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  • Christina Theodorakis

Why Does Japan Shout So Much?

This blog is about Japan's strange and incorrect use of English capital letters in places where they don't belong. To understand why Japan uses capital letters where they shouldn't, we have to first look at how Japanese people are taught not only English, but Japanese.

The Japanese language is so intricate that there are three different writing systems for different purposes (used at the same time), each with distinct characters that Japanese natives have to memorize in order to be able to read and write properly as adults: 46 hiragana characters, 46 katakana characters, and on average 2,000 kanji* characters. Japanese is a syllabic language so there's one hiragana and katakana character for each monosyllabic pronunciation -- in layman's terms, two characters exist (hiragana and katakana) for each sound that exists in the Japanese language.

Herein lies the problem. Japanese students are taught the English alphabet in the same vein as they're taught Japanese: first they memorize the uppercase letters and then they're taught the lowercase letters on a separate occasion. If you think back to Kindergarten, this is not how it's done in the United States or surely in any English-speaking country -- not even other Western countries with similar letter-based alphabets.

One area where we frequently see English capital letters abused in Japan is in company names (often on the company websites). For stylistic purposes, many company names are printed in all caps in their logos. I'll give you an example below.

For copyright purposes, I'm not going to use the official logo here, but if you google "bbc world news," notice the logo with the title in all caps, then look at how the name is printed as "BBC World News" for the Google description and website title. We as English natives look at this without even thinking since it's so normal to us.

Now let's look at Japan's equivalent of the BBC, a state-run international news organization: NHK. NHK's global news website logo looks like this:

And if you look at the way they refer to the organization on Google and on their About Us page, you'll see that the stylistic form "NHK WORLD-JAPAN" continues to be used.

Japanese people take letters in the exact way that they're used and don't see them as being interchangeable for normal writing purposes. This is the same in Japanese, as hiragana, katakana, and kanji are used for specific purposes (especially in names) and are not really interchangeable. This is why we'll see the annoying English text that reads like it's shouting at us when we come across the English versions of Japanese company websites or posts by Japanese people on social media.

Not only is it irritating to see words like company names and any random word used for emphasis in all uppercase letters on Japanese websites, but, as a personal anecdote, writing names as they've been presented is a practice that's seen all over Japan. The use of capital letters is required in Japan in places like government offices (city halls and the like), where I've had a form on which I'd written my name in the standard way I was accustomed to in the U.S. thrown away by the administrator, to my surprise, because I hadn't written my name in all uppercase letters exactly as it's printed on my Japanese visa.

In the business world, trying to force English writing styles or rules into Japanese can create similarly bizarre and off-putting situations. You need a team who's already made some of these mistakes and has experience living and working in both Japan and the West. We can help you to adapt your business strategy, writing, and all communications into a way that works in Japan for the way that Japanese people would expect, while presenting everything that makes you and your brand or product special and unique. Don't hesitate to reach out to us for a business chat and just a simple hello. :)

*Kanji are characters of Chinese origin that were adopted into Japanese.


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