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The Name Garo: Shirato Sanpei and the Indo-Manga Connection

Garo, no. 5 (January 1965), cover.

Garo, no. 5 (January 1965), cover by Shirato Sanpei.

The name Garo is a mystery. The word does not belong to standard Japanese. It is not a known loan word, despite being in katakana.

Back in the early 1970s, esteemed cultural theorist Tsurumi Shunsuke noted that the name, with its “avant-gardistic” feel, sounded like Spanish or Italian.

Not ten years ago, manga and film scholar Yomota Inuhiko noted that it was regional dialect for kappa, a water imp who abducts children and horses and drowns them in the river.

Speaking with Japanese fans and scholars, it seems that many accept Yomota’s theory. I’m not sure why. While indeed “garo” can be found in books dealing with the kappa – it is derived from “kawa tarō,” River Tarō, the latter half a generic boy’s name – none such that I have seen were published prior to the naming of Garo in 1964. Of the major sources on the Japanese supernatural that would have been available to Shirato at the time – the writings of Inoue Enryō, Yanagita Kunio, Ishida Ei’ichirō – in none of them is that specific pronunciation for kappa to be found. Of course, it is always possible that Shirato heard it directly from someone from the countryside. Or perhaps from a colleague more versed in Japanese folklore, like Mizuki Shigeru. After all, Mizuki did publish an eight-volume rental kashihon series between 1961 and 1962 titled Sanpei the Kappa (Kappa no sanpei), about a human boy that looks like a kappa and as a result has serial run-ins with yōkai. Towards the end, his kappa stand-in is named “Kawa Tarō,” but no “garo.” The title of the manga might seem suggestive, but Sanpei is a common enough name for it to have nothing to do here with Shirato. And since Garo was Shirato’s magazine, not Mizuki’s, it seems to me highly unlikely that the former would title his greatest publishing venture after a creature that has (as far as I can recall) never made an appearance in his work. Shirato was greatly indebted to Japanese myth and folklore. But the cosmologies of ghosts and monsters are at best minor ones in his pantheon.

"I've had it. Go on, eat me," says the boy. "Gero gero gero," cry the kappa. Mizuki Shigeri, Sanpei the Kappa (1961-62).

“I’ve had it. Go on, make a meal of me,” says the boy. “Gero gero gero,” cry the kappa. Mizuki Shigeru, Sanpei the Kappa (1961-62).

A recent book should have put the issue to rest. Writer Mōri Jinpachi has been close to the reclusive cartoonist for many years. In 2011, he published The Story of Shirato Sanpei, part biography and part manga history, composed substantially of paraphrases and direct quotes from the horse’s mouth. On the origins of the name Garo, Mōri is specific: “The name of the magazine Garo comes from a ninja in one of Shirato’s works. In addition to resonating with the word garō, meaning one’s own path, he says that he also had in mind the name of an American mafia gangster. From a list of options, it was [Garo’s publisher] Nagai Katsuichi’s nephew who finally chose the name.”

Inspiration from the word garō, written with the characters ware (first person pronoun singular or plural) and michi (path, road), is not implausible. But Japanese are not typically inclined to drop a “u” to convert a long vowel into a short one. Moreover, garō is a robust-looking word in kanji. Why change the spelling and convert it to katakana?

As for the American mafia, (I ask in earnest) to whom could he be referring? Keep in mind we are dealing with the early 60s. Not only was straight gangster material on the wane at the time, but it was not a genre in which Shirato demonstrated any interest. He was obviously a champion of armed rebels and outlaws, yet it seems unlikely that he would have adopted the name of an obscure American criminal for his own magazine. Even if Shirato did say it, I am not convinced. After all, we are talking about testimony forty-five long years after the fact.

What we do know for certain is what Mōri mentions first, which is that Shirato used the name for a character in a story a year and a half prior to Garo the magazine’s founding in September 1964. This might be a better place to start.

"The Return of Garo," Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, no. 15 (January 1965), cover.

“The Return of Garo,” Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, no. 15 (January 1965), cover by Shirato Sanpei.

