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To shine or to die: the messy world of romanized Japanese

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

One of the also-rans in the competition for the best buzzword of 2014 was the little word “shine.” It stirred some discussion this summer when it appeared as a one-word heading in the blog of Prime Minister Abe’s just-established Kagayaku Josei Ō en Kaigi (輝く女性応援会議, Council for Supporting Women to Shine). As various commentators on the Internet speculated, the message might become a little weird when the word is not read according to English pronunciation rules but in Romanized Japanese instead. In this case, it would be a blunt imperative of the verb shinu (死ぬ), which means “to die.”

This is apparently not what Abe intended to express, as Kaori Shoji acknowledged when she commented on this initiative in the Dec. 1 edition of this paper. However, it appeared funny enough to be picked up by various foreign papers, including The Independent, which devoted a whole article to it in their “weird news” section. Even though Japanese bloggers were quick to assure that there was little chance of people in Japan reading “shine” the wrong way, the prime minister’s little gaffe relates to a general problem with regard to the reading (and writing) of Roman alphabet terms in Japan.

As for the basics — and this is where the trouble starts — there are two main sets of rules for writing a Japanese term in the Roman alphabet. The first one is the Hepburn system, or hebonshiki (ヘボン式), which is how most foreigners learn to spell Japanese in Roman alphabet. It concurs with the Kunrei system (訓令式), with which Japanese children learn their ABCs at school. The main differences occur for the kana (仮名, syllabic characters) し, ち, つ andふ, which in Hepburn become shi, chi, tsu and fu, as opposed to Kunrei’s si, ti, tu and hu. Not that much of a change, one might think, but it can be quite confusing. Just Google “Shinjuku” — its Hepburn spelling yields a total of 1,890,000 hits. The pure Kunrei version, “Sinzyuku,” is found on only 6,670 pages, but mixes like “Sinjuku” (129,000) and “Shinjyuku” (420,000) seem to be quite common.

But it doesn’t end there. In addition, there is a growing tendency to import English spelling and pronunciation rules into the systems. This is particularly common in brand and business names, where we find various unconventional alphabet spellings that are based on neither Hepburn nor Kunrei, but plain English orthography rules.

One of the most common features of this way of spelling is to replace k with c. An example is the term Cocoro, which appears in the names of various types of businesses, including a hairdresser in Fukuoka, a talent school in Gunma and a Kanto-based pet-shop chain. In all these cases, and over 700,000 more websites where the term occurs in this spelling, the Japanese word kokoro (心, heart, mind) is given an orthographic face-lift through the use of c rather than k.

A similar trick can be done with l and r. Strictly speaking, l exists neither in Hepburn nor in Kunrei, both of which use r for the Romanization of ら, り, る, れ and ろ (ra, ri, ru, re, ro). That didn’t seem to bother the advertising agency who came up with the name LuRaRa, a mall in Yokohama’s Kohoku area. Note that the difference between l and r in this name is for the eye only — it has no influence whatsoever on the pronunciation of the Japanese original, ルララ (rurara).

Just a few minutes walk from LuRaRa is Iti, another mall. It took me some time to figure out that this is not supposed to be the Kunrei spelling of the term ichi (一, one). The correct reading of Iti is aitai, intended to evoke the homonymous 会いたい, which means “I want to meet.” Spelling aitai as “iti” may be a little over the top, because even in English a word does not normally end in i, and when it does, as in “taxi,” it’s not pronounced “ai.”

The whole thing gets even more confusing when these new orthographic practices are extended to the Romanization of common nouns. An example is my local flower shop, which a couple of months ago was offering a “Summer Tava” for the special price of ¥840. Tava is the English-style spelling of the Japanese taba (束, bundle) and supposed to mean flower bouquet. The standard spelling was changed here perhaps because v looks cooler than b — and there is no difference in pronunciation anyway (in both cases it’s “taba”).

Coming back to our initial problem, I think there is no real need to worry about possible misapprehensions of Abe’s “shine” post. It seems that the default reading mode for alphabet terms in Japan is increasingly based on English spelling rules — even where no English is involved at all. So even in that most unlikely case that the prime minister had wanted the term to be read the other way, he probably wouldn’t have spelled it “shine,” but “shenay.”