It has long been a pet peeve of mine when people talk about apes calling them "monkeys".

Recently I've seen bonobos being called 猿 in an anime, so from that it's pretty clear that 猿 also refers to apes informally in Japanese. So I've been wondering:

Does 猿 also mean ape in technical/scientific Japanese speech?

From what I was able to gather from Wikipedia and dictionaries, apes (Hominoidea) are ヒト上科 and great apes (Hominidae, which is what a bonobo is) are called ヒト科.

But that does not clarify whether 猿 can be used technically to refer to them, or even if 猿 is accepted nomenclature in scientific/technical speech at all.


4 Answers 4


Some notes from wikipedia on サル with my translations:

英語のmonkey(モンキー)や、いくつかの言語での相当する語は、学術的な定義上はオナガザル科(旧世界猿、old world monkey)と広鼻猿(新世界猿、new world monkey)の総称である。

The English term 'monkey', and corresponding terms in some other languages, is a general term referring to the old world monkeys and new world monkeys.


That is, lemurs, tarsiers, and apes which are covered by 'サル' are not considered 'monkeys'. (The exact classification of the tarsiers is not settled but regardless of that they are not included under the term 'monkey').


Thus, even in Japanese, particularly in translated works, these animals (particularly humans' nearest relation, the chimpanzee) may not be included under the term サル.

I would add that the use of katakana, rather than kanji, for サル and other animal names is usual in technical writing.


I think yes is the simple answer but to expand on this:

Apes are technically referred to by zoologists as anthropoids which in Japanese is: 類人猿. Orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas (オランウータン, チンパンジー, ゴリラ) all fall under this category. But, when translating ape, I think 猿 is often used, as in the following quite well known books:

猿の惑星:Planet of the apes by Pierre Boulle

裸のサル, 人間: The naked ape by Desmond Morris

The first is a novel, originally in French, the second a popular book on science for the layman, both well worth reading.

  • 1
    I'm not sure that's conclusive. Both those books' titles are translated in my native language with the word "macaco" (monkey), but "macaco" is not an accepted term to refer to them in technical writing. I have in fact read Morris' book (I studied behavioral psychology at uni), and iirc, the word 'macaco' is only ever used in the title itself to refer to apes, with the more correct word 'primata' being used in the book itself. I could elaborate more on this and why I suppose that is, but unfortunately there's a character limit (and would be kinda off-topic).
    – vivien
    Dec 1, 2012 at 14:26
  • @vivien: The question was on translation of "ape" not "monkey". Rather than just cast doubt on my answer (which I began with "I think") perhaps you could, as an anthopologist (人類学者?), share some technical insight rather than (not uninteresting)anecdotal thoughts derived your unspecified native language?: My answer was based on general knowledge and a dictionary which also tells me: an anthropoid ape=類人猿, anthropoid is an adjective meaning〈動物が〉人間に似た, 類人の;⦅略式⦆〈人が〉サルに似た..[.and I still have 77 characters left to comment!]
    – Tim
    Dec 3, 2012 at 14:29
  • I did not mean to dismiss your answer. The anecdotal evidence is just my justification for asking for a bit more information on the topic and why I feel the way people usually translate 'ape' might not be conclusive because it does not necessarily follow scientific accuracy (as it does not in my native Portuguese). Also, please note that I do not claim to be an expert. My field was actually behavioral psychology (never actually graduated in that), which meant understanding some anthropology. In hindsight, my comment about that was unnecessary and derailing. I apologize.
    – vivien
    Dec 4, 2012 at 2:17
  • @vivien: Thank you. I hope I did not sound too offended. (I know it is sometimes difficult not to sound critical but it discourages others from contributing.)
    – Tim
    Dec 5, 2012 at 22:41

Technically, サル目 seems to be the word for primates (including monkeys and apes), so as long as you accept 猿 to mean "a member of サル目", the answer would be yes in the sense that an ape would also be a 猿, but not necessarily the other way around.

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    @TsuyoshiIto That seems like a narrower sense to me. In either case, technically (which is what OP asked) "生物学的観点から見ればヒトもサルの一種に他ならない" ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%B5%E3%83%AB
    – dainichi
    Dec 4, 2012 at 10:20
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    @TsuyoshiIto, if A is a sort of B, is A not a B? I know that the popular usage of サル does not include ヒト, but in the technical sense, I believe what I wrote is correct.
    – dainichi
    Dec 5, 2012 at 0:31
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    @TsuyoshiIto, in popular usage, you're correct, but OP is asking about technical usage. The sentence I quoted says "の一種に他ならない", not "のようなものに他ならない", so you seem to be contradicting yourself.
    – dainichi
    Dec 5, 2012 at 1:15
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    Technically, the word サル never means “all species in primates,” period. Dec 5, 2012 at 1:27
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    @TsuyoshiIto, I fail to see any mention of technical language in your sources, where mine specifically mentions "生物学的観点".
    – dainichi
    Dec 5, 2012 at 2:23

Interestingly, in Chinese 猿 means ape and not monkey.

I'm sure that people in Japan would casually call apes 猿 just as Chinese people often call apes 猴子, which technically only refers to monkeys.

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    If apes and monkeys are distinguished in Chinese and people just sometimes use the word for monkeys to mean apes because of the lack of preciseness, then the situation in Japanese is different. In Japanese, apes and monkeys are not distinguished by default, and 猿 means both. (I wrote “by default” because there is a usage of 猿 which means only monkeys; see nkjt’s answer.) Dec 8, 2012 at 22:56

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