What Does The Word Mitsouko Mean?

Of the legendary fragrances, Guerlain classics have some of the most beautiful names and stories to go with them. Shalimar and Shah Jahan’s gardens in Lahore. L’Heure Bleue and the streets of Paris at dusk. Après L’Ondée and a sudden May downpour. And there is Mitsouko. The fragrance created in 1919 was inspired by two extraordinary successes of its time–a perfume and a novel, Coty’s Chypre and Claude Farrère’s La Bataille. Farrère was a close friend of Jacques Guerlain, and a few years earlier Farrère mentioned Jicky in his novel Opium Smoke–“Jicky poured drop by drop onto the hands blackened by the drug.” This image delighted Guerlain enough to return the favor by baptizing a new creation after Mitsouko Yorisaka, a character in La Bataille (The Battle).

Farrère’s novel sold more than a million copies in its day, but the perfume inspired by it survived the test of time better. Much of Farrère’s work, La Bataille included, doesn’t excite. It’s a novel of conventional value and somewhat stuffy, nostalgic style inspired by Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème, Farrère’s commander during his stint with the French navy. To Farrère’s credit, unlike Loti, he attempted to present Japan as an evolving modern society, rather than a place of ikebana and geishas. The background for the story is the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, in which Japan wiped out the Russian fleet and demonstrated that the Meiji era reforms put it on equal footing with the Western powers. Farrère had spent three days in Nagasaki and had done his own research, but in the end, the plot suffers too much from melodrama and clichés borrowed from Loti, without Loti’s refined style.

One of the central characters of the novel is Mitsouko Yorisaka, the wife of a lieutenant in the Japanese Navy. Mitsouko is a Westernized woman who hates all of the traditional Japanese arts, much to the chagrin of her secret lover, the British naval officer Fergan. Unbeknownst to Fergan, Marquis and Mitsouko conspire to find out military secrets through him, although their scheme doesn’t end well.

Jacques Guerlain selected the name of Mitsouko based on Farrère’s novel, but what is less clear is the meaning of the word itself. Guerlain gives it as “mystery,” but beauty writers are an inventive bunch, and I’ve seen everything from “unbridled emotion” to “passionate femininity” pinned onto the unsuspecting Mitsouko.

Mitsouko is typically pronounced as Mitsuko and written with two characters, 光 and 子. The first, read as “mitsu” means “light, shining, bright.” The second read as “ko” means “child,” a common ending in Japanese female names. So, Mitsuko might mean something like “a child of light” or “shining child.” That’s how Dame Mitsuko Uchida, the Japanese-British pianist, writes her name.

However, “Mitsu” in Mitsuko can also be written with a number of other characters that have the same reading but completely different meanings. The complexity and beauty of the Japanese language lies in the intricate allusions that can be made by such word play (remember the badger balls haiku?) The actress Mitsuko Yoshikawa, who starred in many films by Ozu Yasujiro, wrote her name as 満子, which means “full, satisfying/child”. Another option I’ve seen is 蜜子, a charming combination of “honey/nectar” and the usual “child” ending.

In other words, the “mystery” of Guerlain’s Mitsouko is that it can mean anything from shine to honey. We can say with confidence, however, that it doesn’t mean “passionate femininity” and “unbridled emotion.”

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54 Comments

  • Barbara Dodge: Tied with Chanel’s Cuir Russie as my all-time favorites (since I was 16). Sadly, only in the original formulations. July 21, 2017 at 8:54am Reply

    • Victoria: Do you prefer both Mitsouko and Cuir de Russie in their original formulations? July 21, 2017 at 12:05pm Reply

      • Barbara Dodge: Yes, the Originals 🙂 Love the research on the name. It is the kind of detail that makes history come alive for me. July 21, 2017 at 12:39pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? I admit that I wrote it because I got fed up with the nonsense I’ve been coming across about the meaning of Mitsouko. July 21, 2017 at 5:11pm Reply

          • eudora: And we thank you for sharing it. Beautiful post. July 23, 2017 at 10:41am Reply

  • KatieAnn: Great post, Victoria! I majored in linguistics with a minor in Japan Studies in college. My husband is Japanese and we lived in Japan for a couple years before returning to Kentucky so I am pretty familiar with the Japanese language. I was always intrigued by the use of the ‘ou’ combination in Mitsouko, but never took the time to investigate it. In my mind, I translated the ‘mitsu’ to mean ‘honey’ without even checking out the other possible characters for the name. I’ve yet to try this perfme in the extrait. Someday! By the way, I have never seen the bottle in the above photograph. Very beautiful. It certainly looks like golden honey. July 21, 2017 at 10:44am Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. Then I realized that it’s just a French transliteration that Farrère used. I don’t recall anywhere in the novel where he defined the name, so I also thought of Mitsu as meaning “shine, bright” or “honey.”

      I also minored in Japanese language in college and traveled in Japan (never lived there, though). Unfortunately, my Japanese is weak at this point, but I seem to remember lots of kanji still. Helps to be addicted to the Japanese beauty magazines. 🙂 July 21, 2017 at 12:11pm Reply

      • KatieAnn: Yes, those kanji are like little works of art. It’s funny how the more you learn the easier it becomes. Certainly reading those glossy magazines helps too!

