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Shining Light on a Dark Word: the Meaning of YAMI

Shining Light on a Dark Word: the Meaning of YAMI

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In this article, I’m going to tackle a potentially challenging word: Yami. What does yami mean? 

Well, it entirely depends on the context. We’re going to be exploring all over the eastern hemisphere to come up with a comprehensive understanding of this interesting collection of phonemes!

Whether you hear it at an anime convention, a Hindu festival, or discussing a trip to the Philippines, you’ll be totally prepared after reading this!


What does yami mean?

Yami means “dark” in Japanese and can be used with many concepts related to “darkness.” Yami is also the name of an important character in the popular Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series, the spirit of an ancient pharaoh who inhabits the body of the main protagonist.

Yami is also the name of a language spoken on an island near Taiwan. It’s also a volcano in the Philippines. And it’s the name of an important river goddess in the Hindu religion.

Let’s go through these country by country, starting with Japan!


Yami in Japanese

Most commonly, you’ll see yami written with the kanji (Chinese character) , meaning “dark.”

You’ll want to be careful to not confuse this with a very similar written word in Japanese.

That word is kurai and is written with 暗.  Look carefully, and you’ll notice the similarity with .

Both of these kanji mean “dark.” In fact, these two kanji are occasionally interchangeable.

That said, yami, written as 闇, often carries a connotation of things hidden, tucked away, lost.

In the kanji, you’ll notice that there’re basically two components.

There’s the outer part, comprised of left and right mirrored pieces, and an inner part. That outer part is symbolic of a gate.

In its ancient form, when the character was more squiggly and full of detail, the gate depicted a latch on it. This evoked the sense of something being hidden away and unclear (i.e. stuck behind a latched gate).

The English-Japanese dictionary is a little on the nose with its definition. “Darkness,” “bewilderment,” “hidden place,” “black market.” 

But if we look into the Japanese dictionary, a ton of color comes to this dark word.

Eleven definitions are provided for the single character 闇 in the online dictionary I looked at, and each one offers a bit of depth to the nuance of the word. Let’s take a look at just a few of these offered meanings.


“The condition wherein no light can shine through.”

“Things without knowledge, without reason.”

“A spirit in such disarray that one becomes unable exact righteous judgement.”

“Places unknown to people.”

“No hope for the journey ahead.”

“A moonless night.”


Oof. That’s some serious stuff.


Even more of the color of yami comes out in the compound words it’s used in.  Mu-yami-ni means “thoughtlessly, recklessly.”  Yoi-yami means “dusk,” or twilight.”

Yami-yo-ni-teppou is literally, “a gun into the dark,” and means, “an aimless attempt; a shot in the dark.”

Yami-ichi is written as “dark city” and means “black market.”

Ko-no-shita-yami means “the dark under trees,” or “the obscurity of the forest.”

One I really like is koi-no-yami, which is literally “heart’s darkness,” but means more specifically, “losing one’s reason due to love.”

One last interesting compound word is yami-kumo, written with the characters for “dark” and “cloud.” It means “reckless, at random, haphazard.”

Can’t you just picture the interesting connection between “dark cloud” and the idea of something looming overhead that may strike out at any unforeseen moment?

Neat stuff, if you ask me!

The potential etymology of the word also leads us to some more interesting places.

Yami is originally from old Japanese and possibly came via two other words that are pronounced the same in certain conjugations.

The first is “to be ill,” and the other is “to stop.” There’s also some evidence to suggest that it might have come from the word yomi, meaning “land of the dead.”

When we look at the word yami in its plain, phonetically written form, we write it as やみ. That first character is the YA and the second is the MI.

When it’s written to talk about the dark (or any of the adjacent meanings we looked at already), it’s written 闇.

When it’s about being ill, it’s 病み.

When it’s related to stopping, it’s 止み.

So, we get words like yami-gatai, written 止み難い. This one’s constituent parts mean “difficult to stop,” and the dictionary definition is “irresistible.”

