Is 写真, the word for photograph, in any way a form of onomatopoeia? That is to say, is it at all based on the sound of taking a photo?

I'm aware of the meanings of 写 and 真, but when said aloud I always pictured "shashin" as perhaps an imitation of an old camera shutter. Are my suspicions rooted in reality, or is it just a coincidence?

  • It’s as istrasci says in their answer — that said, even if something is not onomatopoeia, the sound (or more accurately, 語呂) can still be important. I feel like 写メ and 写メる are used for their sound more than any other particular reason, for example (even though they are not onomatopoeia either... a bit hard to explain). Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 18:48

3 Answers 3


It's just a coincidence. According to this article, the word 「写真」 and its usage predates photography. The 「真」 part referred to 「人の姿」, so 写真 was used to mean 「姿を写したもの」, and was used for other things such as ink drawings, 浮世絵, and other illustrations of people.

From the article:


  • Even if it is a coincidence - that doesn't stop it from being an onomatipoeticon. It needs not have been designed as one to be one. Does it share sound-similarity to the object or phenomenon it describes? Object, seems not - but phenomenon?
    – Stian
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 14:40

No, it's not.

Wikipedia says:


Japanese "写真" comes from the Chinese meaning "Copy/reproduction(写) of the reality/truth(真)"

Source is 『日本語源広辞典』(Nihongo Genji(?) Jiten).

P.S. The shutter sound is usually written as カシャ or パシャ.


Bai Juyi's poems often refer to "写真", which is a common word in China's tang dynasty. For example:《李夫人》:"君恩不尽念未已,甘泉殿里令写真". In Chinese history, the word "写真" gradually faded out of use, but it was preserved in Japan and borrowed in China again.

  • can you add translation of the Chinese passage? Did the ancient word mean "picture" or something else? Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 18:44
  • Oh my... The meaning of sentence in Classical Chinese is very ambiguous, even though a native modern speaker can misunderstand after learning for nearly 10 years... And I have to say even if no misunderstanding, it's often impossible to be translated precisely. Full poem is in paste.ubuntu.com/p/5bMbgDNjkq According context, a rough (maybe wrong) translation of the two sentence "君恩不盡念未已,甘泉殿裡令寫真" is: "Emperor cannot hold the missing (for the died wife), so (he asked somebody) to make a draw / portrait in the Palace Sweet Water"
    – kuanyui
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 6:05

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