        I didn’t you know you minored in Japanese. That’s really interesting. It’s a challenging but fun language and Japan is such a fantastic place to visit. July 21, 2017 at 10:27pm Reply

        • Victoria: It is! On the plus side, the pronunciation is very easy and once you know Japanese, you have such riches in literature and poetry opening to you. I regret that at my level I can’t read Yukio Mishima or Sei Shonagon in the originals, and I admire those who’ve learned enough to do it. July 24, 2017 at 10:33am Reply

    • Victoria: I forgot to reply about the bottle. It was a limited edition from the 70s, according to a friend who collects perfume bottles.

      Mitsouko had another famous ad, the one that I used in my review here:
      http://boisdejasmin.com/2005/05/guerlain-mitsouko-perfume-review.html July 21, 2017 at 12:17pm Reply

  • Cyndi: I’ve worn Mitsouko on and off for many, many years. Now I know what it means. Beautiful post, Victoria (as always). I’ve also never seen the bottle pictured above. is this new? July 21, 2017 at 11:40am Reply

    • Victoria: The bottle is from the 70s, if I recall correctly. I have a copy of this ad and I like its unconventional label. July 21, 2017 at 12:12pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Mitsuko Uchida in concert. She sometimes performs at the Heiligen-Geist-Kirche, a beautiful 14th-Century church in Wismar on Germany’s Baltic coast. When I was there, she played Schumann and Beethoven. I wonder what she thinks of Mitsouko the perfume? July 21, 2017 at 12:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: How lucky you are! I’ve only heard her recordings, and they’re magnificent.

      I wonder if musicians also use perfume the way some dancers do, to inspire them. July 21, 2017 at 5:09pm Reply

      • Elizabeth: I do make music-perfume connections in my head sometimes. I used to wear Mohur for the more joyous pieces we sang in my choir in New York. When I smell Baghari (reformulated version) I hear Mendelssohn. L’heure Bleue fits the sadder Schubert songs perfectly. July 21, 2017 at 6:03pm Reply

        • Victoria: I love these combinations, Elizabeth! July 24, 2017 at 10:27am Reply

    • KatieAnn: Oh! I love Mitsuko Uchida! She is well known for her Mozart recordings too. She is fantastic.

      When I try a new perfume that I am excited about, I always pour a glass of wine and listen to Mozart. It elevates the experience to a whole other level. Such euphoria! July 21, 2017 at 10:22pm Reply

      • Victoria: Now, I might have to follow you in this way to try new fragrances. 🙂 July 24, 2017 at 10:30am Reply

        • maja: Me, too. Pouring a glass of wine and piano is never a bad idea. July 25, 2017 at 6:12pm Reply

          • Victoria: My week has been hectic for a number of reasons, but this combo has been helpful. 🙂 July 26, 2017 at 12:26pm Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: Apropos Mitsouko & music and from my perspective: opera. I somehow have this very tight connection between Guerlain’s Mitsouko and Maria Callas. She was termed La Divina, her singing art is represented as an absolute pinnacle. Yet with both, the singer and the perfume there is something slightly elusive, even forbidding (I can’t think of a better word right now). One knows from the very guts it is very, very good, perhaps even divine. Yet when listening to opera singers from that era, in the end, I somehow always chose another singer: say Joan Sutherland. Same with Guerlain: Jicky or Charade perhaps? But when I do decide to listen to Callas, I am blown away once again. And it is a little bit like that with Mitsouko… July 23, 2017 at 3:29pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: Chamade, of course! The curse of the spell checks! July 23, 2017 at 3:30pm Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: You are absolutely right and you say it so well, Onwingsofsaffran! Maria Callas was unique. There are other fine singers from that era, you named already Sutherland (La Stupenda), or Renata Tebaldi (what a voice! what a singing technique! beautiful interpretations!)
          but Callas was one of a kind. She brought real, living drama into opera. Maybe because she was Greek? July 23, 2017 at 5:55pm Reply

      • Victoria: Her Madama Butterfly is unrivaled. I’m not an opera buff by any means, but when I hear Callas sing, I have shivers running down my spine. July 24, 2017 at 10:45am Reply

  • Monika: What a wonderful post! Thank you! Mitsouko is my favourite perfume, if there can ever be such a thing, and ironically, there is a link to my dad. My dad (technically my stepfather) had a great (great?) uncle who was the Russian Hero of the Battle of Tsushima, which was the key battle of the Russo-Japanese War. As captain of a destroyer, he rescued the Admiral of the Russian fleet from going down with his ship. The fascinating thing is that while imprisoned in Japan, he had traditional Japanese tatoos made:
    two enormous snakes encircling his body, from ankles to his neck, where a snake head emerged on either side at collar level. He was quite a character. So fitting that this is my favourite perfume! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Kolomeitsev July 21, 2017 at 1:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for sharing this story. You’re right, what a character Kolomeitsev was!

