Orphans That Never Knew Their Names: Haibane Renmei and the Power of Names

And now we’re grown-up orphans
That never knew their names

We don’t belong to no one
That’s a shame

But you could hide beside me
Maybe for a while
And I won’t tell no one your name
And I won’t tell ’em your name


When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we flipped through books and clicked through dozens of webpages to find the perfect name for him.  It had to sound right – together with our last name, together with a middle name, and in context of what was acceptable today.  We went through a similar ritual with our second child.  Most importantly for us, the name had to mean something.

In western culture today, the meaning of names has lost much of its importance.  For instance, my name means “strong and manly,” but I would never use those adjectives to describe myself, except in jest.  In certain homes in the west, and in other countries around the world, name meanings are considerably more important.  For instance, names in Asian countries like Japan and Korea have long held significance for the individual and his or her family.

In 1939-40, the Sōshi-kaimei policy went into effect, where Koreans (at that time subjects of the Japanese empire) were effectively forced to change their names to Japanese ones.  Many of us in the west might only see the surface-level shame and anger a policy like this could cause, but it went far deeper than that for the Koreans, as demonstrated in the wonderful short story, “Lost Names,” by Richard E. Kim.  In it, a young boy goes with his father to register their new family name.  On the way, he thinks to himself:

I am going to lose my name; I am going to lose my name; we are all going to lose our names.

The family is given the surname Iwamoto, meaning “foundation of rock” (Iwa mean “rock” and Moto means “root”).  The tearful father tells his son:

Take a good look at all of this.  Remember it.  Don’t ever forget this day.

Later, as the family visits a graveyard, three generations of males weep, as do other individuals in the cemetery.  The symbolism of the burial ground is evident, as is that of the black armbands that the narrator’s father and friends wore – the loss of names is equivalent to death.  The boy’s grandfather cries to the grave of his father:

We are a disgrace to our family. We bring disgrace and humiliation to your name. How can you forgive us?

In Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi’s critically acclaimed anime, names are likewise charged with meanings that are deeply rooted with the individuals they are attached to.  The haibane are given them as they are born into their new world.  These names reflect their dreams – it is a significant part of their identities.  The main characters have the names of Rakka (falling) and Reki (pebble).  As time passes, the myserious beings known as the haibane renmei can present the haibane with new names, reflecting their growth or failure to grow past obstacles that seem fated to them.

Rakka and Reki

Without spoiling the series, the giving of these new names have a profound impact on the two haibane.  Rakka tries to earn a new one, while Reki is simply trying to cling to her’s.  Their paths involving these names and the redemption of their souls is obviously very spiritual in nature.  Names, too, have spiritual meaning, in Christianity as with other religions.  My children, for instance, have names related to figures from the Bible, and at Christenings, it’s common to receive a new “Christian” name, symbolic of rebirth.  For any who have seen the series, the relationship between rebirth, baptisms of sorts (by fire, perhaps, rather than by water), and the receiving of names is obvious.

The boxes, too, in which their names are contained are reminiscent of a verse in the Bible.  In Revelation 2:17, John reveals the words of God, writing that those who are victorious will receive a white stone with a new name on it.  In Haibane Renmei, when the sin-bound are victorious, they may receive a new name, packaged in a box with stone-like material and symbolic of how they overcame the sin which weighed them down.

Interestingly enough, Reki’s connection to Christianity goes even further than that.  Her name, meaning “pebble” or “small stone,” reminds me of the most famous discussion of names in the New Testament.  Jesus speaks to his fiery disciple Peter, and tells him that “on this rock I will build my church.”  What He is exactly referencing is up to interpretation, but Jesus, a lover of wordplay, is clearly discussing the building of his church on a strong foundation and is referencing the name which He Himself gave to the disciple: “Peter” means “rock.”  The meaning is similar to Reki’s, as is their importance for future generations of their ilks; each may serve as a stone foundation for others.  Neither will achieve their goal easily.

What’s in your name?  How has it effected who you are and what you’ve become?

Note:  This is the first post of three this week regarding Haibane Renmei.  Please visit on Wednesday for an interview with author Dan Cronquist and on Friday for a review of Set Apart, his book discussing Haibane Renmei in relation to Christianity.

Featured illustration by 椎名ヤスヒラ (reprinted w/permission)


24 thoughts on “Orphans That Never Knew Their Names: Haibane Renmei and the Power of Names

  1. Ahh this was great! Nice article man. I loved Haibane Renmei, although it didn’t blow me away until that perfect ending. That ending makes the show. Anyway the meanings of names in the west has really lost it’s importance now-a-days. My name, Michael means “Who is like God” which can mean both that the person is “like God” and “who could ever be like God?” . Which is very interesting. Not sure how this has effected me in any real way, but I was born on December 26th. So it fits I guess…

    1. Thanks! I agree with you about the show. It’s a nice show, but I actually dropped it after about five episodes because it wasn’t blowing me away. And then…BOOM. Now it’s one of my favorites.

      Haha, oh yes, I forgot about your Christmas-ish birthday!

  2. You’re planning three posts! I suspected you’d find the series thought-provoking if you stuck with it.

    I’m sorry, but I think the Reki->Peter link is a bit tenuous.

    I don’t remember — what were the new names for Rakka and Reki?

    I think I want to wait for your later posts before I comment further, beyond saying that it’s sad that ABe hasn’t directed anything since this directorial debut.

    1. Yes, I would’ve stuck with it if it wasn’t for a couple of recommendations to return. 😉

      What?! Reki = Peter is the closest one! Their names are very similar in meaning. PLUS, Reki becomes the stepping stone in which other haibane will follow. Peter becomes the rock of the church. And I didn’t even get to this, but the two share somewhat similar personalities. 😛

      Rakuka means “connected nut” (I’m getting these from the book I read for Wed and Fri’s posts). At first, she would be closed off from the world (like a nut) before making connections (like a growing seed). For Reki, it’s a bit confusing. I think she THINKS her name is Reki, but it’s actually Rekishi, which means to literally be run over by a train. She would rather her name actually be Reki.

