JOK Notebook

Place Name Problems

Well, now I've seen it all! Over in Hiroshima Prefecture, the city of Kure has created a dancing animated kanji! The character is 呉 (くれ), the name of the city, and it's part of a 32,000,000-yen effort (that's roughly $320,000!!!) to make people stop misreading the city name as ご. 

If you've read essay 1237 on 呉 (to give; (Kingdom of) Wu), you're already familiar not only with the underlying kanji issues but also with the city itself. That is, the Joyo on-yomi of 呉 is ゴ, so it's natural for people to read the kanji that way. Meanwhile, く•れる is the non-Joyo kun-yomi, but people almost always write くれる (呉れる: to give) in hiragana.

Photo Credit: Bdell555

In the essay, I said this about the photo above:

This is 呉駅 (くれえき), a station in 呉市 (くれし: Kure City) in Hiroshima Prefecture (western Honshu). Situated on the Seto Inland Sea, Kure is quite a significant city, having served as Japan’s largest naval base and arsenal during World War II. As a result, the Allies bombed the city heavily in 1945, sinking most of Japan’s remaining large warships.

Today, Kure continues to be an important port and shipbuilding center, as well as the base for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

One book of photo cards (that can be used as postcards) features photos of warships (艦船, かんせん) created in Kure from 1899 to 1945.

This explains the warships in one of the photos accompanying the Asahi Shimbun article about this PR effort. I couldn't tell much from the other pictures, so I failed to see how a dancing 呉 could clarify the yomi. 

It turns out they specify the くれ reading in a few ways.

They made a five-minute video featuring the animated kanji, who is named 呉氏 (くれし: Mr. Kure). That's homophonic with 呉市 (くれし: Kure City). Mr. Kure has 呉 on his front and クレ on his back.

Along with assorted humans, he dances to a song called「呉ー市ー GONNA 呉ー市ー (くれーしー ゴナ くれーしー)」, a play on the title of the popular song “CRAZY GONNA CRAZY” (クレージー ゴナ クレージー). 

The lyrics to the parody song contain many instances of 呉 (くれ) and 呉市 (くれし), including intentional mistakes in which 呉 stands in for other kanji. In one example, 来れば  (くれば: if one comes) appears as 呉ば  (くれば)!

And that's not the end of the wordplay! The original song is from the '90s, and one can read 90 as クレ with this interpretation:

9 = ク
0 = レ, which is short for レイ (零: 0) 

That explanation (well, just the part about how 90 corresponds to くれ) is on YouTube in the description of the video!

Kure isn't the only city to have a name-yomi problem or to respond with a PR campaign. In Fukuoka Prefecture on Kyushu, the city of 直方市 is in the same boat. The proper way to read this 直方 is のおがた. Some people are wildly off with the reading, pronouncing the name as なおかた or ちょくほう. But even if they hear the correct yomi, they may still misspell the name as のうがた because that's the more common association with Nōgata.

The article includes a picture of a PR sign with this slogan:

のおがた with お (not う) in it. 

つく (付く: to have)

Won't you come discover your "O!"?

見つける (みつける: to discover); 来る (くる: to come)

The Japanese use お! as an interjection when something strikes them as interesting.

It's funny that this topic of tricky place names should come up now. Just today, before publishing the new essay 2108 on 麓 (foot of a mountain), I caught a mistake related to a place name. I had written the yomi of 白峰 as しらみね, and though I have absolutely no memory of why I'd chosen that reading, I see that Breen offers it as one of three possibilities, along with はくほう and しらね. My error then slipped by two proofreaders, and I caught it completely by chance when I looked inside the book on Amazon Japan. In all honesty, I only checked the book out because it's about a watercolorist, and I was hoping to soothe myself with pretty pastels. Instead, I saw 白峰 with the furigana しらね and was jolted out of any kind of pastel mood! (I completely freak out about my mistakes, which is a real shame because I'm forever making them!)

Essay 2108 abounds with place names, mostly the names of mountains, and one is a real doozy. Here's what I said about it in the essay:

One reads the mountain name 大雪山 as だいせつん. However, that voiced ざ becomes the unvoiced さ in the yomi of 大雪山麓—namely, だいせつんろく.

The 大雪山麓 part means "the foot of Mount Daisetsu." This mountain is on Hokkaido.

None of this becomes any easier if you happen to be Japanese—hence the PR campaigns. I found out about the 呉市 and 直方市 issues through a Japanese Facebook friend who is incensed not only by the exorbitant PR budgets but also by the very impossibility of his own script. 

"Why can't the Japanese have a language they can read?" he wrote. If it were up to him, people would stick to the Joyo kanji set. Any personal names or place names that included non-Joyo kanji would appear in hiragana. Even personal names written with Joyo kanji would be preferable in hiragana, he says. The same goes for any unconventional or not-well-known readings of kanji. 

Incidentally, this place name issue came up in a very different way a few weeks back. A friend who knows no Japanese is running an online business and received orders from Japan for the first time. The customers wrote their addresses in kanji and hiragana, and he faced two problems. First, his printer turned the characters into question marks. Second, the U.S. postal service requires romanized addresses. You can't just write "Japan" at the bottom and send it across the ocean, letting them take it from there. 

He wondered if he should use Google Translate for the addresses. I advised him to steer clear of that option and said that although I could consult a proofreader, there are multiple ways to read many place names, so even a native speaker wouldn't know the answer for sure. I told him to ask each customer for a romaji address. (As I've now learned, another option would have been to check the name on the Japan Post site, which supplies furigana for place names.)

Perhaps my Facebook friend has a point. It's pretty crazy when even a native speaker has no idea how to read a place name or address. But do away with kanji in that context? I just can't come down on that side of things! I want to, but I can't do it!

Here, by the way, is the shortest city name in Japan:

Photo Credit: Lutlam

This is in Mie Prefecture on Honshu.

Furigana are our friends! Can't people just use them more liberally and keep the kanji as they are?!

Here's a preview of the newest essay:

Have a great weekend!


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