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Toyota and Japanese orthography

A radio quiz program I heard over the weekend attempted to explain why Toyota motor company spells its name with a final ta, even though Akio Toyoda, the CEO and grandson of the company’s founder, spells his name with a final da. A contestant suggested that Toyota uses a character written with eight strokes, while Toyoda uses one with ten, and that eight is a more auspicious number. The contestant’s answer was judged to be the correct one.

This is strange for at least two reasons. First, the character 田 (rice field) used in the Toyoda family name can be pronounced either ta or da, and so orthography wouldn’t seem to enter into it. In addition, the character is written with five strokes, not eight or ten.

It turns out that BBC News published an article last week attempting to answer the question, “Why is the car giant Toyota not Toyoda?” The article, written by Kathryn Westcott, does a pretty good job explaining the apparent inconsistency, and this was probably what both the quiz master and the contestant were thinking of. The answer, though, is more complicated than the quiz question (and especially the answer) made it out to be.

Japanese has a notoriously complex system of orthography. A great many words are written in Chinese characters, which are called kanji in Japanese, some in traditional and some in simplified form. In addition, Japanese uses two different syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, either on their own or in conjunction with kanji. The Latin alphabet, the same one most European languages use, is also used to write Japanese, but usually in specialized contexts such as email, advertising, or the like. (Westcott refers to “a Romanised script”, but in fact it is the same orthography I am using to write this post.)

The eight-strokes versus ten-strokes difference refers to the name written in the katakana syllabary: トヨタ versus トヨダ. Those two small dots on the final character are a diacritic that indicates voicing, the phonetic quality that differentiates da from ta. With the voicing diacritic removed, the katakana version of the name has eight strokes. (Strokes are not identical to straight lines; ヿ and ㇷ each count as one stroke.)

The problem with this explanation, as Westcott goes on to explain, is that while the number of strokes in the kanji version are often considered important when choosing a name, the number of strokes in the hiragana or katakana version are not.

Westcott cites Mika Kizu, a lecturer in Japanese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, who says that voiced sounds “are less preferable”, presumably on the basis of phonoaesthetics, the perception of sounds themselves as pleasing or upsetting.

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