Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 6: integration of the roman alphabet and English into everyday life]

By | August 28, 2015

One thing that caught me somewhat off guard in our most recent trip to Japan was the frequent use of the roman alphabet throughout the country. By this I mean the alphabet you are reading now, called romaji (ローマ字) in Japanese.

Nearly all location names on road signs, as well as on signs in places like subways or train stations are written in a combination of Kanji and the roman alphabet, and as a country that wants to facilitate travel for foreigners this completely makes sense. But when you enter a train and look at the advertisements pasted all around, you may notice that most, if not all, have at least one word written in romaji. Sometimes that is just the name a company (like “Meisan” which is written on a candy I purchased in Japan), or there may be an entire phrase written in English.

For the featured image for this post I used a picture I took in Akihabara (within Tokyo) of a Vie De France Cafe, where the entire  place name is written out just like I wrote it in this sentence, without any furigana to Japanese people who are less comfortable with romaji.

One might think that this is reasonable in a place like Tokyo where foreigners are not that uncommon, but even if you get to smaller country towns, where you aren’t likely to find many foreigners, you can still find the roman alphabet and English used on billboards, paper advertisements, and even restaurant menus. Even when the word is repeated in Japanese (like “Coffee / 珈琲”), the portion in English is often bigger.

What might be the cause of this phenomenon? Some of it may be explained using the same reasoning for why there are so many loanwords in Japanese (which I wrote about in detail here), for example how the Japanese actively try to import new cultures and languages to stay modern. Also, I’ve been told that basic English, which includes the roman alphabet, is taught to children in mandatory education at a pretty young age, so pretty much anyone from the new generation should be at least able to read these phrases and sound them out. This isn’t to say that all young Japanese people are fluent in English, which is clearly not the case. What about for older people who may not even be able to read romaji? I would guess that they are just declared out of the target audience of such advertising.

One reason international brands might use roman characters is to keep their logo consistent across countries, and improve name recognition. So if a Japanese person sees a sign for a Subway restaurant in a western movie, he or she can easily match that with a Subway in Japan which is written exactly the same way.

Also I feel that using English in places like advertisements has a certain dramatic effect that can’t be achieved within the Japanese alphabets (even though there are three), in some ways giving a “cool” or “modern” atmosphere. You can see this idea extended to westerners themselves, which are sometimes used in commercials to give a funny, sexy, or cool vibe. For example, one commercial I saw frequently in Japan was about a car navigation system (カーナビ), and the navigation computer was represented by a funny looking western guy wearing green clothes. I’ve also seen some Japanese comedians (お笑い芸人) who were caucasian. Several jewelry advertisements I came across used western models to showcase their products.

Since Japanese isn’t a top world language, it has to make extra effort to stay modern in a fast-changing world, and this gradually import of western language is a great way to do this. It will be interesting to see how this process proceeds over the next decade or two.

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