Why does 留守{るす} have two almost opposite meanings? One is "to keep the door" or "to look after home" and the other almost opposite meaning is "not at home".

  • 5
    English has words like that too.
    – Zhen Lin
    Aug 9, 2014 at 18:01
  • 2
    I believe the shift comes from the advent of answering services, 留守番電話, on phones, which essentially take care of messages while you are away. So the "guarding" aspect refers to what the answering service does for you, but the implication of the term is that you're not there. 留守 became shorthand for you not being there. This shift happened during my time in Japan, so I saw it happen real time, although I don't have an authorative reference. I'm also hesitant to post as an answer because these days on JL you get downvoted for even daring to have an idea.
    – Questioner
    Aug 10, 2014 at 8:56
  • @DaveMG 日本国語大辞典 dates this meaning back to 1208. They cite 吾妻鏡承元二年(1208)七月大十九日. (There's a translation into modern Japanese if you click the link and search for 留守. You'll get three in-page results: ① the way it was originally written, ② the 訓読, and ③ the translation into 現代語.)
    – user1478
    Aug 11, 2014 at 9:28
  • @snailboat, sorry, but your comment is unclear about which meaning "this" is, but in any case, keep in mind that what meanings are available and what usages are common can be different things. But whatever. I could be wrong about what I perceived about how the shift in meaning happened. I have only lived here a couple of decades and not since the 13th century, so I'm not going to claim I know what happened before I got here.
    – Questioner
    Aug 11, 2014 at 10:53

2 Answers 2


留 means stay, and 守 means guard, so 留守 literary means "stay and guard (home)". It actually used to mean just like this in the old Japanese. 留守 referred to keeping the house while the master is away from home.

However, such usage is dying or at least very literary now. The main meaning of 留守 in modern Japanese is "not at home". "留守にする" always means "be away (from home, office, etc.)".

  • 留守の語源

    本来の意味は、主(あるじ)不在の家を守ることであったが、不在の主の方に重点が移り、 単に「不在」の意味に使われるようになった。また、もとの意味の「守り」は、「留守番」「留守居」と呼ぶようになった。

  • 留守(るす)・・・・もともとは「不在」という意味ではなかった


If we want to say "to look after the house", we usually use "留守番(をする)". Here, 番 roughly means "keeper" or "caretaker".

Very rarely, expressions like "Aが城の留守をしている" ("A is looking after the castle") are seen in recent novels. There is also a word 留守部隊, which means the party who don't go to the front line. But I think those expressions can be understood only with the help of the context. Using 留守番 is almost always the safer choice.

In some certain idioms, 留守 and 留守番 are still interchangeable and you can safely use 留守:

  • 留守を頼む ≒ 留守番を頼む ask someone to look after the house
  • 留守を任せる ≒ 留守番を任せる trust someone to look after the house

I think the main point to look at are the usages of "を" and ”に"

"を" is suggesting that the action is done so "留守をする" is the original meaning of looking after. "に" is suggesting direction, in other words to put in the state of the action. So in this way "留守にする" can be considered to mean "to put in a state where somebody else is looking after it" and hence could easily evolve towards just meaning "put in a state where somebody(you, etc.) is not there".

I also have to note that from experience Japanese doesn't seem to be grammatically strict and that abbreviations are common place which would probably contribute.

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