Friday, October 12, 2012

Fun with Japanese Brand Names

Well, my little trip to the U.S. has come to an end, and it's time to head back to Japan. I'm loaded up with various things I've purchased, like bubble bath, dental floss (it's quite expensive in Japan) and packets of Taco Bell taco sauce that my son asked me to bring back. See everyone on the other side!
One of the fun aspects of learning Japanese was unlocking the meanings of words I already knew in the form of Japanese company names. A lot of names are abbreviations, like Ricoh (short for Riken Kankoshi or Scientific Light-Sensetized Paper), or Kyocera ("Kyoto Ceramics"). Icons important to the Japanese find their way into company names a lot, like Asahi ("morning sun"), Hitachi ("rising sun") and Sunrise Animation, and naturally Mt. Fuji is well represented in company names like Fujitsu (which started out as Fuji Telecommunications Equipment Manufacturing before they shortened the name). Many corporations are named after their founders, like the automobile company Souichiro Honda launched in 1946, or the chocolate company Taichichiro Morinaga created after studying confectionery-making in San Francisco, or Bridgestone, founded by Shojiro Ishibashi ("stone-bridge"). Often Japanese company names have interesting stories attached to them, like Subaru, the name for the star cluster the Pleades, which was formed when several failing companies including Nakajima Aircraft (which built the infamous Zeros) banded together after World War II, or Datsun, created as the "son" of founders Den, Aoyama, and Takeuchi, though this was changed to "sun" as "son" is Japanese for financial loss (don't tell Softbank owner Masatoshi Son, Japan's richest man). The reason so many company names like Nikon, Nissan and Nissin start with ni is that the name of Japan in Japanese is nihon. Some others company names include SEGA ("Service Games of Japan"), a company founded by an American to import pinball machines to American military bases, and EPSON ("Son of Electric Printer"), which is rather silly. Speaking of silly, Sony started out Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Kaisha (Tokyo Communications Engineering Company) but changed its name because founder Akio Morita liked the then-common English phrase "sonny boy."

It's fun to trace the origins of company names.