The origin of 幸せ (shiawase), a Japanese word for “happiness”

By | April 18, 2022

In Japanese, 嬉しい (ureshii) and 幸せ (shiawase) are two words that express happiness, but they have a very different connotation. “Ureshii” is more about a (potentially short-lived) feeling of pleasure or contentment, as in “You look happy today”, whereas “shiawase” is more about a big-picture (potentially long-term) state of happiness in terms of being fortunate or lucky.

Let’s take a look at this word “shiawase” and see where it came from, and learn some more Japanese along the way.

It turns out that “shiawase” can also be written as 仕合わせ, which gives us a place to start. First let’s look at the second half of the word, 合わせ (awase), which comes from the verb 合わせる (awaseru) that has various meanings: “to put together”, “to fit”, “to add”, etc. By the way, this verb is actually the causative form of 合う (au), that has a similar meaning, except it is intransitive (meaning the thing before the “ga” or “wa”, itself is doing the fitting, whereas with “awaseru” someone/something is making it fit).

As for the first part of the “shiawase”, the “仕”, even though this kanji means “to serve” (like in the word “仕事”, shigoto, “to work”), you can understand it simply here as the pre-masu form of the common verb “suru” (to do). Using a character whose meaning doesn’t have much relevance to the word is called “ateji” (a phonetic equivalent)

Now the combination of “to do”, and “to fit”, is still a bit unclear, but it helps to know that originally 仕合わせ (幸せ) was 巡り合わせ (meguriawase). “Meguri” is a form of the verb “meguru” that means “to go around”, a word can be applied to not only things physically moving in a circle, but also more metaphorically to things that repeat, such as the seasons, and there is a nuance here of fate and fortune. In fact, one of the meanings of “meguru” is “輪廻” (rin’ne), which means “reincarnation”. (By the way, my latest book has a story about the reincarnation of a special item.)

The final piece of information required to really understand “shiawase” is that originally it was written as 巡り合わせが良い (meguriawase ga yoi), which literally means something like “the fitting of going around is good”. If we consider the “fate” nuance of “meguri” we end up with the simpler translation of “the fit of fate is good”, in other words things are working out well for someone, hence they are “fortunate”.

By the way, “shiawase” is used grammatically as an na-adjective. Here is one example of usage:

  • 俺が世界で一番幸せな男だ (“ore ga sekai de ichiban shiawase na otoko da”)
  • I’m the happiest man in the world.

There are other words that mean “fortunate” in Japanese, for example “幸福” (koufuku), and “幸運” (kouun). The word 幸い (saiwai) also means “fortunate”, although it can be used with the lighter nuance of “ureshii”. Common words that express bad fortune are 不幸 (fukou) and 不幸せ (fushiawase), and as you might guess “fu” has a negative meaning here.

(Note: Here is one page that describes the origin of “shiawase” in Japanese)

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