo, Hirose (1972) Nihonjin no Tenmonkan (The Japanese Vision of Astronomy), NHK Books.
Uchida, Takeshi (1973) Hoshi no Hougen to Minzoku (Dialects of the Stars and Cultures), Iwasaki Bijutsu Co.
Steven L. Renshaw
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