I recently learned of the Korean word 가방 (gaban), which is supposedly derived from 鞄 (かばん), but it seems there isn't much of a solid trail after that.

From what I can tell, it might be related to the Chinese jiābǎn, though under the Korean entry for 가방, there's mention of the Dutch kabas.

Wiktionary is too brief to be decisive here. Do we have a good guess as to the etymology of かばん, and is it related to the Korean 가방, the Dutch kabas, or the Chinese jiābǎn?

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    I found a website that seeking the etymology of かばん (and origin of the letter 鞄 as かばん) but it doesn’t seem to have found anything convincing... japanbag.com
    – rk03
    Nov 10, 2023 at 21:14
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    @rk03 But the interesting thing to note there is that it isn't attested before the Meiji period.
    – cmw
    Nov 10, 2023 at 21:18

2 Answers 2


Wiktionary is too brief to be decisive here.

I'm an admin over there, and helped work on the Japanese entry for 鞄. We seldom get the chance to talk with users directly about the site, so I'm keen to find out from you 😄 -- what kind of expansion of the etymology there would be helpful to you? If you're open to longer discussion than a one-off comment below, please do so on my Wiktionary talk page, since this particular topic is outside scope for the Japanese Stack Exchange.

Do we have a good guess as to the etymology of かばん, and is it related to the Korean 가방 (kabang)...

I'm not fluent in Korean, but what I can glean about 가방 is that it was a borrowing from Japanese. See also the Korean Wikipedia article, or this page on Namu.wiki.

...[is かばん related to] the Dutch kabas...

From the Namu.wiki page, it seems like the National Institute of the Korean Language views Dutch kabas as the origin of the Japanese term, and a few posts on the Korean "Naver" site (like this one) follow suit. The Japanese-language Daijisen entry on Kotobank also mentions the Dutch term kabas as another possibility.

However, this theory is problematic in multiple ways.

  • The Dutch word is more specifically Belgian Flemish (1, 2), apparently. Some mainstream monolingual Dutch dictionaries don't even include the word, like the Algemeen Nederlands Woordenboek.
  • The main meaning of the term seems to be "basket", in keeping with its derivation in turn from Middle French cabas of similar sense. This doesn't overlap well with the Japanese term's attested meaning of "satchel", nor the kanji 鞄's earlier sense of "worked leather; leather bag".
  • The phonology is decidedly off -- that final //s// in the Dutch has no correlation with the final //ɴ// in the Japanese.
  • The Japanese term 鞄 with the reading kaban and a meaning of "bag, satchel" isn't attested until 1877. This makes the semantic (meaning) and phonological (sound) changes required to go from Flemish kabas ("basket") to Japanese kabaɴ ("satchel") even less likely.

→ Ultimately, I think the Flemish term is an accidental kinda-sorta resemblance, and not at all related. It's actually surprisingly easy to find words in any two languages that kinda sorta sound similar and kinda sorta have similar meanings -- and this gets even easier if you aren't that picky about the sounds and the meanings lining up all that closely, as with kabas ("basket") and kabaɴ ("satchel"). If you're interested in word origins and comparative linguistics, I highly recommend you read "How likely are chance resemblances between languages?" The author even lays out a well-backed-up mathematical model for determining the likelihood of such non-cognate similarities. See also this other post exploring any possible connection between English name and Japanese 名前 (namae).

... or [is かばん related to] the Chinese jiābǎn?

Per the references cited in the Wiktionary entry (Daijirin [no free online version I'm aware of], NKD [available via Kotobank here], Encyclopedia Nipponica [entry here, also on Kotobank]) and Daijisen (not yet included in the Wiktionary entry's references), the connection with Chinese 夹板 or 夾槾 keeps getting referenced as the likely source.

  • Phonologically, this makes some sense, considering the Japanese references' indicated reading of きゃばん and the pronunciation of Chinese languages like Min Nan's kiap-pán. A shift from きゃばん to かばん is much easier to explain as a change from palatal glide //ja// to //a//, a monophthongization. I notice too that apparently another Min Nan pronunciation for the 夾 character is kap.
  • Semantically, the Japanese resources describe the Chinese term as purportedly meaning something like "pressing together + board" in reference to a container or holder for documents, essentially a kind of briefcase (two flat stiff boards used to sandwich documents and keep them flat), which is also a closer match than the Flemish word for "basket".

→ In conclusion, while not definite (as the Nipponica entry itself calls out: 「語源【ごげん】はかならずしも明確【めいかく】でないが...」, "the etymology is not entirely clear, but..."), the Chinese derivation seems the most likely.

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    I believe even in Mandarin what is now written with /j/ in pinyin was pronounced like /g/ (and /q/ like /k/ with aspiration) until like the 19th century as we can see in the old transliteration of Peking.
    – aguijonazo
    Nov 10, 2023 at 22:51
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    Has かばん ever been spelt as 夹板 in Japanese? That would be a litmus test that I think needs to be passed for the Chinese-etymology claim, unless the word was transmitted through a time/location of an oral-only Chinese variety. Maybe Minnan would make sense in that case (southern coastal traders?)
    – dROOOze
    Nov 13, 2023 at 3:46
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    @dROOOze, so far as I've found to date, the word kaban in Japanese isn't attested until 1877, and then already with the kanji spelling 鞄. My reading of the NKD entry's wording of 『明治期【めいじき】に「かばん」の読【よ】みをあてた』 is that this kanji previously had no such kun'yomi. There is an older Japanese word 挟板, attested since 1603 with a meaning of "boards for sandwiching cloth or other material" and a reading of hasami ita. For kaban though, the only word I can find is 鞄. Nov 13, 2023 at 6:14

Is the desire to know the etymology due to the sound of the word or how the Kanji is written?

If it's the Kanji, looking at its parts may give more understanding. 革 or 'kawa' is leather and 包 or 'kurumu/tsutsumu' is (a) wrap.

If the origin of the sound (phoneme?) is what you seek, I believe Eiríkr Útlendi's explaination of the Min Nan pronunciation makes the most sense. (I really couldn't add anything to it.)

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