The venue was Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts (Ninpō hiwa, 1963-65), a Shirato-centered kashihon anthology published semi-monthly by Seirindō, the future publisher of Garo. It is often considered the precursor of the legendary magazine, and justifiably so. Amongst the contributors were Mizuki, Kojima Goseki, Kusunoki Shōhei, Ogawa Akira, and Doya Ippei, mirroring the roster of early jidaigeki-heavy Garo. A “special edition” of Ninpō Hiwa issued in January 1965 was composed of Shirato’s pages from the first three issues of Garo – not the original artwork, the actual printed pages, detached and rebound. Something had to be done with the many unsold copies.

A number of Shirato’s contributions to Ninpō Hiwa starred a mysterious and deadly ninja named Taima no Garo, the first term being a Sinicized rendering of the Sanskrit “Maha,” meaning “great.” So: Maha Garo, or The Great Garo. Debuting in volume no. 8 (published March 1963), at first Garo is nothing but a blur, his passage known only second-hand from corpses and spraying blood. Dead ninja are impaled upon trees. Others lie littered across the field. With his dying breath, one victim managed to write the name of his executioner in blood upon a rock. Two letters in katakana: GA-RO.

Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, left: no. 8 (March 1963), right: no. 15 (January 1965).

Shirato Sanpei, Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, left: no. 8 (March 1963), right: no. 15 (January 1965). Scans from 1996 Shōgakukan bunko edition.

Though clearly not a practitioner of non-violence, Garo is at heart a peaceful man. He is tall, gaunt, aged but not old, with thin long-flowing hair, living with his son and spending much of his time sculpting masks, busts, and limbs out of wood. It is the local Iga ninja clan that wages war upon him, a renegade living on the outskirts of their domain. Garo has killed many of the Iga brotherhood in defense. It is suspected that he has also associated with Oda Nobunaga, their enemy. All matter of swords, throwing stars, and incendiaries fail to extinguish Garo. But eventually, in the second issue of his appearance, they find a way of killing him through allergens, a signature touch from Shirato the naturalist.

It does not seem that initially Shirato invested anymore in this character than he had in others. The first stories are rather undistinguished, just two more installments on top of the artist’s extensive ninja manga pile. But in January 1965, Garo is brought back for another round, this time of five chapters. The inauguration of the magazine Garo the previous September presumably inspired its namesake’s revival, and indeed this run of Maha Garo seems to have had the pedagogical program of Garo the magazine in mind.

"Kotodama," Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, no. 18 (May 1965), cover.

“Kotodama,” Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, no. 18 (May 1965), cover by Shirato Sanpei.

A strike of lightning brings Garo back from the semi-dead. Again he becomes the target of Iga assassins. Once again he proves hard to kill. But then a man from afar arrives and offers his services, a bonze named Warawa (meaning “Child”) from Negoro, home to famous warrior monks in the sixteenth century. Shirato had expressed vehement distrust of religion previously in The Legend of Kagemaru (1959-62) and Akame (1961-62). It is notable that it should manifest again here, in a battle with so-called “Garo.”

Every killer has his own caché of ingenious killing techniques. The Negoro monk’s is named “kotodama,” meaning “the spirit power of words.” It is essentially a method of hypnotic suggestion. The monk issues a bubble from his mouth. It floats through the air towards its target, and when it pops it triggers in the hypnotized subject the embedded response, in this case murder.

Shirato has endowed Garo with powers of “heart-reading.” His superiority as a fighter stems in part from his ability to know their intentions and next move before they act, making it near-impossible for an enemy to approach without Garo one step ahead. Those who are hypnotized, however, do not know what actions lay in their own hearts, making for the perfect weapons against Garo’s perspicacity. To make the attack even less anticipatable, the Negoro monk chooses as his subjects the many orphans that now live with “Garo ojisan,” Uncle Garo. They have been given pipes for making soap bubbles to play with. And when the first one bursts inside their home, the children snap to and plunge cooking skewers from all sides into Uncle Garo. He falls dead to the floor.

Shirato Sanpei, Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, no. 19 (June 1965).

Shirato Sanpei, Secret Tales of the Ninja Arts, no. 19 (June 1965).

