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Product names show language creativity at work

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Recently I was asked to write a blurb for a new liquid plant-nutrient. As soon as I saw the name of the product, 早根早起 (Hayane Hayaoki), I smiled at this example of linguistic creativity. The four characters translate loosely as “early root, early sprouting”; but when spoken out loud, a native listener would recognize the phrase as the idiom equivalent to “early to bed, early to rise.” The clever substitution of the character 根 (ne, root) for 寝 (ne, sleep) gives the name of the product a completely different meaning when written out.

Will this original ネーミング (nēmingu, naming) move gardeners to 財布のヒモを緩める (saifu no himo wo yurumeru, loosen their purse strings) and purchase the new product? It certainly can’t hurt. Japanese folk have a great appreciation for this kind of だじゃれっぽい (dajareppoi, punnish) word play, which — where products are concerned — demonstrates their 創造力 (sōzōryoku, creativity) and 商魂 (shōkon, entrepreneurial spirit).

One of the most successful examples of rebranding in recent memory was that of apparel manufacturer Renown’s men’s socks to 通勤快足 (Tsūkin Kaisoku, Business Express). The socks, made with a new type of fast-drying, antibacterial fabric that discouraged unpleasant odors, were originally put on sale in 1981 under the name “Fresh Life,” but sales were disappointing.

Normally, 通勤快速 (also read tsukin kaisoku) is a type of commuter express train that usually runs only on weekdays. As opposed to 快速 (kaisoku, express), the word 快足 (kaisoku) means nimble-footed. But kai has a second meaning of pleasant or happy, such as in the words 快眠 (kaimin, pleasant sleep) or 快報 (kaihō, joyful news). So here, tsūkin kaisoku takes on the nuance of “commuting to work on happy feet” — something a salaryman can definitely relate to.

Relaunched with fanfare in 1987 with that catchy new name, the socks achieved バカ売れ (baka-ure, sold like crazy), with revenues rising from ¥1.3 billion in 1987 to ¥4.5 billion two years later.

Another of my favorite examples of this kind of imaginative branding is 写楽 (Sharaku), a now-defunct hand-held copier from Fuji Xerox. Those familiar with art of the Edo Period (1603-1867) will immediately recognize Sharaku as the name of an 18th-century woodblock-print artist, whose full name was 東洲斎写楽 (Tōshūsai Sharaku). In addition to his distinctive drawing technique, Sharaku remains controversial because his illustrious career spanned only 10 months, and to this day nobody’s exactly sure who he really was.

Move ahead two centuries to 1988, when Fuji Xerox chose Sharaku as the name for its new hand-held scanner/copier. The name works because it combines 写 (sha), the second character of 複写 (fukusha, to reproduce) with 楽 (raku, easy), conveying the image of ease of operation when copying images.

Stationery manufacturer Sekisei Co. Ltd. enjoyed success when it named its ring binders for organizing office documents 発泡美人 (Happō Bijin, Foaming Beauty). Normally happō bijin — using the characters 八方美人 and meaning a beauty in eight directions, i.e., all points of the compass — is equivalent to calling someone a flunky or a yes-man, a person who tries to be all things to all people. The 八方 (happō, eight directions) is replaced by 発泡 (happō), here meaning foamed plastic, the material used to produce the binders. The name suggests that arranging these on the shelves will give any office a well-organized appearance.

Want some more? How about the powdered bath salt called (Nyūyōku Taimuzu), named after the New York Times newspaper. Nyūyoku means to enter the bath, but closely enough resembles ニューヨーク (Nyūyōku), the Japanese pronunciation of New York, so that no one will miss the point.

In 1976, Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd. gave its range of instant 焼きそば (yakisoba, fried noodles) the name U.F.O. (pronounced like “you-hoe”). The initials U, F and O are an acronym used to describe the noodles therein as being うまい (umai, tasty), 太い (futoi, thick) and 大きい (ōki, large).

Back in the early 1990s, Nissan Motor Co. sold a 1.5-liter light commercial van with a distinctive rounded body that resembled the shell of a snail. Its name, “S-Cargo” (the “S” stood for small), was a clever play on escargot, the French word for “snail.”

Sharp last year launched sales of a high-tech robot vacuum cleaner named “Cocorobo.” Its name combines 心 (kokoro, heart), and ロボ (robo, robot).

Some product names, such as カルピス (Calpis), occasionally grate on foreign ears. A popular beverage made with fermented lactic acid, Calpis is said to derive from calcium and sarpis, which is Sanskrit for “butter taste.” The company’s founder, Kaiun Mishima (1878-1974), took his inspiration from the Mongolian beverage airag, made from fermented mare’s milk.

  • rs

    Sure it’s fun to play with kanjis like this but sometimes it has a bit of headdesk feeling: jinja ale http://www.furumachi-kouji.net/SHOP/667013/860486/list.html

    • Kazuhisa Nakatani

      I think the Katakana part of the name is also clever.

      In Japanese, “ale” and “yell” (the cheering of spectators supporting their team) are both pronounced “エール.” So 神社エール can mean:
      A) fermented drinks available (or produced) in the shrine district
      B) an encouragement you can get by visiting the shrine, and purchasing the beverage along the way

  • http://nanyate.com/ Ivy

    My favorite is Wario, the evil version of Mario (from the game). It’s a portmanteau of 悪い (warui, bad) and Mario. That totally gave me a good laugh!