The Tale of the Hammer

Some form of striking tool is common, I would imagine, to every carpentry tradition on the planet. In Japan of course various versions, tiny to huge, see wide use. Recently I was reading some Japanese material on hammers and became curious about some of the kanji (Sino-Japanese characters) used to describe the tools.
There are a few different words used to mean ‘hammer’ in Japanese. One is kana-zuchi (金槌), which transliterates as metal () hammer ().

Here’s a picture from the Takenaka Tool Museum showing some examples of kanazuchi:

Funny enough, just as a hammer with a metal head doesn’t float in water, the term kanazuchi is also used as a euphemism for a person who can’t swim. Do we have a single word in English to describe that? The term kana-zuchi refers most aptly to a metal-headed hammer., while ki-zuchi (木槌), are ‘wooden’ () mallets () . The english word ‘hammer’ has also entered the Japanese lexicon, transliterated as ハンマー , read directly as “hanma-”

The other common Japanese term for hammer is gennō, which may be written in two different ways:




You will notice that the first character in either version, gen (), is the same, and it is only the second character which varies. The character for gen stems from a pictograph which shows the tip of a twisted thread stretched between and linking two points

Compare the likeness of the character () to the above and I think you’ll see some resemblance.

This character gen () is meant to describe something so slender as to be barely perceptible, which leads to its primary modern meanings of ‘mysterious’ and ‘obscure’. I began pondering how this kanji relates to something so seemingly mundane as a hammer? And with that, I went down what for me was an interesting trail.

The second character of gennō, as shown above, is either ‘‘ or ‘‘.  My research has revealed that the first pairing, ‘玄翁‘, is the correct one. The latter character of the pair we see, ‘‘, meaning ‘ability’, is kind of a stand-in, nothing more, technically the wrong character. Believe me, misspellings or at least varied use of terms are nothing at all unusual to find in Japanese carpentry books. So, we can ignore that one.

What does ‘‘ mean then? Well, I like to use the dissection method here: This character combines  an upper part, ‘公’ meaning open (space), and a lower part, ‘‘, meaning feather or (bird) wing. Put them together and you get open spaces between the feathers, a reference to an old bird. An old bird, is in turn a euphemism for old man

I guess the term old bird gets used in English to describe certain elderly people, but more usually old women it would seem. So it’s not all that unusual an appellation really, having wide cross-cultural use I would suspect.

So, it would appear that the characters for hammer, gennō, 玄翁, combine to mean mysterious old man


I found this piece of information puzzling and surprising, and I was struck too that I hadn’t noticed this before. Maybe it’s nothing, but sometimes the most ordinary sort of things can contain neat little mysteries, either one stops to observe for a moment, or one happens upon by luck.

I dug a little further, given the enticement of the connection between ‘mysterious old man’ and hammer? There’s no obvious connection coming to mind. 

As it turns out, the term gennō (玄翁) traces to a Muromachi Period (1337 to 1573) collection of Japanese prose called the Otogizōshi. This collection of some 350 pieces of narrative prose, many by authors unknown, forms a portion of the Japanese medieval literary heritage, somewhat akin, quite possibly, to Chaucer’s work The Canterbury Tales in English.

Many of the tales in the Otogizōshi relate stories of mythological figures, and one of those is the story of Tamamo no Mae (玉藻の前). Tamamo no Mae is the name of a courtesan who served in the court of Emperor Konoe, the 76th Emperor of Japan. He reigned from 1142~1155. In some versions, she served in the court of his father Emperor Toba, a few years earlier. Here is Tamamo no Mae’s depiction in a woodblock print from the late great Yoshitoshi‘s work New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts:

As the woodblock print collection title suggests she is some form of ghost. There was something a little different about Tamamo no Mae. She was beautiful, always smelled wonderful, and curiously her clothes were never wrinkled or dirty. No only was she physically beautiful, but she was infinitely knowledgeable on all subjects, despite the fact that she looked only about 20 years of age. She was respected and adored by one and all in the court, and the emperor and many around him fell in love with her.

Tamamo no Mae gained her name from an incident in late summer:

Sometime around September 20, there was a performance of poetry and music at the Seiryoden, the serene, cool chamber. The Emperor took her along and they sat within the bamboo blinds. Just at that moment, a strong wind rushed through, blowing out the fire of the lanterns, and the room was plunged into darkness. Yet in an instant, there seemed to be light emanating from Tamamo-no-mae’s body. Surprised, the honorable ministers looked around and realized that the light was spilling from within the bamboo blinds that surrounded her. The light was like the morning sun.
Ignoring the music, the Emperor declared in response to the minister’s enquiries, “She is quite a mystery. There is no doubt that she is the embodiment of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva.” When the bamboo blinds were raised, it became brighter than noon even though it was darkest night. The light was just like a glowing bulb, and that is how she came to be known as Tamamo-no-mae.

Her name literally means in front (前) of the jeweled (玉) algae (藻). Hmm. What do you make of that name? I can’t say that I fully understand what the author of the tale is getting at here with the naming of this beautiful courtesan as a form of algae, or somehow like algae in some way. I can’t say whether awareness of algae was a form of common knowledge at the time. Does it perhaps suggest a pearl before swine sort of thing?

I looked into the algae piece a little further. Searching under that kanji  (藻), I found images of a type of algae that does have white pearl-like flowers, that do seem to be glowing a bit, like jewels:

It appears she’s named after a beautiful plant – fair enough.

