Katakana Illiterates

A peculiar thing sometimes happens when I enter restaurants in Japan. The staff lose the ability to read. It happened again on Sunday.

I popped out with the wife for a cheap and cheerful lunch at a local steak restaurant only to find that quite a few others had had the same idea. There was a queue and, as is often the way here, there was a little lectern-style stand with a sheet of paper on which hopeful diners could write their names before taking a seat in the waiting area. My wife added our names to the sheet and we too began our wait.

Every few minutes a waiter came and looked at the sheet and called out the next name on the list. He was on fine reading form, barely hesitating between glancing at the sheet and calling out the names. Suzuki, Watanabe, even a lengthy Sakakibara were enunciated with confidence and clarity. And then he got to us.

Now, you might be thinking, ‘Well, you’ve got a foreign name. It’s understandable that it’s hard to read. I’d like to see a waiter in England or America trying to pronounce a Japanese name correctly. What do you expect, you condescending fool?’ and I would agree with you on all of that but for one thing that I feel negates those excuses. My name was written in katakana and therefore if the waiter could read (and he had already demonstrated that he could) there was only one possible way he could read my name. For readers who might not be familiar with katakana, allow me to explain a little further.

Katakana is one of the Japanese syllabaries. Each of the characters can be read in one way and one way only. For example, カ is read ka. There are no weird combinations which could be read any number of ways. There are no equivalents to an English ‘ough’ as in ‘tough’ or ‘cough’ or ‘though’ or ‘through’ or ‘bough’ or ‘ought’. In kanji there is plenty room for alternative readings; in katakana there is none. It is a basic script, easy to learn and once learned anything written in it can be sounded out without much difficulty. Indeed my name has an irregular spelling that sometimes causes English speakers confusion. Katakana eliminates that confusion. There is more than one way people could read it in English. There is only one way it can possibly be read in katakana.

One of katakana’s functions is to represent foreign words which have entered the Japanese language. Those words might not sound exactly like their original version, and that is also true with foreign names. They are rendered into katakana and usually their pronunciation changes somewhat. That is fine and perfectly acceptable. I do not expect my name to be pronounced as it would be in my own tongue. I expect it to be pronounced as it sounds when transcribed into the nearest approximation that katakana allows. I even expect a little pause as the waiter looks at it and recognises that this is an unusual name. I have become accustomed to a slight hesitation, a mild flinch. I don’t mind that. But what I do find weird is when a waiter looks at my name and just stops or begins squeaking as though it were written in morse code. It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened before and it happened on Sunday. He looked at the name and just kept looking at it before finally looking up and sighing with palpable relief when I said, ‘I think that’s probably us.’

And here’s the thing: my name in katakana has three characters. It should be as easy to read as the  Suzukis and Watanabes that  the waiter had managed with such ease. For a Japanese person not to be able to read my katakana name aloud would be equivalent to a server in Britain seeing the name Kan and being so flummoxed that he couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how to pronounce it.

It’s a trivial matter but a perplexing one. It can easily be nullified by just writing my wife’s maiden name, but sometimes I think it might be more fun to take my friend’s advice.  ‘Well, it’s a foreign name,’ he says, ‘so you could just write anything. Amuse yourself. Write “Man with Longwilly” in katakana and wait till he calls you.’

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18 Responses to Katakana Illiterates

  1. judi(togainunochi) says:

    You always make me smile. I wonder what they would do with my name. The first words out of my college math teacher was, “Oh you have 12 letters in your last name.” Until that time, I had never counted. So, I’d say play with yours, too.

  2. aragoto says:

    I’ve occasionally been suspicious when restaurants get my name in one over the phone. I mentioned this to a friend who offered a plausible suggestion: especially if the place doesn’t get a lot of non-Japanese customers they may have noted you down as “foreign bloke, x people”. Whatever works, I suppose. The other extreme is people repeating my name as the nearest Japanese approximation they can think of (“Edogawa” is the most common).

  3. Mr. S. says:

    Working in a multi-ethnic school back home, on the first day of class I will sometimes start with an apology: “I apologize since I am going to mispronounce this but…”

  4. Biggie says:

    my name pronounced in Japanese sounds like a flower shop. Which, albeit slightly confusing on many occasions, is a good thing, of course. There can never be enough flowers.

  5. Melissa says:

    Haha interesting! Now I’m dying to know your name.

  6. sarahf says:

    I just stick to サラ and leave the family name. If people aren’t sure, I point out it’s the same word as plate. That usually does the trick.

