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  • Christina Theodorakis

Walk Like a Kyotoite

Ah, Kyoto: one of Japan's most historic and famous cities. The Japanese pride themselves on the beauty of their four seasons and have events centered around them, such as hanami (literally "flower viewing," which is when people go to view and/or have picnics by cherry blossom trees) in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and ko-yo (literally "red leaves," which is when Japanese people go to look at fall foliage). Kyoto, being the ancient and historic city that it is, has kept or rebuilt many of its historic landmarks for modern-day awestruck people to visit. One of those places is the part of Kyoto City with the most famous bamboo grove in the world: Arashiyama.

On one of our trips to Arashiyama, we were walking through the train station to hop on the train and noticed this sign right as we were descending the stairs to the platform.

Huh? Is that some kind of code? Is there a secret moonwalk?

Even with the arrow pointing around somewhere and my native English skills, I can't tell if I have to go to the left and back up some stairs or what. That's on top of the fact that I've lived in Japan long enough to know how the train system works. God help the non-native English speakers. To our Korean- and Traditional-Chinese-speaking readers, how do you interpret the part written in your language?

In the Japanese at the top of the sign, it says, "If you're going towards Kyoto Station, please use the rear train car." Now that makes a little more sense.

The signmakers had to have been non-native English speakers due to the bizarre English they used with the minimal space on the sign when there's easier-to-understand English that they didn't use. The part that says "Passengers going to Kyoto" comes from the first part in the Japanese that says "京都方面は (transliterated as "Kyoto ho-men wa")," which literally means "in the direction of Kyoto." This wording in Japanese is common on trains and buses, with the word before "ho-men" usually being the final destination of that train or bus' route, and it's understood by this wording that they're speaking to passengers going to Kyoto -- more specifically, towards Kyoto Station.

Next in the Japanese, they say "後ろ (ushiro) 寄りの (yori no) 車両を (sha-ryo wo) ご利用ください (go-riyo kudasai)," which means "Please use the rear-most train car/carriage." So we can presume that the staircase is leading us to the front cars of the train, and many people with bags and luggage typically don't want to walk down a narrow platform and dodge people, especially if it's a busy time to walk to the opposite end of the train. This isn't only something that happens in Arashiyama and touristy areas, but Japanese people also have the tendency to crowd onto a few cars and not walk to the cars that are further from the platform entrance. What the sign is trying to tell people is not to try to cram themselves onto the same train car and to spread out by riding on the rear cars.

While Japanese people can instantly comprehend the message in the Japanese text, whoever wrote the English did not successfully convey the message to us English speakers (and also managed to misspell "passengers," get rid of the space after the comma, and capitalize the "p" in "please" for whatever reason). It's one thing for non-native speakers to try to convey a message in English, but if they don't understand how to shorten the phrasing (e.g. removing definite and indefinite articles, obvious prepositions, etc.), then there's no way they can write an English message succinctly.

This is why the right kind of professional writers, localization experts, and cultural strategists are necessary to help with advertising, marketing, and other business endeavors you're trying to undertake in a foreign country such as Japan or with Japanese clients, and we have those writers and experts on our team for English and Japanese. If your company is trying to reach out to a Japanese audience, reach out to us for a quick chat or a free consultation!


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