Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s top 500 earners for 2008 included 64 Japanese companies. The English names of these global giants are used in both the international and domestic markets. But Japanese versions of each also exist. To cook up these, the enterprises had at hand the sumptuous ingredients of written Japanese — kanji, katakana and Roman letters (romaji) — and a dash of English.
Take the name of imaging and optical giant Canon, which could be mistaken for an English family name but has its roots in a Buddhist deity. In the 1930s, the inventor of Japan’s first 35 mm focal-plane shutter camera, a devotee of 観音 (kannon, the goddess of mercy), named it “Kwannon Camera.” The company later changed the spelling to “Canon” and uses キヤ in lieu of the “correct” form キャ in the katakana version キヤノン(pronounced kyanon), avoiding empty space in the name.
Other Fortune-ranked companies have names written in both English and katakana. Tokuji Hayakawa invented a mechanical pencil in 1915, dubbing it the Ever-Ready Sharp (known in Japanese as シャーペン, shāpen). Hayakawa’s humble workshop has morphed into electronics giant Sharp (シャープ, shāpu). Shojiro Ishibashi, a maker of rubber-soled tabi (split-toe socks) in the ’30s, transposed the two kanji comprising his family name, 石 (ishi, stone) and 橋 (hashi, bridge) to create Bridgestone (ブリヂストン, burijisuton), now the world’s largest tire manufacturer.
More recently, entrepreneur Masayoshi Son used English creatively in 1981 when he named telecommunications company Softbank (ソフトバンク), with “soft” referring to software.
The name of retail giant AEON (イオングループ, iongurūpu) exudes a positive vibe with its meaning, “an infinite period of time” (more commonly spelled “eon”), and capital letters. Some AEON stores still operate under its former name, JUSCO (ジャスコ, jyasuko), an acronym for Japan United Stores Company.
Another company named with an English acronym is telecoms powerhouse NTT (Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, 日本電信電話, nippondenshindenwa). Spinoff NTT docomo (エヌ・ティ・ティ・ドコモ, enutitidokomo), the biggest mobile phone operator in Japan, chopped the first two letters off three words in the phrase “do communications over the mobile network” to craft “docomo.” “docomo” is also a cleverly used homonym for “doko mo,” (どこも), meaning “everywhere.”
The name of Nissan Motors (日産) began on the Tokyo stock market as an abbreviation of its original incarnation, Nippon Sangyou (日本産業). Nissan formerly marketed vehicles under the brand name “Datsun.” “Dat-” stood for the family names of founding members Den (D), Aoyama (A), and Takeuchi (T). “Son,” originally tacked on the end of “Dat-” (i.e., “son of DAT”), was later changed to “sun” because “son” (損) means “loss” in Japanese.
Last year, Matsushita Electric Industrial (松下電器産業, matsushita denkisangyō) renamed itself Panasonic (パナソニック, panasonikku) and is phasing out brand name National (ナショナル, nashyonaru). “PanaSonic” (i.e., “sound everywhere”) was first coined in 1955 for Matsushita’s exported audio speakers. In the same decade, Tokyo Tsūshin (東京通信) put transistor radios into the hands of millions of American teenagers and changed its name to Sony (ソニー), an ingenious combination of “sonus” (Latin for “sound”) and “sonny,” American slang for “young man.”
Toyota Motor (トヨタ自動車, toyota jidōsha), No. 1 among Japanese companies in the Fortune Global 500 ranking and No. 5 in the world, originally sold vehicles using the family name of founder Kiichiro Toyoda, written トヨダ. But in 1937, ダ (da) was changed to タ (ta): タ is visually simpler and gives トヨタ a lucky eight-stroke count.
Although companies such as トヨタ and Suzuki Motor Corporation (スズキ) write their names in katakana, conglomerates Mitsui (三井) and Sumitomo (住友), both tracing their roots back to Edo Period (1603-1867) merchants, continue to honor their founders by writing their names in kanji, as does Honda Motor (本田技研工業, hondagikenkōgyō).
The company ranked No. 1 in the Global 500, Wal-Mart, also happens to be written in kanji . . . in China, with characters meaning “rich, you and agate” to phonetically represent “wo-er-ma.” Big dreamer Sam Walton probably never envisioned in 1964 that the name of his new store in small-town Arkansas would one day be familiar to millions of people reading it in Sino-Japanese script.