The other day I was trying to Google the website of a travel agency in a Tokyo neighborhood called 三軒茶屋 (Sangenjaya). The kanji characters in its name mean “three teahouses,” and date back to the times when these establishments were located adjacent to 大山街道 (Oyama Kaido), the route by which pilgrims journeyed to the 大山阿夫利神社 (Oyama Afuri Jinja), a Shinto shrine in what is now the city of Isehara in Kanagawa Prefecture.
I typed in “Sangenjaya” as per what I assumed to be its romanized name, generating さんげんじゃや in hiragana. Then I pressed the keys for conversion to kanji and got 三軒じゃや (without the latter two kanji). After several failed attempts to generate 三軒茶屋 I realized my software was not going to convert the full name, and I finally wound up typing in the name as two separate words: 三軒 (sanken, three edifices) and 茶屋 (chaya, teahouse).
I was mildly annoyed but did not probe the matter further, and the mystery remained unsolved until I happened to get off at Sangenjaya Station and glance at the hiragana beneath the kanji in the sign on the platform, which read さんげんぢゃや. I immediately understood what I’d been doing wrong: The ja in jaya is input not じゃ but ぢゃ. Although when spoken aloud they are phonetically identical (both pronounced “ja” or “jya”), the software demands that you make the distinction. So, to generate the kanji for Sangenjaya, one must type “sangendyaya” — without spaces, of course.
While the Japanese kana syllabary is almost perfectly phonetic, it has certain quirks — like entering “dya” for ja in word processing software — and other exceptions to the rules. The first ones you’re likely to encounter are grammar particles. Two of them, に (ni) and で (de), can be utilized as is, but the particles は (ha), へ (he) and を (o) demand special treatment. That is to say, when used as a particle, the kana ha must be pronounced “wa,” he is pronounced “e” and the particle を, while pronounced the same as the vowel お (o), is entered by typing “wo.”
That said, Japanese search software tends to be demanding, and if you want to have any hope of success in searching for data on the Web, you’re going to need to work at obtaining competence in keyboard input of Japanese.
Another set of homophones to watch out for are ず and づ. Both these are pronounced and rendered “zu” in romanized English, but the former syllable is generated by typing “zu” and the latter, “du.”
For Anjinzuka Station near Yokosuka, when I typed it with a ず, my software produced gibberish. Native Japanese speakers are likely to know to type 塚(tsuka, burial mound) as a voiced consonant, づ か (zuka, typed “duka”) — just like the voiced ぢゃ in Sangenjaya — to generate the correct kanji, 安針塚 (Anjinzuka). I noticed the character for an in the station’s name somehow got dumbed down to 安, without the tehen (hand classifier) on its left side. Correctly, it should have been this one — 按 — which is also the first character in 按摩 (anma, massage).
The station gets its name from 三浦 按針 (Miura Anjin), the Japanese name given to English navigator Will Adams (1564-1620), whose story was told in James Clavell’s swashbuckling adventure novel “Shogun” and the subsequent TV miniseries of the same name.
On a day-to-day basis, I’d say my most single frequent use for the Internet in Japanese is to confirm the kanji readings of a person or geographic name, both of which can be quite capricious. One trick I’ve developed is to search using the person’s full name in kanji plus any part of the name that you are confident you know typed in hiragana. I recently did this for the name of a teenage baseball player named 清宮幸太郎 (Kiyomiya Kotaro). The surname Kiyomiya was unfamiliar, so I typed 清宮幸太郎 in kanji followed by his first name, こうたろう (Kotaro), in hiragana. Sure enough, an article in the Suponichi sports newspaper dated April 9 displayed this entry, which was all I needed to be certain: 清宮幸太郎（きよみや・こうたろう）１９９９年 （平１１）５月２５日生まれ、東京都出身の １５歳 (Kiyomiya Kotaro [here the kanji are followed by his name displayed phonetically in hiragana], 1999 [Hei 11] 5-gatsu 25-nichi umare, Tokyo-to shusshin no jūgo-sai, “Kotaro Kiyomiya, born May 25, 1999 [Heisei 11], native of Tokyo, aged 15”).
My searches also regularly take me to the websites of companies and academic institutions, to ascertain their names in English, which are sometimes different from Japanese. Once at the site, clicking on 企業概要 (kigyō gaiyō, corporate outline) will typically provide lots of useful information, such as dates of establishment; addresses of headquarters, factories, and branch offices; names of its CEO and other directors; dates of fiscal period, and so on.
It’s important to bear in mind that while romanized Japanese can be useful up to a point, it has certain limitations that may hinder online searches.
One thing you will certainly need to do is wean yourself from irregular or archaic spellings that don’t reflect the way Japanese is actually written. For instance, when referring to currency, ¥ or 円 must be typed as えん (en), not “yen.” And some people might spell their surname “Inouye” on their business cards, but you won’t generate the correct kanji, 井上, by typing that; you must type いのうえ (i-no-u-e). In both the above cases the “y” is superfluous, a vestige of an old system of transcription.
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