The lore of One Piece is richly filled with numerous concepts, ideas, and terms that are often used in-universe to explain certain principles. Some of them are original, while others are either reinterpretations or applications of already-existing concepts and ideas. “Nakama” is a word that we can often hear in the series, most often out of Luffy’s mouth, and in this article, we are actually going to explain its meaning so you know why it is so important for One Piece.
“Nakama” (written as 仲間 in Japanese) is a relatively common Japanese word that does not really have a direct translation in the English language, although it is most often translated (roughly) as ‘comrade,’ ‘companion’ or ‘one of us (/them).’ This is also the best definition of the term, as in the original Japanese, it signifies someone who is very close to a person and shares their views, ideals, and sentiments. In short, it is a term of endearment that is, in the world of One Piece, a reference to the close bonds that exist between the crewmates of the Straw Hat Pirates. Luffy’s crew is the one that most often uses this term, but it has been used by other crews as well.
What we are going to do in the remainder of this article is explain the expression further. We will explain the phrase’s etymology, its translation, and what it actually means in the story’s context. We’ve gathered all the known and relevant information about this phrase and how it ties into the narrative. Be careful, though, as there will be spoilers in this article.
“Nakama” is a fairly common word in the Japanese language, but it does – nevertheless – have a special meaning in One Piece, which is, luckily, not too different from the original meaning
As we usually do when we have to explain the meaning of some Japanese words, names, or phrases, we will strip the phrase down to its bare essentials so that you know exactly what you’re dealing with. In Japanese, the phrase “Nakama” is written as follows: 仲間. As you can see, it is composed of two kanji, which mean the following:
- 仲 (naka) – this kanji actually means “relationship” or “last name”, but you can see that the first meaning is the one we’re going with (not to be confused with a similar kanji, 中, which is also read as naka, but means “inside” or “middle”);
- 間 (ma) – this kanji means either “space” or “between,” depending on how you read it, but when read as ma, it means “space” or “room” (when read as aida, it means “between,” but is also commonly read as the suffix –kan, –ken or –gen in many words); it can also be used to signify a “relationship” between people.
As you can see, the literal translation of the word “nakama” (仲間) would be “relationship space,” but this doesn’t tell us much. Why? Well, this is simply because “nakama” is a phrase rooted in the Japanese language as such, so the literal meaning of the kanji used to write it doesn’t really have to convey the true meaning of the word, which isn’t all that uncommon in the Japanese language. So, in order to actually explain the phrase and its meaning, we actually had to consult a dictionary here.
Several dictionaries define “nakama” as a “causal relationship” between two phenomena. This is a very simplified explanation, although not an incorrect one per se. The issue here is that this doesn’t really help us understand the meaning of the phrase in One Piece, as “causal relationship” is definitely not what Luffy means when he uses the phrase. But, if you look at the Iwanami Japanese Language Dictionary, you will find the following explanation:
|“Kokoro o awasete nanika o issho ni suru to iu aidagara o kanari no kikan ni watatte tamotte iru hito. Sōiu aidagara.”|
|“People whose hearts are united, who do something together, and who have maintained this relationship for a relatively long time.”|
This explanation of the phrase differs from what we have said about the meaning of the original kanji, but it is the best and most precise definition that is actually related to the usage of the phrase in One Piece. All the other explanations don’t really relate to the usage of the phrase in One Piece, where it is used as a term of endearment. This is why, in this context, it would be best to translate the word as ‘comrade,’ ‘companion,’ or ‘one of us (/them),’ or, in the context of One Piece, ‘crewmate’ or ‘ally.’
In Japanese, nakama is often used to also signify a colleague or someone who shares the same interest or hobbies with you, which is why you’ll often hear the phrases ‘shigoto-nakama’ (仕事仲間; co-worker), or ‘sakka-nakama’ (作家仲間; fellow writer). Despite the translations we have provided above, they are not literal ones, as Japanese have several different words for “friend” (tomo, tomodachi, yuujin) and even a different word for “comrade.”
This is why it is exceptionally difficult to actually translate this word in English, as there is no one literal translation, as the word is simply used differently in the Japanese language than in English, which has multiple different words for these contexts. That is why, if you want to use it, you should use it in its original Japanese form and then explain it, as any translation you use won’t be precise enough.
Now that we have explained the meaning of the word, let us explain its significance for the story, although it is now pretty clear what Oda means by this. Namely, “nakama” is used by Luffy as a term of endearment for his friends and crewmates, which actually signifies that he considers them to be more than mere crewmates. It actually signifies a close bond between them, a bond that is not only close but also very, very deep.
This is what this means to Luffy; by using this, Luffy shows his crewmates how deeply he cares for them and how much they mean to him. This is why the phrase is so important.
And we have to state that it is not common among other crews, as the other crews never developed such a close bond between their members as Luffy’s Straw Hats. Some notable exceptions include the Arlong Pirates and Buggy Pirates, with the latter using this term after coming into contact with Luffy.
Other crews simply don’t have such deep bonds, and their captains don’t really respect the crewmembers so much, nor do they bond with them in such a way as to call them “nakama.” Had that been the case, the word probably wouldn’t have become so special.
And that is it. This is what “nakama” means, why Luffy uses it, and why it is such a special word that you can use, but try to use it in the original language, as that is the best way to show what it means.