What is this “kotodama” that it should be so strong to defeat the invincible Garo? The term kotodama itself is an old one, appearing as early as the ninth century, in the court poetry collection the Manyōshū. There, building on ancient religious practices, it is used to connote the magical efficacy of ritual or poetic speech. For centuries, while the influence of Buddhism ensured that poetry was still often seen in similar terms, the term kotodama itself seems to have gone into abeyance. It was revived at the turn of the nineteenth century by Japanese nativist scholars, who saw in the idea the essence of a pure, transparent, and semi-divine Japanese way of speaking and writing, unsullied by foreign influence and historical degradation, and inspired directly by the Shintō gods. It is as such that the term found its way into the Kokutai no Hongi (The Essence of the National Polity), an infamous document first published in 1937 by the Ministry of Education and distributed to the teaching staff of both public and private schools, from the elementary to the university level, throughout Japan. Approximately two million copies were in print at the end of the war. It linked proper discourse directly with Emperor-centered fascism, casting the idea of kotodama – at least for those Japanese attuned to their country’s modern political history – into deep shadow ever after.

Kurokawa Arata (Shirato Sanpei), Meyasuko, Garo, no. 16 (December 1965), illustration for an article criticizing the Ministry of Education.

Kurokawa Arata (Shirato Sanpei), Meyasuko, Garo, no. 16 (December 1965), illustration for an article criticizing the Ministry of Education.

It is thus natural that “kotodama” should appear in Shirato’s work as the name given to a verbal emission – a physically literalized “speech bubble” – that mesmerizes youth and turns them against their ward. Shirato is here dramatizing his own trials as an artist. At the very same time as this story was running in Ninpō Hiwa, he was waging war through the pages of Garo against the recent reactionary turn of Japanese education, led by the reinstitution of moral education curricula in schools and the rewriting and censorship of textbooks in line with rightwing interpretations of Japanese history and society. Clearly the mercenary man of religion is a stand-in for the unprincipled contemporary educator and his dangerous powers of persuasion through speech. If the allegory was not clear enough, Shirato includes the following as an afterword to Garo’s death in June 1965: “The influence of education is great, and the responsibilities of educators heavy. If there are those who raise young saplings to become sturdy and strong, there are also those who manipulate children like puppets.”

While Garo the ninja had become a personification of the counter-pedagogical program of early Garo the magazine, I think there might also be a biographical link. Shirato’s father, Okamoto Tōki (1903-86), was a painter and an illustrator and a leading member of the prewar Proletarian Arts Movement. Uncle Garo is also an artist, sculpting when he is not fighting his foes, carving masks and toys out of wood. Okamoto evacuated his family to Nagano in 1944, and kept his children, as much as possible, away from the militaristic education at schools. Similarly, the isolated Uncle Garo is the caring guardian of orphans in the mountains. Okamoto was tortured by the Kenpeitai (the Japanese secret police) during the war, and physically never fully recovered. Uncle Garo is destroyed, and by whom?

Left: Shirato Sanpei, Secret Tale of the Ninja Arts, no. 18 (May 1965), showing the kotodama ninja Warawa; right: Okamoto Tōki, cover illustration for Tokyo Puck (October 1930).

Left: Shirato Sanpei, Secret Tale of the Ninja Arts, no. 18 (May 1965), showing the kotodama ninja Warawa; right: Okamoto Tōki, cover illustration for Tokyo Puck (October 1930).

A kotodama master whose face is drawn almost exactly in the same manner – wide, balding, and pig-nosed – as Okamoto Sr. drew rapacious Capitalists for left-sympathetic magazines circa 1930. Was The Great Garo an homage to father?


14 Responses to The Name Garo: Shirato Sanpei and the Indo-Manga Connection

  1. EnterréASeattle says:

    American mafia gangster name that sounds like Garo: probably Joe Gallo. He had quite the unusal life story and was rather famous in the 60s and 70s. Shirato Sanpei could have been interested in him as a rebellious figure; he went to war against his own boss. He also befriended Harlem drug kingpin Nicky Barnes and prison and hung out with black inmates, which earned him the hostility of his mostly racist mafia colleagues.

