Problems with Japan's writing system, pt. 873

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My, my, my!!   Who'da thunk it?

Japanese beef brand faces marketing mess as kanji creates confusion, Japan Today (5/4/24):

The government of Ibaraki Prefecture has hit a marketing snag in the promotion of its local Hitachiwagyu Beef specialty after a survey showed a significant percentage of young Japanese adults cannot read the kanji characters in its name.

Japan boasts numerous wagyu luxury beef variants, most famously the Kobe Beef from Hyogo Prefecture in the country's west. The Hitachiwagyu name refers to Hitachi Province, the pre-1875 name for Ibaraki Prefecture.

The meat is sourced from Japanese Black cattle raised in the prefecture just north of Tokyo for 30 months.

But a national online survey conducted with 300 participants in December showed some 57 percent of people in their 20s and 43 percent in their 30s were unable to correctly identify the kanji characters for "Hitachi."

Older respondents fared better, with 33 percent of those in their 40s, 35 percent of people in their 50s and just 22 percent of individuals in their 60s offering the wrong answer.

A majority of people in their twenties don't know how to read the characters for the "Hitachi" of "Hitachiwagyu", where "wagyu" is a word for Japanese luxury beef that even many Americans know, and Hitachi is, of course, a world-famous multinational conglomerate whose name is written with two very simple, common kanji, 日立, meaning "sun" and "stand erect", whereas the "Hitachi" of this particular brand of beef is written with two completely different kanji, 常陸.  These are both relatively simple and common, with the meanings "frequent / common (!)" and "land / shore").  This unusual reading of 常+陸 as "hitachi" comes from the old name of a former province located in and forming a large part of present-day Ibaraki Prefecture, whence this special wagyu beef originates.  It is also the name of a famous Sumo wrestler during the early 1900s who hailed from this area.

This is not a matter of character amnesia.  Rather, it is a case of large portions of the populace not knowing how to pronounce the kanji in this particular word, though they may (or may not) know how to pronounce them in other contexts.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Swofford]


  1. Chris said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 12:07 am

    Funny, I ran across this reading just last night when I ordered a 常陸野ネストゆずラガー (Hitachino Nest Yuzu Lager). I was already familiar with the brewery, so I knew the intended reading, but I noted the unusual spelling.

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 6:59 am

    Is this a problem with the Japanese writing system, or with the Japanese school system? Is this something people ought be able to figure out if they've been good pupils and learnt what they're supposed to in school?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:03 am

    The orthography and esthetics of Japanese beef and beer

    Yes, indeed, Chris! If you Google "Hitachi beer" or "Hitachino", you'll find that the beer of that name is all over the internet in romanization, with the big-eyed, wise old owl its logo. But then come some surprises.

    Just as Hitachi by itself won't find you the beer (unless maybe countless pages down where you don't want to go or don't have the patience to go), neither will 常陸 by itself find you the beer except perhaps for one or two scattered items out of hundreds.

    I was guessing what the magic "no" syllable was that would distinguish the beer from the conglomerate. At first I thought maybe it was the ubiquitous genitive case marker の, but that only lasted a second. Then I quickly thought of the "no" of "Musashino 武蔵野" (a section of Tokyo). That "no 野" means "plains, field", and — like wabi-sabi ("impermanence; imperfection") — an esthetic quality of rusticity that Japanese people are so fond of.*

    So that's it: Hitachino 常陸野 for the beer (from the countryside).


    *The denotations and connotations of 野 in Sinitic are much more stark and varied, making it quite a challenge to find the right nuance / nyuansu ニュアンス when translating into English (and other languages).

    countryside; field; outskirts; wilderness
    plain; open country; open space
    area; region; boundary
    (among) the people; not in power; out of office
    unadorned; unaffected; simple; plain
    wild; not domesticated; stray
    feral; untamed; unrestrained
    rough; coarse; violent; boorish; rude


  4. David Soler said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:15 am

    I think it's unfair to blame the Japanese writing system. Ultimately, the reading of "Hitachi" is no different than any other proper name pronounced in irregular fashion. For example, how is an American supposed to know that "Neil Gaiman" is supposed to be pronounced Neil GUY-muhn" without having heard someone say it first? Conversely, Americans visiting New York City are often confused by the pronunciation of Houston (like "house") St. in Greenwich ("Grenitch") Village.

