Quite often I am asked about the meaning of my website address ozaru.net, or why I used the name "Ben 'Ōzaru' Jones" when translating the Bujinkan journal Sanmyaku. Well, although Ōzaru could mean 'Big Sieve' (as one New Yorker noticed, in some confusion), and is also a technical term used in Igo, in my case it means 'Big Ape' and is written as 大猿.
Martial artists all over the world seem to have used aliases or nicknames for a long time. In Japan they are called Bugō (similar to the Yagō of Kabuki performers or the Gō of visual artists), and in France and various other countries, Noms de guerre (similar to the Noms de plume of authors). Surprisingly, I have not been able to find an equivalent term in Chinese martial arts, although the actors in Kung Fu films will often use stage names, much as professional wrestlers do. The Wikipedia articles linked above suggest various theories as to how such customs arose, ranging from a desire for anonymity to a wish for fame (e.g. 'Don Quixote'). In some cases the pseudonym is chosen by the individual, while in other cases it is a nickname given to them by others.
In the Bujinkan Dōjō too there is a tradition of having Bugō — the current head of the school, Hatsumi Masaaki, has been through around a dozen different names (e.g. Tetsuzan, Hisamune), and his teacher, Toshitsugu Takamatsu also had a large number (although some of them he only used in painting etc., i.e. they were his noms de plume rather than noms de guerre). I asked Dr Hatsumi about Bugō once, and he said that he had given the character Ryū (dragon) to some of his students when they reached the instructor level of Shidōshi. Some also seemed to receive the character Ko (tiger), so you can see examples such as Ninryū, Kotetsu, Mōko, and even Ryūko.
I thought over what name I would like when I became Shidōshi, and hit upon Ōzaru for various reasons. Firstly, when surrounded by skillful, short Japanese people in the dōjō I felt like a clumsy, big ape. I also felt a profound empathy with gorillas (being basically vegan yet strong), and aspired to emulate their playful naturalness. In addition, I knew there was a famous fictional Ninja called Sarutobi Sasuke, whose father was Ōzaru, and I felt that if Dragon and Tiger were good names, Big Ape might be too. I therefore asked Dr Hatsumi, and he agreed that I could use the name — even pointing out that a previous grandmaster of one of the schools we study had also been called Ōzaru. (It was only much later that I discovered there are also Japanese tales about legendary 'giant apes' who got drunk and terrorized country villages. Later still I realized that the popular manga DragonBall also features giant primates known as Oozaru.)
What does my name mean to me? How is it to be used? I'm actually still not sure. In one sense, I took the name in the hope that it would help me understand Bugō in general. There are similarities with the way that grades are awarded in the Bujinkan. In modern 'martial sports', grades appear to be 'rewards', either for good training or for contributions to the art in other ways. Practitioners of traditional martial arts in Japan on the other hand were often awarded a grade when very young, or total beginners — even something like 'grandmaster'! The point of this Sakizuke system was that they would consider it an obligation or incentive, and strive to live up to the grade and discover its worth for themselves. Maybe I'll realize the meaning of Ōzaru if I ever decide it's time to change it and move on.
In the meantime, however, I have used it for my publishing business Ōzaru Books, and as a handle on numerous social networking sites. I also maintain my interest in gorillas, and do what I can to support them, for example by raising money over several years in the Great Gorilla Run and similar events.
This page produced by Ben Jones