  2. Zack says:

    really excellent article, and excellently timed as well; i just got my copies of The Legend Of Kamui in the mail the other day and started reading it. Garo was also responsible for some of my favorite comics to come out of Japan, and i have wondered myself what the title meant.

    i think that circumstantial evidence in this manner is enough to make a pretty strong case. Shirato was a pretty extraordinary individual opperating in a time where he was representing part of a generation; if you look into the Japanese new wave film movement, many of the youths in that time were also on a similar international populist wavelength. while their stories were decidedly Japanese, they were often influenced by their western counterparts, fed in part but a rejection of Japanese values following the war. it’s interesting to see a similar attitude in their comics, and convoluted though it may seem, nothing in this article feels so far fetched as to be impossible, especially given the individual and time in which he did much of his most prolific work.

  3. Alex says:

    Great article, I look forward to more.

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  5. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Joe Gallo: that must be it, thanks. I will keep my eyes open for possible connections.

  6. zac klein says:

    ryan Holmberg please email me at…thank you

  7. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Who are you?

  8. Gallo is also Italian/Spanish for “rooster,” which is, I suppose, what Tsurumi meant. You might also want to check out the Shinwa densetsu series to see if there are any clues there.

  9. cuc says:

    This is a great article, and I really appreciate having read it. But with regard to this part:

    > “The name of the magazine Garo comes from a ninja in one of Shirato’s works. In addition to resonating with the word garō, meaning one’s own path, he says that he also had in mind the name of an American mafia gangster. From a list of options, it was [Garo’s publisher] Nagai Katsuichi’s nephew who finally chose the name.”

    > Inspiration from the word garō, written with the characters ware (first person pronoun singular or plural) and michi (path, road), is not implausible. But Japanese are not typically inclined to drop a “u” to convert a long vowel into a short one. Moreover, garō is a robust-looking word in kanji. Why change the spelling and convert it to katakana?

    Without reading the source, it seems to me “the word garō, meaning one’s own path” should refer to 我路 “Garo” (without a long vowel), which according to online references, apparently is a real ungendered given name, and the name of a town in Bibai City, Hokkaido. Since the name “Bibai” originated from Ainu language, this particular word “Garo” may as well have Ainu origins, or at least Hokkaido connotations.

    About your other points in the article, according to dictionaries (and what I know about the general tendencies of kanji pronunciation in Japanese), the kanji 路 is only ever pronounced “ro” with a short vowel, never “ro”, so “garō” seems to be mistake.

    Both “Converting a long vowel into a short one” and “writing a kanji word as katakana”, as I presume you know, does happen in contemporary Japanese pop culture, but this shouldn’t be very relevant to Shirato’s era.

    In overall, I learnt a great deal from this article, however my impression is that Mōri Jinpachi’s explanation seems highly plausible.

  10. Ryan Holmberg says:

    You’re right, that’s a mistake. Thanks for spotting that. It certainly makes Mōri Jinpachi’s argument stronger.

    However, I am not convinced that 我路 was behind ガロ for two reasons. First, titling a magazine “My/Our Path” would have been pretty bold, and out of line for an artist (Shirato Sanpei) who did not typically draw attention to his person or his successes, or publicly declare that his way was superior or that his independence of thinking was admirable, regardless of how he may or may not have thought privately.

    Second, when was the term 我路 invented? I looked in a couple of dictionaries I have on hand (not the most definitive ones, I admit), and I cannot even find the word. As you mentioned, that kanji was used for a town in Hokkaido, but unless the toponym has some special significance in Ainu history, it strikes me as an arbitrary choice. But 我路 as Japanese for “one’s own path”? I think Shirato would have had to invent the word, since to my knowledge it was not (and is still not) in use.

    And again, the question: if there was a kanji equivalent in Shirato’s head, why did he not just write the magazine’s title in kanji? Why title something emphatically “Our Path” — using an obscure term — and then bury the meaning beneath katakana?

  11. cuc says:

    Garo seems to be like 90% of place names in Hokkaido: an Ainu name, transliterated using kanji that has some meaning, in this case “my path”.