      Maybe, you should read Claude Farrère’s novel, because it’s about the battle of Tsushima. I thought there was even an English translation, but maybe I’m thinking of his other novel. July 21, 2017 at 5:17pm Reply

  • January: My only bete-noir with old perfumes is that they don’t smell like original formulas. Something is missing in them. That fate has befallen poor Mitsouko and its sibling Vol de Nuit. I read review of classics on your website such as Amouage Gold Woman and run to sample it only to find a faded memory of the real one like a sepia photo… alas
    If only you could suggest a vintage perfume still shining in its bottle today as in all yesteryears… July 21, 2017 at 4:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: The short answer is none. All fragrances on the market have been reformulated. The only question is how well the reformulations were done. July 21, 2017 at 5:18pm Reply

      • January: That’s what I am saying – reformulations suck most of the times. Of course recipe changes with time. But if the fragrance has lost it true character and the company is making profit on old label, buyer beware. July 26, 2017 at 5:05pm Reply

        • January: By the way, I am wearing Magie Noire today. Fantastic reformulation. July 26, 2017 at 5:07pm Reply

        • Victoria: Not in my experience. Many reformulations are done very well, including those of Mitsouko and Chamade. In fact, Chamade smells better today than it did in the late 90s, because the quality of galbanum is better. On the other hand, I don’t like the reformulations Dior has done on their classics, but I still prefer the reformulated Miss Dior to the overpriced chypres from niche brands. July 27, 2017 at 1:17am Reply

  • Jacquie: Hi Victoria,
    What do you think of the new Mitsouko sold as today? Is there much difference between the edt and edp? July 21, 2017 at 6:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, they’re very different. The EDT is sharper and has more bergamot and a stronger accent on the woods in the base, while the EDP is creamier and more floral. July 24, 2017 at 10:28am Reply

  • Sara: I loved reading this post. I’ve worn Mitsouko for over 40 years. It will always be “my” scent. July 21, 2017 at 6:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a beauty and such a memorable signature. July 24, 2017 at 10:28am Reply

  • ClareObscure: Hi Victoria & fellow fragrance fans. Fascinating article about Mitsouko, Victoria. I just finished reading, ‘Coming to My Senses’ by Alyssa Harad. She writes about her perfume journey & I was mesmerised most of the way through the book. The ending fizzled out but I do recommend it as a good read. The reason I mention it here is because Victoria is featured in the account, as an inspirational influence, along with a few other perfume bloggers/journalists. One of the reviewers on Amazon called the book boring. I think that’s only true if you are not passionate about perfume & your right to celebrate & wear it.
    Has anyone else read this book? July 21, 2017 at 7:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Alyssa is a wonderful writer. I love the part where she describes her awakening to scents. July 24, 2017 at 10:29am Reply

  • Carter: This is great, Victoria. Thank you. July 21, 2017 at 7:33pm Reply

  • Satsukibare: Such a fascinating post! Only wish my French was up to reading about the fictional Mitsuoko in Farrère’s novel. Still, as you say, it’s the perfume that is truly memorable. July 22, 2017 at 6:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, far more than the fictional original. 🙂 July 24, 2017 at 10:37am Reply

  • gordon: the novel may not be great, but it’s available free for download if anyone wants. i love reading these outdated ‘orientalist’ texts: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/50208# July 22, 2017 at 9:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Gordon. That’s why I read it; I wanted a glimpse into that time. I didn’t find the novel a masterpiece, but it was enjoyable. In comparison to Loti, Farrere is more open-minded. July 24, 2017 at 10:40am Reply

  • Richard Goller: What a great piece of history and love the fluidity of the name. July 22, 2017 at 11:29am Reply

  • Sarah marie: I love the name Mitsouko so much that I named my cat Mitsu. That was back when I was first discovering the depth of perfume. I always have to explain to people where her name came from and the sad thing is no one seems to know the perfume. Oh well! July 22, 2017 at 5:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a cute name for a cat. Now you can select your favorite reading of the “mitsu” character–shine, honey/nectar, satisfying, etc. 🙂 July 24, 2017 at 10:42am Reply

  • Aurora: I had no idea where the name came from, so thank you so much for all this information. I find Mitsouko hints at far away places and ladies in beaded frocks with fans smoking turkish cigarettes. You taught me to compare it with Coty Chypre too. From the perfumes of today Acqua di Parma Profumo is compared to Mitsouko on Fragrantica and I did a side by side and I liked Profumo even better with its plummy aspect instead of peach (but then my Mitsouko may not be the best vintage, you advised that the very recent ones are better). Love the Japanese characters I think they should have used them in the ads. July 23, 2017 at 5:10am Reply

    • Victoria: The latest I’ve tried was a batch from last year, and it really smelled wonderful. I love your description, which fits with its era. July 24, 2017 at 10:43am Reply

  • Elisa: Oh, I never knew this! Great trivia. July 25, 2017 at 12:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s fun to unpack a familiar word. July 26, 2017 at 12:23pm Reply

  • maja: I keep a small vial of Mitsouko parfum next to my pillow so I can smell it before sleep, inhale beauty and be at peace with the world. July 25, 2017 at 6:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: An invitation to dreaming. 🙂 July 26, 2017 at 12:26pm Reply

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