      I actually won’t be doing anymore analysis – Wednesday’s post will be a Q&A and Friday’s will be a review of a book on Haibane Renmei. But I’m sure to return to this series in later posts!

  3. @dm00 He actually didn’t direct this. He was the head writer. Tomokazu Tokoro was the director. The same guy who directed NieA_7 with ABe.

      1. NieA_7 takes a bit of getting used to (I guess, just like Haibane Renmei, and it’s full of potentially objectionable stereotypes, especially on the first disk.

        Get past that disk, though, and you get a pretty interesting story.

    1. @predederva: I see that you’re right. That makes a good deal more sense, really.

      Still, a pretty marvellous writer’s debut (in NieA_7, he’s listed just as character designer and key animator, though I think he probably took a more active role in that series, too).

  4. An anime so good there’s a book devoted to its relation to Christianity? Interesting. I look forward to the next two posts!

    My parents told me my name (my real one, not the one I use for blogging and commenting) means “helper.” When I was younger, I’d think about my name’s meaning as I helped around the house. Now, it often lies in a corner of my mind, even though name’s meanings interest me.

    I now have an urge to go look up the names of some of my favorite anime characters…

    1. Anime character names…I know what Sakura means! Ha 😛 Oh, and Tenchi! 🙂

      *prods Annalyn in hopes she’ll cave and guest post soon*

  5. Really need to get around to watching this anime…

    But in any case–we talked about that Bible verse at my youth group a long time ago! Or maybe it was…it was a sermon, I remember. Because one of the men asked me, if I could choose my own name what would it be, and I pointed out that I’d already chosen my own name in going by Arianna everywhere, as it isn’t my legal name.

    1. Well there ya go! You’re ahead of most of us in placing additional value on that name. 😛

      And yes, you must watch it!! 🙂

  6. Totally unrelated (or maybe 100% related) but I am reminded of that line from Shakespeare “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” Hmmm. *ponders this then leaves*

    1. Yeah, I was thinking of starting this post with that quote. But I love “Name” by Goo Goo Dolls, so Johnny Rzeznik beat out old Bill Shakespeare.

  7. Well, I know you said not to read these essays until I’d seen the series, but I cheated. 🙂 Doesn’t look like too much is spoiled here anyway (and in any case I usually don’t mind spoilers), but I hope to get started watching this series this weekend.

    From what I can tell, it seems that name meanings are a lot more “present” to native speakers of Japanese than to native speakers of English, whose name meanings are often obscured in languages that we don’t speak, like Latin or Old French or Hebrew (“Michael” would be a good example of this in fact). For instance, in the series I’ll be reviewing next (“Ookiku Furikabutte”), one of the characters has the family name “Tajima,” written with the kanji for “rice field” and “island.” I know I’d sure notice it if I met someone named “Fieldisland,” but I don’t how closely the analogy works to a native Japanese speaker meeting someone named Tajima.

    I’m sure the meanings must matter quite a bit, though. I’m thinking of the scene in the “Major” movie I recently saw (I really DO watch anime on topics other than baseball, I swear!) where Goro’s adoptive mother, expecting her first natural child, tells Goro that she and her husband will be naming Goro’s stepbrother Shingo (written with the “shin” of “shinjitsu” and the “go” of “Goro”), “because when he grows up, we want him to be just like you.” Wow. That was a powerful moment.

    As for me, my first name is derived from “Jacob,” and I can’t help thinking about what the patriarch Jacob heard after wrestling with the angel of God: “Your name will be no longer Jacob, but Israel; because you have striven with God and with men and have overcome.” I certainly wouldn’t make the claim that this is true in my life today, and as for whether it will be true when my life ends, who knows? 🙂

    1. Of course, you’re right about the Japanese names being in the “present.” I kinda like how the Japanese and other countries use common words in their names!

      Even when we use common words as names here (ex. “Autumn” or “River”), I think the imagery or sound of the names is more important than meaning.

  8. Wow, I’m glad I stumbled upon this post. Loved the article you just wrote here! I really love the meaning of names, too. It’s not just the sound of the name, but the meaning. For example, my real name (“Katie” short for “Katherine”) means “pure”. I really like my name and it’s meaning, and it always reminds me how important purity is. I have a friend who has a similiar name. She has a beautiful, Chinese name that means “Beautiful Virtue” but sadly she does not like it ’cause she thinks it makes her sound like a nun >.> I admit to bursting into tears when I heard that, because I feel my name and her name are almost the same, due to similiar meaning. Perhaps she feels she cannot live up to her name, that it doesn’t “fit” her? I’m not sure. I know both our names sound hard to live up to, I admit to feeling that way sometimes, but I hope someday she’ll find herself deserving of that name.

    1. You know, sometimes people grow into their names. Particularly with Asians, there’s sometimes a rejection of our culture (including names) as we grow up, which we eventually accept and embrace once we get older. Anyway, I hope your friend will identify more with her name and it’s really powerful meaning one day.

      Thanks for the nice comments, Katie! 🙂

      *one day ’til your post goes up*

  9. I know I’m WAY late on this but I loved your post! I find this to be a very Christian inspired anime. Especially when the speaker points out, that essentially you can only be free of sin by forgiveness from some outside force. Otherwise the haibane are trapped in a never ending cycle of sin and can’t break free. It’s a beautiful anime and story. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. It’s a very moving tale with far more Christian allusions than I think ABe even realized he was putting into it.

      Thanks so much for your kind words!

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