Back to the story…

Shortly after the incident, the emperor fell ill, and became precipitously sicker by the day. He tried medical doctors first and they could not cure him. Then priests, fortune tellers and astrologers were consulted, to no avail. His condition worsened. Then a fortune teller named Yasunari told the emperor that the cause of his illness was in fact Tamamo no Mae. This information was revealed by Yasunari somewhat apprehensively, as he knew how close the Emperor was to Tamamo no Mae, and how much he liked her. Might be risky to share the bad news. Pressed for more information to substantiate his claims, the fortune teller revealed that Tamamo no Mae was actually a 100 year-old fox in disguise – a fox that was really 42′ tall no less(!). In some stories she has two tails, in others nine tails.

Here’s a look at one painting depicting the pursuit of Tamamo no Mae, the fox god, by the two warriors and their entourages, and we see that the fox god has two tails:

As the story continues, Tamamo no Mae disappeared shortly after the revelations as to her true identity emerged. They dispatched two of the Emperor’s best warriors to track down and kill the fox god, as she was the cause of the illness. The thought was that despite Tamamo no Mae’s superhuman abilities, they might have a chance against her using arrows. After many days, and several narrow misses, they had tracked the wily fox down to the Nasuno Plain. Seven more days of fruitless searching ensued. Then one of the warriors, Miura-nosuke, took a 20 minute nap, and had a dream in which Tamamo no Mae appeared to him and said he would kill her tomorrow, and asked him to please spare her life. In his dream, Miura-nosuke stood firm and said he would show her no mercy. The next morning, Miura-nosuke and his compatriot finally ran down the fox, shot her with an arrow and killed her.

It is here that the accounts diverge as to what happens next….

In one account, the fox’s corpse is taken back to the capital, and later a re-enactment of the fox hunt was performed in front of the Emperor in the exact spot where the kill occurred. End of story.

In the other account , which I happen to be more interested in talking about, and from which I’ll quote. This clipping from an 1875 Japan Weekly Mail gives account of the legend:

So, the stone is cleaved away to reveal the true essence within – that’s the core meaning of the word for hammer in Japanese, gennō? Hmm.

In the account about the name origins from the Takenaka tool museum website,

“Once upon a time, in a place called Nasuno in the ancient country of Musashi, there was a monstrous stone that would force birds to fall from the sky and animals to die when touched. A monk called Gennō decided to put an end to this, and uttering the mantra, he stroke down onto the stone with a large sledge hammer breaking it into pieces. Since then the sledge hammer came to be called gennō

Again, the hammer is a force for good. It resolves problems. And that it does, in truth. It can also, in the wrong hands, make a mess of things, let’s acknowledge that as well.

The Zen Shin Sect priest named Gennō (玄翁), mentioned above is the ‘mysterious old man’ we talked about earlier. That guy smashing the rock with a metal hammer to reveal the, er, ‘foxy lady’ within? The tool called ‘gennō’ is named after the big hammer the priest was using and it was also the name of that priest.

Interesting to say the least. Makes the tool religiously blessed and pure from the outset, a tool for good. It’s certainly a colorful term, and I wonder how many Japanese carpenters are aware of this story about one of the most fundamental tools in their set? Whether they know or not doesn’t really matter, obviously, but it is interesting to ponder.

Well, I’ve rattled on long enough for now. I hope the investigation of the ‘mysterious old man’ was worth a look. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

7 thoughts on “The Tale of the Hammer

  1. G'Day Chris,
    I simply love stuff like this. Helps me realise we are surrounded by little gems – gifts that will manifest if we take the time to let them reveal themselves. I am envious of your knowledge of written Japanese language and cultural history. If you are able to recommend good resources to start building one's knowledge in this area I would appreciate it (good topic for a blog post?).

    Also loved that video you found a while back on the mathematics of decorative arabic tiles – guess I'm just a big geek at heart.

    Thanks again


  2. Chris

    There seems to be a war on the strong verbs of English. I would say 'cleave, clove, cloven'.

    Its a great story, nonetheless.


  3. Tom,

    it seems like everyone has their pet peeve about English usage, and the nice thing is that most of the linguists and grammarians often disagree with one another. I prefer cleaved as the past tense, and according to the dictionary, at least, is perfectly acceptable. The word 'clove' tends to lead me to think about the noun sense of that word, “clove of garlic”, not the verb…

    If you google the word 'cleave' you will see the top search result is a dictionary entry, and there are three accepted past tenses for cleave: clove, cleft, and cleaved.

    What's really interesting to me about the word cleave besides all the above is that is has two opposite definitions, one meaning 'to split away from', and the other 'to stick fast to'. English rarely makes sense, ya gotta admit.


  4. You can probably help me…recently I bought a Japanese hammer (I live in Japan). The front, striking, face is a normal hammer but with a square profiled head. The back end where the claw might, be is like a dull axe head but with the line of the axe at 90 degrees to the shaft rather than perpendicular,as in a regular axe. I bought it because I wanted a camping hammer that I could use for hammering tent pegs, and also for breaking up lump charcoal, and it does the job well.
    I did wonder however, what the actual correct purpose for this kind of hammer would normally be. The only think I've seen like it in my home country, is a plasterboarder's hammer, but even that is quite different to what I bought.

    Thanks in advance.


  5. Anthony,

    thanks for the comment and question. Without seeing the specific hammer you have, I can't give a definitive answer – and even if i did see a picture it by no means guarantees correct identification – but by the description you gave, I have a good idea as to the form of hammer you have. It's a common type, an that form of hammer sees use in general work, tile work, and masonry work. These type of hammers with a square head and hoe-like chisel go by various names, like 'バートンカチ', 'トンカチ', 'ブロック槌', and '先切り金鎚', depending upon detailing. If the hammer has carbide tips on the head and chisel end, then it is likely a masonry hammer. Otherwise, if you do an image search under the terms I gave above, you should find something similar to what you have acquired.


Anything to add?