February 26, 2010

A rose by any other kanji

NHK carried the 24 February Toyota Congressional hearing live. Mr. Toyoda's deportment was pretty much boilerplate CEO behavior in Japan, where the groveling is even more ritualized (and naturally only coming after somebody gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar).

(The reason the consonant in the last syllable of the car name is not voiced is explained here.)

In this case, I have some sympathy for the no-win situation Toyota finds itself in, having to admit to doing something wrong without exactly knowing what. Several thousand reported cases and less than fifty possible deaths over a decade out of several million cars sold falls to the level of random chance.

By comparison, in a single year in the U.S., approximately 6.5 million accidents, 3 million injuries and 42,500 deaths are caused by automobiles.

I learned at Microsoft that when a bug is impossible to reproduce, it probably has a large "human interface factor." And of course, the smarter the human operator, the more loath he is to admit it (like a sysadmin leaving a floppy in the drive and then reporting that the system won't boot).

But what caught my linguistic eye was the name of the president of North American operations for Toyota, Yoshimi Inaba. Since I was watching NHK, the screen graphic for his name was in kanji. I'd never seen the second kanji in his first name (mi) before, though the radicals are quite basic.

Japan's post-war kanji reforms reduced the number of "official" characters and simplified how they are written. Not as drastically as China's, but more than Taiwan's, which probably stuck with the traditional forms as a political statement. Nobody does orthographic reform better than a dictatorship.

A big exception in the reforms was carved out for names. By 2004, the approved proper name list had reached almost a thousand (a few like "corpse" and "grudge" were removed to protect children from silly or spiteful parents). Incidentally, if you become a Japanese citizen, you must adopt a Japanese name.

First names especially are the bane of the student of Japanese. And a headache for native speakers as well. The power law distribution of names (pronunciation-wise) is not any different in Japan. But the huge number of homophones means that "Bob" can be spelled about a hundred different ways.

Yes, English has Robert, Rob, Robby, Bobby and Bob. But the comparison is more akin to Jeff and Geoff or Stephen and Steven. The WWJDIC name dictionary contains over 250 different character combinations for "Yoshimi."

Thankfully, most of them are way, way out on the long tail of the distribution. In this case, though, a statistical outlier turned up in the news.

The mi in "Yoshimi" wasn't recognized by my usually reliable JWPce radical lookup tool. The excellent Windows IME did have it. I googled around and found some articles with the kanji and others with only the phonetic kana. Several news services included the following parenthetical next to Mr. Inaba's name:

You don't need to read Japanese to get the "spelling" of this kanji:

In Japanese, a rose by any other kanji would nevertheless be pronounced the same. But some just look way cooler than others.

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