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.
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’.
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’.
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!