We then get a word like 病みつき, or yami-tsuki which means “being addicted to.” 

There’s also yami<-houkeru, written 病み耄ける, which combines  “sick” with “senility,” leading to the meaning “to become wasted with illness.”


Yami in Japanese Media

Probably the most well-known example of yami showing up in Japanese media is in the 90’s anime Yu-Gi-Oh!

In it there is the character of Yami Yugi. Yami Yugi is the spirit of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Atem, who sealed his soul inside something called the Millennium Puzzle.

When the other protagonist of the series, Yugi Muto, solves the Millennium Puzzle, the spirit of Yami Yugi is released.

Yami Yugi then goes on to inhabit the body of Yugi Muto and together they drive the narrative of this classic anime.

In Japanese, this name is written out as 闇遊戯. That first character should be familiar to you by now, but the next two are each ways of writing “play.” So, the name means “dark game.”

The name Yami also shows up in another anime and manga known as “To Love-Ru.”

In this anime “Golden Darkness” is hired to assassinate the main character, though she doesn’t ever really get around to it.

Golden Darkness is often referred to as Yami, no doubt due to her name as written in the original Japanese, 金色の闇.

Usually, 金色 is read as kin-iro, but occasionally (and in this anime) it’s pronounced konjiki. It means “gold color.” So, konjiki-no-yami yields the name, in English, “Golden Darkness,” quite literally.

For gamers, Yami might be a more recognizable name from the game Okami.  In the game, Yami is the main antagonist and final boss of the game.

Yami is the ruler of demons and appears in the game as a giant, mechanical sphere covered in strange writings.

As Yami is beaten down throughout the final boss battle, it changes forms, eventually revealing its true shape, that of a small, black fish.

Yami’s full name in Japanese is written 常闇ノ皇, or tokoyami-no-sumeragi.

Those first two characters combine to mean “everlasting darkness,” and the final character is “emperor.” So, the name is, literally, “Emperor of Everlasting Darkness.”

Good name for a villain!

Yami also shows up in the 2008 crossover fighting game, “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars,” where he shows up again as the final boss at the end of the arcade mode.


Yami in the Philippines

Yami is the name of the northernmost island in the Philippines.

It is a part of Batanes Islands and province, though it has no population.

Despite this, it is a frequent destination for fishermen. The island makes up one part of the Luzon Volcanic Arc. The old, native name for the island was Dihami.


The Yami People of Taiwan

The Yami people are a part of the Austronesian ethnic group and live on Orchid Island, about 46 miles off the southeast coast of Taiwan.

The name Yami is not native to these people who refer to themselves as Tao. The name Yami was given to them by a Japanese ethnologist.

The Tao (or Yami) people are small in number. Just 3,100 remain on Orchid Island alongside 800 Han Chinese. They rely there heavily on fishing for survival.

The Yami language is a Malayo-Polynesian language and part of the Ivatan dialect continuum. If you want to know more about what the heck that means, Wikipedia has a bunch of fantastic information about it.

The Yami language is known to its speakers as “ciriciring no Tao,” or “human speech.”  The Yami language has many cognates with the Philippine language and also incorporates many Japanese loanwords.

As of 2006, there were just 3,800 native speakers of the language, though this number may dwindle as more Yami/Tao people move away from Orchid Island to mainland Taiwan for economic opportunities where their ancient culture is often subsumed into the modern one.


The Hindu Yami

Yami is an important deity in the Hindu religion. Yami is the daughter of the goddess of clouds, Saranyu, and the god of the sun, Surya. Yami has a twin, Yama, who is the god of death.

Yami is also known as Yamuna, being called Yami mainly in the Vedas. In later literature her name would be Kalindi.

Yami is the goddess of the main tributary of the holiest river in Hinduism, the Ganges.

Drinking from the waters of Yami is said to remove one’s sins. Yami was the first woman and, as a contract to her God-of-Death brother Yama, she is said to be the Lady of Life.

When Krishna was born, she created a safe passage for him across her waters and would later go on to marry him.