    • Wise of you – but it’s that ‘if people aren’t sure’ bit that gets me. How can they not be sure? What other options of pronunciation do they have with something like サラ?! In English, you could be Sarah with a ‘say’ first syllable or Sarah with a ‘sa’ first syllable so a mispronunciation would be understandable but, as with my name, that confusion disappears with katakana (or should)!

  7. novarum says:

    People would pause before saying my friend Gary’s name, but probably not for the same reason. He now goes by his middle name when in Japan ; ) Poor bloke

  8. Turner says:

    Mine was incredible easy to pronounce (ta-na- raito), so I never really had that problem in restaurants. Is yours more than four characters?

    • No. It is three characters and every bit as easy to pronounce as yours but it shouldn’t really matter how many it is. Never met a Japanese person who cant read katakana so they shouldn’t struggle whatever the name. A bit of a pause at the unusual name, yes, but a mild panic, no. Katakana can only be read one way so… But, as I said, it doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen and I just think it’s a bit odd.

  9. odorunara says:

    This always happens to me. My last name is very unusual with foreigners in Japan, when the dry-cleaning clerks or people on the phone ask me how to write my name in Japanese, they look at me like I’ve grown a second head. That would be one thing if my name were a tongue-twister in kana, but no. My last name is condensed into exactly two syllables in Japanese. (My first name is all of three, but isn’t any more common, so I don’t use it to make things easier.) Because the spelling and pronunciation are a bit odd, I have no problem helping people spell/kanaize my name, but if I say it in Japanese, it’s quite simple… Being in Japan is literally the only time I’ve wished to be a Smith or a Jones, or even a Maria or an Anne!

  10. rsm says:

    If I were to guess, when the waiter goes to read the unfamiliar name, he (perhaps subconsciously) doesn’t know how it should be accented.

  11. David says:

    Reading the title of the post, I thought you were going to talk about me. 😉

    Ok, here are my two cents. We all know that most Japanese people suck at improvising. And I think this is what is happening with what you’re describing.
    When the waiter saw your name, here is what may have been his train of thoughts:
    “Ok, let’s see what is the next name. Wait? What? Katakana? Why Katakana? Oh my god, that’s a foreign name!?!? Foreign names are hard to pronounce, how am I gonna do? I’m going to mess up for sure and then the customer will be offended! Oh my god! Oh my god! What should I do? How am I going to solve this problem?”
    And while he’s freaking out, he’s becoming totally oblivious of the fact that if he simply read the Katakana there wouldn’t be any problem, if it’s written in katakana, you most likely expect it to be read “katakana-style” but that doesn’t cross his mind for a second.

    Two more cents, as I guess this is the perfect topic to mention my “misadventure” with Katakana.
    So my first name is “David” but in French it’s pronounced something like “Dahveed” and in Katakana it’s written “ダビッド” except that when a Japanese person writes my first name in katakana (it doesn’t happen everyday I admit), even if they’ve talked to me before and won’t mispronounce my name, they’ll still start with a デ American-style.
    I guess it comes from the fact that when I write e-mails or such, I sign “David” and they will read this as “Dayvid” which will then influence their way of writing it.

    On a side note, once I even saw it written with 6 katakana, which is somewhat baffling as words written in katakana should be shorter than with the roman alphabet (I can’t transcribe it here, I forgot how it was written, remember, I’m kinda illiterate with Katakana – I will learn soon, I promise – but it started with a デ).

    • That’s odd that they would start with デ even when they know the actual pronunciation of your name. I suppose with Beckham and all David is one of those names they know fairly well and are perhaps confident they know how to pronounce (understandably not knowing that French and English pronunciation of the name, although spelled the same, are pronounced differently).

      The thing about seeing katakana and thinking ‘foreign name’ could be something, but Japanese often write their names in Katakana on waiting sheets at restaurants and such too! Not sure why, but I guess because Kanji can have different readings. So although usually katakana name = foreigner, it’s not always the case on restaurant waiting lists and the like.

  12. Hugh Ashton says:

    Yep, I sign in as Nishio a lot of the time. I really don’t understand why something that should be phonetic creates so much hassle.

  13. bringreaner says:

    That’s really weird, I haven’t really encountered that before. Although everyone in America messes up my last name and say ‘Greener’ when it’s pronounced ‘Grey-ner,’ and at first my Japanese teachers would tell me I was writing the katakana wrong. They’d say no, it’s グリーナー。 It would take a bit to convince them I knew what I was doing.

    Also, your friend’s advice is hilarious, and now I want to try it. Except I’d probably burst out laughing, and I’d feel so sorry for the poor Japanese person who had just taken a big risk and said the name out loud, only for me to laugh at him/her.

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