Pleiades: From Sumer to Subaru

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During the early part of my career, one of the most stunning academic papers I read was this:

Roy Andrew Miller, "Pleiades Perceived:  MUL.MUL to Subaru", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 108.1 (January-March, 1988), 1-25.

"Pleiades Perceived" was the presidential address delivered March 24, 1987 at the American Oriental Society's 197th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.  "Roy Andrew Miller (September 5, 1924 – August 22, 2014) was an American linguist best known as the author of several books on Japanese language and linguistics, and for his advocacy of Korean and Japanese as members of the proposed Altaic language family." (source)

Miller received his Ph.D. in Chinese and Japanese from Columbia University.  He taught successively at the International Christian University in Tokyo, Yale University, and the University of Washington.  He was (in)famous for his harsh reviews, to be compared only with those of Leon Hurvitz (August 4, 1923 – September 28, 1992), who also received his Ph.D. from Columbia and, after teaching at the University of Washington, ended his career at the University of British Columbia.  Miller and Hurvitz both were immensely learned scholars who knew Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other challenging languages.  I didn't meet Miller in person, but did study for one year with Hurvitz, who was extraordinarily eccentric.

To return to Sumer and Subaru, during the late 70s and early 80s I had myself toyed with the idea that the Sumerian and Sinitic words for "Pleiades" might be somehow related.  That was based mainly on my cursory reading of the relevant parts of works like Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China and Edward Schafer's Pacing the Void: T'ang Approaches to the Stars, plus the seminal research of Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer (September 28, 1897 – November 26, 1990; born in Ukraine, he received his Ph.D. from Penn in 1929 and was employed there until he retired in 1968), and the superficial resemblance between Sumerian MUL.MUL ("Pleiades") and Sinitic mǎo 昴 ("Pleiades"), the Old Sinitic reconstruction of which is:

(BaxterSagart): /*mˤruʔ/
(Zhengzhang): /*mruːʔ/

Japanese etymology 1

Likely from Old Japanese, use of kanji in Japanese texts first appears in the Tango-no-kuni Fudoki (c. mid-8th century), phonetic spelling first attested in the Wamyō Ruijushō (938 CE).

By extension from 統ばる (subaru, to bunch together; to unite, intransitive), due to the way the stars in the constellation all cluster together.[1][2] Compare 統べる (suberu, to command, transitive).

(astronomy) the Pleiades star cluster, one of the Twenty-Eight Mansions

Japanese etymology 2

Likely from Old Japanese.

Possibly an allusion from 昴の玉 (sumaru no tama, literally cluster of pearls) referenced multiple times in the Kojiki (712 CE); probably the original form of Subaru above. Compare the development of (sume-/sumera-sube-/subera-, prefix of praise and respect to Shinto deities or an Emperor of Japan)

(astronomy, regional) the Pleiades star cluster, one of the Twenty-Eight Mansions

Japanese etymology 3


From Middle Chinese (MC mˠauX).

(Chinese astronomy) the Hairy Head constellation, one of the Twenty-Eight Mansions, corresponding to the Pleiades star cluster in English

Japanese etymology 4

Nominalization of classical adjective 高し (takashi), modern 高い (takai, high).

Japanese etymology 5

Nominalization of verb 上る, 登る (noboru, to ascend, rise).


1988, 国語大辞典(新装版) (Kokugo Dai Jiten, Revised Edition) (in Japanese), Tōkyō: Shogakukan

2006, 大辞林 (Daijirin), Third Edition (in Japanese), Tōkyō: Sanseidō, →ISBN


In his enormously erudite article, Miller takes note of these phonological, etymological, and astronomical / astrological resemblances, but finds reason to reject all of them as sufficient grounds for accepting a connection between Sumerian MUL.MUL ("Pleiades") and Sinitic mǎo 昴 ("Pleiades"). The most obvious obstacle is that MUL.MUL only means "Pleiades" in its reduplicated form.  He also diligently and meticulously attempts to trace the path of the Sumerian word through Proto- and Middle Turkic and putative Altaic, plus the famous Astana Tomb 65TAM 38 Ceiling Star Map in Eastern Turkestan (now called Xinjiang) (p. 10, Fig. 3) and a similar kofun tomb ceiling map in Japan, the Takamatsuzuka Tumulus Ceiling Star Map (p. 11, Fig. 4).  Yet everywhere he turns, Miller finds insufficient grounds for establishing a route for the path of the Sumerian word to China and thence to Japan.  What he does discover and demonstrate is the transmission of the idea and arrangement of a group of stars*, supported by astral myth (already documented in texts from the 8th c. AD) and astronomical / astrological lore**, that has become the world-famous logo of Subaru automobiles.


