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  • Japanese: 公 (ooyake)

Ôyake is the standard Japanese word for "public," incorporating as the English word often does, both the meaning of being freely usable and accessible to, and perhaps even in a sense belonging to, the people, i.e. to everyone, but also the meaning of being owned or controlled by the government.

The word is written with the character 公, also pronounced (or occasionally ku), and is widely seen in words such as kôen (公園, public park), kôshiki (公式, officially), kômin (公民, citizen / member of the public), and kôritsu (公立, public [institution]). Historically, it also relevantly appears in terms such as kôgi (公儀, "public interest" or "common good"), to which the Tokugawa shogunate often appealed, demanding the sacrifice of personal interests or personal benefits for the sake of the state,[1] and kubô (公方), perhaps the most common/standard term used in the Tokugawa period to refer to the shogun, but literally meaning something akin to "the person of the public/government."

Ôyake ("public") is often contrasted against that which is watakushi (私), or "private." This manifests in terms of appeals for personal sacrifice for public good, and also in terms of a separation of spaces, such that private spaces are protected to a certain extent from government interference, but private matters are one's personal responsibility. This connects into the concept of omote and uchi described by Luke Roberts, one part of which meant that Edo period daimyô were free from shogunate interference within their domains (私領, "private territory"), so long as the daimyô managed his domain properly and maintained order. Of course, within the domain, the daimyô and his administrators represented the ôyake (public authority), and each of his retainers' households, as well as commoner households, were in certain respects considered "private" spaces.[2]


In ancient times, the word ôyake originally meant "great building" or referred to the location of such a building, and most often referred to a communal storehouse used to store surpluses from harvests, or tax or tribute revenues collected by the chief from the villagers. The storehouse thus came to represent both the communal identity of the community itself, and the chief & his household or lineage, containing too a ritual or sacred connotation of the greatness of that household. As Japanese society became more stratified over the course of the Yayoi and Yamato periods, the concept of ôyake continued to be associated with political elites or religious authorities.

When the Chinese writing system was adopted into Japan, the character 公 (C: gōng) came to be used to represent the word ôyake, and to refer to the political authority & sacred greatness of the emperor and of the Imperial household. The term kômin (公民, "member of the public")[3] came into use to refer to those who owed services and taxes to the imperial government. At the same time, the Yamato imperial house was asserting itself as the only, or the supreme, authority (ôyake), defeating, conquering, or otherwise subsuming under its authority all the chiefdoms and kingships which previously claimed authority in their respective regions or localities.


  • Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 68-69.
  1. Berry, Mary Elizabeth. “Public Peace and Private Attachment: The Goals and Conduct of Power in Early Modern Japan.” Journal of Japanese Studies 12, no. 2 (July 1, 1986): 237–71.
  2. Roberts, Luke S. Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan. Univ of Hawaii Press, 2012.
  3. Not to be confused with the term kômin (皇民) employed in the Meiji period to refer to Imperial subjects, or with the modern concept of the "citizen" within the modern, international, nation-state system.
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