There are many theories regarding where Mount Fuji’s came from, including a well-known one which links it back to one of Japan’s oldest fold tales, The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter. In that story an elderly fellow who was out chopping bamboo cut open one glowing stalk and discovered a tiny girl inside. This was the moon-princess, Kaguya-hime. He took her home to show the wife and they raised her as their own child. She grew into a beautiful woman and as word of her beauty spread, the Emperor came round and spent a long time trying to hump her. Naturally, when she was later reclaimed by the moon people and spirited away in the night, the Emperor was quite upset. He asked his men what the closest place to heaven was and upon discovering that it was ‘The Great Mountain of Suruga Province’ (Mount Fuji) he sent his men to the summit in order to burn the elixir of life which Kaguya-hime had left him as a gift before she went back to the moon. In doing so the Emperor hoped his princess would get the message that he didn’t want to live without her. So his men raced up the mountain and hence its flanks had lots of soldier-type people on them; an abundance of soldiers, you might even say, a fact that fits in nicely with the kanji characters used to depict Mount Fuji, 富士, as these characters can carry a nuance of ‘abundance’ and ‘soldiers’ or ‘samurai’ respectively. Some texts of The Tale the Bamboo Cutter have it that this was how the name Fuji came about. But then again, The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter also has it that a man found a beautiful princess in a glowing stalk of bamboo, so, you know, take it as you will.
There is another folk etymology concerning the name that has been touted when discussing The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter. There are a lot of kanji characters in Japanese that can be pronounced fu and ji and some have claimed that different characters, tied to the elixir of life and immortality aspect of the story, had a hand in the development of the mountain’s name. One character with the pronunciation fu is 不 which is a kind of catch-all negative prefix (un-, non-, not, that kind of thing) and another character which can be pronounced shi or ji is 死 which has the meaning of death. Thus we can come up with a word, fushi or fuji, meaning undying or immortal.
Other folk etymologies have linked the name with yet more meaningful kanji characters. The immortal, never-ending theme is taken up again with one view that the name came from 不 (that not, un- etc prefix mentioned earlier) and 尽 which means ‘to run out of’, ‘use up’ or ‘exhaust’. So a non-exhaustive mountain, or something like that. The ‘not’ prefix is also used in the theory that the name derives from kanji characters 不二 which also read fuji and mean ‘peerless’ or ‘unparallelled’, the suggestion being it is a splendidly unique sort of mountain. But there is no incontrovertible evidence for any of these claims.
In the nineteenth century, Atsutane Hirata, a prominent Shinto theologist, weighed in with another theory. He said the name may have come from an old word – and this is a word you have to think isn’t really desperately required in any tongue – that apparently means, ‘a mountain standing up shapely as an ear of a rice plant.’ Okay, then. I suppose that might be rather shapely indeed to some people, but I must confess that the other morning when I was putting out the rubbish and old Mrs Watanabe commented on how fine Mount Fuji was looking and I replied, ‘Oh yes, isn’t she? Why she’s standing up as shapely as an ear of a rice plant!’ she scampered off with hurried steps and an air of concerned confusion. Hirata was a well-respected thinker and scholar of Japan, but he thought all Japanese people were descended from the gods, or as he put it, ‘Our country, as a special mark of favour from the heavenly gods, was begotten by them, and there is thus so immense a difference between Japan and all the other countries of the world as to defy comparison. Ours is a splendid and blessed country, the Land of the Gods beyond any doubt.’ Then he said, ‘What? What are you giggling at?’
Others have argued that the name came from the language of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. At a glance this would appear to be a sensible assumption. The Ainu worshipped many deities, an important one of which was a ‘fire goddess’ or ‘goddess of the hearth’. Her name was huchi kamuy. A British missionary, John Batchelor, the author of an Ainu-English-Japanese dictionary, argued that Fuji had its derivation here and what with Mount Fuji being quite a fiery mountain and all that, it is a view that many have taken to and is often quoted as being the source of Mount Fuji’s name. Some have argued that huchi simply means ‘old woman’ in Ainu and it is the word ape that means fire (the goddess’s full official name is the unwieldy Apemerukoyan-mat Unamerukoyan-mat), and thus huchi has no real connection with fire at all, but Batchelor does offer an explanation of sorts in his dictionary. You see, there were Sagahlien Ainu and Yezo Ainu. The former came from what is now known in Russia as Sakhalin and in Japan as Karafuto, an island between Siberia and Japan, the latter came from the main Japanese islands. Batchelor said that the two peoples were of the same race and that, despite their own claims to the contrary, their languages differed mainly in some vocabulary and the pronunciation of certain words. He explains that, ‘in Yezo the ordinary word for “fire” is ape; in Saghalien it is unchi, fuji, unji, hunji or funchi, according to the taste of the speaker. But in Yezo Ainu—unchi, huchi, unji or fuji is only applied to “fire” when it is being worshipped. Indeed, it stands for the “goddess of fire.”’ So, in Sagahlien Ainu, fuji could mean fire, and in Yezo Ainu, it could mean fire when used in godly terms. Either way, you can see how one could make the link from the word to a revered fiery mountain’s name. But it’s all still conjecture. A prominent linguist and scholar of the Ainu language, Kyosuke Kindaichi, refuted the Ainu connection, stating that linguistic evidence of phonetic development made this theory unlikely.
Apropos of nothing, this is a rather quaint quote I found about Batchelor on a random website: ‘One time he drank some liquor left in the glasses just for fun after a dinner party in his house and felt dizzy with a headache. His mother was gentle enough to make him realize his error without scolding him. Then he took the pledge and kept it through his life.’
Further ideas have been suggested (for the naming of Mount Fuji, not Batchelor’s headache or reason for taking the pledge) but all we really have at this time are plenty of theories without any conclusive evidence. The current answer to the question, ‘Why is Mount Fuji called Mount Fuji?’ is quite simply, ‘Nobody really knows.’