    My take is: Shirato picked the Ainu name Garo for the name of the ninja character, partially due to liking the meaning of the kanji it’s written in. All the considerations (“my own path”, reference to American gangster, etc) happened first during the creation of the Garo story. He might have kept using katakana to preserve the ambiguity of the name, so that it can be both read as “my own path”, and as an avant-garde sounding foreign name, which I don’t feel to be unusual for a Japanese creator.

    But then again, I know very little about Shirato, so this is only me offering my thoughts.

  12. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Well, Mōri Jinpachi is supposed to have heard it from Shirato himself, which is hard to argue with at some level. But I know better than to take an old man’s recollections at face value 40-50 years after the event.

    As you say, there are a lot of toponyms (mountain peaks, swamps included) in Hokkaido pronounced Garo (90% is a gross exaggeration), though most of them do not use the 我路 kanji. From a little online searching, it appears that Garo might not originally be an Ainu word after all, but rather a northern Japanese term “gare” meaning broken-up or craggy (as in craggy rock) that became “garo” in Ainu, and then given various kanji glosses by Japanese.

    For the 我路 Garo toponym in western Hokkaido, one site says a local landowner, riffing on the Ainu name (or Ainu-fied Japanese name), referred to the local Bibai Railway as “his own personal road.”

    Now, why I think this is irrelevant: Part of the reason The Legend of Kamuy did not end up, as it was intended to be, a story of lower caste Japanese joining with oppressed Ainu during the Shakushain Rebellion was that Shirato claimed that a heavy work schedule did not allow him to properly research the Ainu and Hokkaido, so he abandoned the idea rather than do something poorly. I would have to dig in my notes, but I seem to recall somewhere in the early 60s that Shirato said he would like to go to Hokkaido to do research for his next big project (meaning Kamuy) – inferring that he had never been. And I don’t think he ever made it, at least in the 60s, due to being too busy.

    This means that Bibai-Garo would had to have been a place that Shirato came across in literature about Hokkaido or the Ainu, since he was not in Hokkaido to come across the place casually – and Garo-chō is not on the beaten track. These books would probably have had to be one of two kinds. 1) About the Shakushain Rebellion: but the Bibai-Garo area does not seem to have been a major theatre of war. I think much of the fighting was on the coast in Japanese trading towns, and especially in the Hidaka area (Shakushain’s base), many miles away from Bibai, which is inland. 2) Or books about mining, since Mitsubishi owned coalmines in the Bibai area. There are miners in a couple of Shirato’s kashihon works, but I recall them being either location-nonspecific or set in Honshu or further south. Bibai was part of the large Ishikari Coalfield, but I don’t know that Bibai itself had any special significance. Garo was just a small settlement a few miles outside of Bibai.

    So, it is possible that Garo comes from “my path,” but that the underlying kanji was inspired by a place in Hokkaido seems unlikely to me.

    I think there’s often an assumption with Garo (the magazine) that the kanji came first and then the katakana was used to make it seem more mysterious, more exotic, more avant-garde. But is it not possible that the katakana came first and then Shirato fabricated a Japanese meaning afterwards? Coming up with kanji for foreign words (ateji 当て字) is not rare in Japan, either in technical contexts or creative ones. If this were the case, then Mōri and I could both correct. The name Garo came from the Garo tribes in India, and then when asked what the name meant once applied to his ninja character or his magazine he came up with something evocative like “my path.” It wouldn’t be so strange if Shirato forgot the original source decades later, having made the word Garo his own.

  13. Chingseng says:

    Garo is the name given for the ‘A’chik’ tribe by other tribes or communities. We the Garos called ourselves ‘A’chik’. There is no originality of the word ‘Garo’ from our Tribe. But as we have been known to others, even we have been recognised as GARO by the Government of India and every other people, we also have to call oursleves GARO.

  14. the name garo was given to achik tribe by bodos meaning separated wen crossing the Himalayan mountains during migration from Tibet
    it was garou n then garu n garow which the other communities in northeast called us in ancient times now its called garo

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