Finally! New English Road Signs in Japan!

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 10 Comments |

It’s been a long time coming, but it seems Tokyo winning the 2020 bid for the Olympics and the surge in visits from foreign tourists in recent years has kicked some bigwigs into action. The old practice of showing ‘Romaji’ – Japanese words written using English characters – on signs is ending since its inception back in 1986. In its place will be proper English translations for major landmarks and road signs.

The central government and Tokyo metropolitan government started replacing signs back in August 2013 on a trial basis, and the consensus seems to be that’s it’s definitely better for foreign guests who can’t read signs like ‘Shiyakushomae’ (‘City Hall’). Other signs are a mess, with some showing the English reading ‘Yoyogi Park’ while other signs are read by the romanised version ‘Yoyogi Koen’. So, the changes are expanding, with the goal being for stupendous English signage across all major tourist landmarks by 2020.

Japanese Signs Romaji-English Change

Road names and the naming for other placemarks will also change. ‘Asakusa-dori’ will become ‘Asakusa-dori Ave.’, for example, and ‘Abobashi Nishi’ in Himeji is becoming ‘Abo Bridge West’. One of the tricky points here however, is that sometimes the descriptive Japanese suffix like ‘hashi’ for ‘bridge’ or ‘kawa’ for ‘river’ actually end up becoming part of the landmarks. Removing them can sometimes make places harder to find!

As an ex-CIR myself, this is particularly interesting for me, as a part of my job involved romanisation of signs and other Japanese text for tourists and foreigners living in Japan. Often I was torn between leaving the original romanisation, which very often has actually become the defacto place name itself, or switching to English translations to actually make the sign understandable to visitors. Quite often the tradeoff was to leave the Japanese and add a clarifying word of English.

Take for example ‘Kogawa’ – ‘Small River’. Translating this as ‘Ko River’ becomes unintelligible. Generally in cases like these with only one syllable (mora), my preferred practice was to leave the suffix in and add the English – Kogawa River, for example. It will be interesting to see how the Japanese government handles cases like these, and hopefully it doesn’t take things too far…

Interestingly, certain words like ‘Onsen’ which had originally been translated as ‘Spa’ on certain signs are being returned to the Japanese reading, because of the popularity of the word overseas. Tourists actually ask to visit an ‘onsen’ more than a ‘spa’.

national-diet-new-sign

Of course, not everything is peachy. Japan still insists on calling its Parliament the ‘National Diet‘, using an archaic term from the Meiji era. As such, the sign that used to show ‘Kokkaimae’ will now read ‘National Diet’.

zero-national-diet

A small, casual survey of foreign visitors asking them to sketch what they thought ‘National Diet’ meant showed, as expected, a plethora of typical Japanese food items. The government have thus ensured the entertainment of thousands of giggling tourists and countless selfies in front of the sign for years to come. Not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps!

10 comments on “Finally! New English Road Signs in Japan!
  1. Ed says:

    Tavares, how many tourists and short term visitors actually learn the languages of the countries they are visiting? Not many. Do you really think the signs for the subway should read “Chikatetsu”? Or that the restrooms should be labelled “Oteiarai”? You may as well make foreign visitors learn kanji.

  2. Renata says:

    Hi,

    I’m noticing your signs. I’m a member of an editors association and we have a yearly award for English language anomalies. Since I used to teach in Japan, I remember the wonderful stuff I used to see on the signage (those weird haiku translations on products and signage). Is the “National Diet” sign current (from 2015 or 2016)?

    If you’ve seen anything even more fantastic, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

    Thanks

    Renata

  3. Tavares says:

    This is very useful for people who actually don’t have that much interest in visiting Japan. If you have any interest in visiting a country, its culture is a part of the reason why you want to visit it, and you will make an effort to try and embrace it. And especially so in the case of Japan, being such a special case, culturally speaking. These new signs will help alienate you from the culture and local population, by making the language barrier a greater one, as it will make you learn less about the Japanese language, and will disable you from communicating with the population that doesn’t speak English, to whom, without being able to read kanji, you could say “gaimusho” and they would understand you, and now you will have no idea what the Japanese characters read, and you will have an English name instead? I’m all for progress, but globalisation is anything but progress. I wish they would replace the signs again after the olimpycs, which I’m hoping they will, judging by the temporary-looking nature of the “English sticker on top of the old romaji” on the signs.

  4. Uncle Dave says:

    I don’t understand, why is Japan going English a “good thing”. People visiting other countries must learn ‘some’ of the language to get around and get by. Same in France, Germany, the countries of South America, etc. Japan is cow-towing to the Imperial English/Americans just like Hong Kong.

    Sorry, I just stumbled in here from a search engine looking for micro-aggression. Maybe I’m out of line…

  5. SJ says:

    Have just discovered your many interesting blogs and am extremely interested and keen for more to come… was particularly intrigued by your Gunkimajima post. is a massive dream of mine to go there hopefully access will still be available in years to come as am still in High school.

    Your blogs are inspiring and cant wait to read any future posts!
    -Sarah, from Ausralia.

  6. Ian says:

    Fiona Graham, is the only foreigner in 400 years to be accepted into the ranks of the geisha… get a look: http://www.sayuki.net

  7. Ulfric Douglas says:

    The Russian parliament is the Duma : “Think”
    Not as funny as rice & noodles, but quite funny.

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