    Why do these pronunciations thrive? They help distinguish natives from visitors. All Ibaragi Prefecture needs is a funny commercial where a clueless native asks about "Chouriku" beef, and is graciously corrected by the locals.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:30 am

    I have no clue who Neil Gaiman is, never heard of him, but I would pronounce his name "Neil GUY-muhn" the first time I saw it.

  6. Doug said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:46 am

    The Wikipedia page for Neil Gaiman has the name pronounced with "gay" rather than "guy". Is it wrong?

  7. Doug said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:48 am

    And the FAQ on Gaiman's own web page says:

    "How do you pronounce your last name? Is it gay-man or guy-man or something else?

    It's Gaym'n."

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 9:51 am

    Well, so would I ("pronounce Gaiman as 'GUY-muhn' the first time I saw it", that is). But then I might ask myself "but what about 'caiman' — surely that is / ˈkeɪm ən/", after which I might well vacillate between GUY-muhn and GAY-muhn … But it is not impossible that both Victor and I are influenced by our prior exposure to dishes such as hung yen gai ding, bolo gai pan, moo goo gai pan and so on (orthography courtesy of the Lotus Inn, Chislehurst, some 50 or more years ago …).

  9. Chris Button said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 10:03 am

    Since it's a "nanori" reading, it's basically the same issue as the difficulty in knowing how to pronounce Japanese personal names based solely on kanji. So, it's not necessarily that newsworthy in that regard.

    And what better way to get some free advertising from people talking about it.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 10:35 am

    A comparison to e.g. "house" and "hound" suggests that it is the pronunciation of Houston, Texas rather than that of Houston Street in New York which is the deviant one,* in terms of varying from the default rules matching orthography to pronunciation in modern AmEng. It's just that the Texas toponym is much more widely known, leading people to think its pronunciation is the standard one for that string of letters even if it's irregular.

    *Houston, Tex. is named for the prominent 19th-century Texan political figure Sam Houston, who descended from the less-prominent 17th-century Scottish political figure Sir Patrick Houstoun of that Ilk, Bt. I don't know whether the surname pronunciation is consistent with different orthographic:phonological correspondences that were in use in Scotland at some relevant prior time.

  11. ulr said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 2:08 pm

    According to the LPD, the Scottish pronounciation is ['huːstən].

  12. Jonathan Silk said,

    May 7, 2024 @ 3:52 am

    Exactly as @Chris Button sayts: Japanese names can be a bear. Years (well, decades…) ago I asked a Japanese teacher of mine how to know how to read the name of Buddhist scholars, a particularly nasty case because so many have unusual readings. His reply was that I should ask them. And if they are dead? His deadpan answer: then you're out of luck. (I have incidentally had the occasion to correct Japanese colleagues about the readings of names, because some scholars were good enough to have published a thing or two in a foreign language, and then they were compelled to write their name in roman script: thus we know that the famous Jātaka scholar was Hikata not *Higata (干潟龍祥 Hikata Ryūshō), for instance.
    The database gives readings for author names, but one can tell that in some cases the data was input by persons who didn't really know what they were about, and there are interesting errors–someone with too much free time could investigate these (but it won't be me).

  13. /df said,

    May 7, 2024 @ 5:17 am

    "… I should ask them [or] if they are dead? … you're out of luck."

    To quote a relevant comment posted in the recent Passyunk discussion:

    "Raymond Luxury-Yacht"
    If that guy is dead and (the rest of) Monty Python expunged from history, who will know that the surname was pronounced "Throat-wobbler Mangrove"?

    See also Cholmondeley, Featherstonehaugh, Marjoribanks, Waldegrave, etc.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2024 @ 5:44 am

    I'm enormously grateful for Jonathan Silk's remarks. They help to assuage the suffering I went through with trying to determine the pronunciation of Japanese names. In my half-century plus as a sinologist, that was THE hardest part (except maybe for looking up extremely rare / obscure / arcane kanji / hanja / hanzi / sinoglyphs / etc.).

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