Column #97 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, June 17, 2009
"The crafty names of Japan's cleverest companies"


Fortune magazine's list of the worldfs 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 these up, 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 diety. In the 1930s, the inventor of Japanfs first 35 mm focal-plane shutter camera, a devotee of ω (kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy), named it gKwannon Camera.h The company later changed the spelling to gCanon,h and uses L in lieu of gcorrecth form L in katakana version Lm(pronounced kyanon), avoiding empty space in the name.

Some Fortune-ranked companies do have English names, written in katakana in their Japanese versions. Tokuji Hayakawa invented a mechanical pencil in 1915, dubbing it the Ever-Ready Sharp (now known in Japanese as V[y shaapen). Hayakawafs humble workshop has morphed into electronics giant Sharp (V[v, shaapu). Shojiro Ishibashi, a maker of rubber-soled tabi (split-toe socks) in the e30s, transposed the two kanji comprising his family name, (ishi, gstoneh) and (hashi, gbridgeh) to create gBridgestoneh (uaXg, burijisuton), now the worldfs largest tire manufacturer.

More recently, entrepreneur Masayoshi Son used English creatively in 1981 when he dubbed his telecommunications company gSoftbankh (\tgoN), with gsofth referring to gsoftware.h Both Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt may currently be seen holding mobile phones in ubersexy Softbank advertising campaigns.

The name of retail giant AEON (CIO[v, ionguruupu) exudes a positive vibe with its meaning, gan infinite period of timeh (more commonly spelled geonh), and capital letters. Some AEON stores still operate under its former name, JUSCO (WXR, jyasuko), an acronym for Japan United Stores Company.

Another company named with an English acronym is telecoms powerhouse NTT (Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, {dMdb, nippondenshindenwa). Spinoff NTT docomo (GkEeBEeBEhR, enutitidokomo), the biggest mobile phone operator in Japan, chopped the first two letters off three words in the phrase gdo communications over the mobile networkh to craft gdocomo.h gdocomoh is also a cleverly used homonym for gdoko mo,h (ǂ), meaning geverywhere.h

The name of Nissan Motors (Y) originated on the Tokyo stock market as an abbreviation of its original incarnation, Nippon Sangyou ({Y). Nissan formerly marketed automobiles under the brand name gDatsun.h gDat-g stood for the family names of founding members Den (D), Aoyama (A), and Takeuchi (T). gSon,h originally tacked onto the end of gDat-g (i.e., gson of DATh), was later changed to gsunh because gsonh () means glossh in Japanese.

Last year, Matsushita Electric Industrial (dY, matsushita denkisangyou) renamed itself Panasonic (pi\jbN, panasonikku) and is phasing out brand name National (iVi, nashyonaru). gPanaSonich (i.e., gsound everywhereh) was first coined in 1955 for Matsushitafs export audio speakers. In the same decade, Tokyo Tsushin (ʐM) put transistor radios into the hands of millions of American teenagers and changed its name to Sony (\j[), an ingenious combination of gsonush (Latin for gsoundh) and gsonny,h American slang for gyoung man.h

Toyota Motor (g^, toyota jidousha), 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 g_. But in 1937, _ (da) was changed to ^ (ta): ^ is visually simpler and gives g^ a lucky eight-stroke count.

Although companies such as g^ and Suzuki Motor Corporation (XYL) employ katakana to render their names, conglomerates Mitsui (O) and Sumitomo (ZF), 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 ({cZH, hondagikenkougyou).

The company ranked No. 1 in the Global 500, Wal-Mart, also happens to be written in kanji... in China, with characters meaning grich, you, and agateh to phonetically represent gwo-er-ma.h 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 characters.

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