While interactions with native Japanese speakers I have occasionally come across the expressions “nimaime” (二枚目) and “sanmaime” (三枚目). It turns out they have somewhat opposite meanings and are easy to confuse, so I thought I would go over their meanings and origins here.
As you may know, “mai” (枚) is used as a counting suffix for flat objects, like a piece of paper. For example 一枚 is “one flat object” (or “one piece of paper”). Also, “me” (め or 目) is used to change a count into an ordinal number, so 一枚め is literally “the first flat object”.
Correspondingly, the expressions “nimaime” and “sanmaime” literally mean “the second flat object” and “the third flat object”. But without knowing the origin of these expressions, these literal meanings are worthless, even confusing.
But first, for the meanings themselves. In modern Japanese, “nimaime” is an expression that refers to a handsome man, possibly in the context of an actor, but can also refer to a regular person. In contrast, “sanmaime” refers to someone who is jokes around or is a fool.
As for the origin of these words, according to this the “nimaime” expression originally came from the practice of listing a certain actor’s name immediately after the title on a billboard for a theater piece in the Edo period (1600-1867). The “sanmaime” was then the actor below that, presumably one of lesser importance.
However, normally when counting printed lines you would use “ichigyoume” (一行目) or perhaps the more generic “nibanme” (二番目). So why was is the “mai” counter used in these expressions?
I did some more searching and found this page which talks in more detail about the origin of “nimaime”. It describes the billboard as a “hachimai kanban” (八枚看板), which implies there were “eight flat things”. Using this as a search term lead me to this site, where it describes the “hachimai kanban” being comprised of eight different tall, flat things; in an old painting on the site these look more like banners, but in a more modern photograph they almost look like tiles. In any case, this makes it clear why the “mai” counter was used.
Essentially, the title of the play was on the first banner (or tile), the name of “nimaime” was printed on the second banner, and so on.
The last link I gave listed another interesting term I hadn’t heard before: “nimaimehan” (二枚目半), a word that is tricky to translate but would be something like “The second-and-a-half flat thing”. This is described as a mix of the “nimaime” and “sanmaime” roles. In other words, someone who is both funny and handsome.
Which of these would you prefer to be?