*Along the way, Miller answers many other related questions, such as why there are only six stars in Subaru's logo when it is named after a constellation of seven daughters.  Hint:  it's a question of visibility

**"Particularly evident are the Chinese perceptions and terminology dealing with the twenty-eight 'lunar mansions,' parallels to the Indic naktra [recte nakṣatra]." (p. 16b) — I wish that RAM were alive today to appreciate that correction!


So why, in the early 50s, did the corporate fathers at Fuji Heavy Industries decide upon "Subaru" for the trademark of their automobile?  They wanted a name that would symbolize the unity (six stars in one constellation) of their company coming together behind the brand after the splintering brought about by the Japanese defeat in WWII.  Inveterate philologist that he was, RAM could not resist pointing out that the connection between "Subaru" (the Japanese word for Pleiades — the origins and development of which he thoroughly documents throughout the article) and sub- ("to unite") was based on a widespread, but mistaken, etymology of the late Tokugawa scholar, Kariya Ekisai (December 23, 1775 –  August 27, 1835).  Since RAM's demonstration of the morphological impossibility of that equation is highly technical, I will omit recounting it here, but if you want to know what it is, you can find the explanation in this article.

Although Miller's "Pleiades:  From Sumer to Subaru" is hard core philology from start to finish, he does not shy away from sprinkling it with political animadversions from time to time, and even occasionally a touch of wit.

As for what made me think of RAM's remarkable article at this particular time, there are two reasons:

1. I had just written a post on Sumerian beer.

2. Though I am enamored with my Toyota Tacoma, many of my most discerning friends have lately been buying Subarus.

A twofer.


Selected readings


  1. jin defang said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 7:30 am

    Ah, thank you—- finally an answer to why the car is named after the Pleiades.

  2. Rodger C said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 10:14 am

    When I read Miller's Nihongo long ago, I was struck by both his great learning and the severity of his judgments, but I was also puzzled to read an American author whose cultural reference points seemed to be so British. Further reading about him only left me more puzzled on this point.

  3. M said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 10:47 am

  4. Stefan Georg said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 11:27 am

    Thanks for this – the saying is that, if you never received Miller's vitriol in print directed at one of your writings, well, you haven't been around.
    I met him a few times, and he could be quite amicable in person!


  5. Frank L Chance said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 12:05 pm

    Another reason to post this this week is that Subaru is a sponsor of the Shofuso Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia. The festival is coming this weekend, April 8, 9, and 10m at the Horticulture Center in West Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, and admission is free this year. Before the pandemic Subaru USA was the lead sponsor so it was formerly the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 5:19 pm

    From Daniel Waugh:

    Indeed, I am enlightened and hope that our Subaru, built in the year 2000, now with a re-built engine, will keep going for a good many additional years, even if it does not get very good gas mileage by the standards that we are being told we should meet today.

    On scholars who write or (if no longer with us…) used to write devastating reviews, there are undoubtedly more tales to be told. I can think of one case where, word has it, the review threw the target into such a funk that he never was able for years to think of writing another book. Of course probably worse (if harsh criticism is merited) are the reviews that are much too kind about books that do not deserve a pass. I used to give my students exercises to look at several reviews of a book they were assigned to read and thus be enlightened about the disparity in opinions that make it into print in allegedly respectable journals. I think this is one of the best ways to try to educate students in critical thinking. I personally much prefer to review only books that merit praise, since, if one is going to be really critical, there is an obligation to document the criticism thoroughly, something that ordinary review format in many journals cannot accommodate.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 6:13 pm

    From Jay Rubin (who used to teach at Harvard):

    Thanks, Victor, for the nice reminder of RAM. It would not be too great an exaggeration to say I ended up at the UW in hopes of enjoying his humor. I remember his talk on the Pleiades—or, rather, the fact of it, since I would not have appreciated its contents any more then than I could today.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 6:16 pm

    From Frank Chance:

    In addition to the information I posted on LL about the Shofuso Cherry Blossom Festival, your post made me think of the Japanese popular song 昴 “Subaru” by Tanimura Shinji 谷村新司 is a YouTube version with lyrics and English translation of this rather maudlin piece. It was rather popular for karaoke at one time.

  9. Chris Button said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 8:44 pm

    I’m reminded of another of R. A. Miller’s contributions: the etymology of 榴 “pomegranate”, which contains the same phonetic as 昴.

    I’m not wholly convinced by his proposals there, but I did find interesting his suggestion that forms like Arabic “rummān” might be connected. It would be handy if we could separate the “ru” component somehow.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 6:07 am

    So many important, wonderful comments, for each of which I am deeply grateful.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 8:04 pm

    From Frank W. Clements:

    It made me think of this character from the anime/manga Tokyo Babylon and X:

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 12:56 pm

    For comments about Hurvitz go to:

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