Notes on Japanese names

I am often told "your names look different from those I found in all the books" referring to almost every language with a non-roman script that we have romanised. The overall explanation is that most authors wrongly assume that their readers either are familiar with the language they write about or that these readers will do their "homework". Most authors, especially if they are not linguists but scientists, appear unconcerned about conveying the true meaning of their foreign names across to their readership. Otherwise I would never have felt the need to start this huge project. They merely imitate what others have done and write some casual romanisation which in some cases happens to be correct but most of the time is not.

Example : the words "gimmei" and 'kimmei" which over the years, have been passed on from one publication to another without anyone ever questionning their validity, and are now recognized as cultivar names, are based on the misunderstanding of almost "sound-alike" legitimate Japanese names; "ginmei' and "kinmei'. In the context of bamboo description the expression "kinmei" refers to a golden-culmed with one or several green stripes whilst "ginmei" refers to the exact opposite; golden stripe(s) on green-culm. Although correct these names remain nevertheless vague because many cultivars display these characteristics. These names would however be suitable as group names. That in an attempt to distinguish between botanically different "look-alike" plants some author or trade person has resorted to the use of modified romanised names is understandable but not excusable. In Japanese - katakana script it happens sometimes that following a vowel, a consonant is doubled as in the following example but this is not the case here. It should be pointed out to underline the confusing complexity of these combinations of characters that "gin" means silver and "kin" means gold. "Kinmei" could therefore be interpreted as "brilliant golden" and "ginmei" as "brilliantly silver" or simply "silvery" in relation to the culm colour reflexions.

Romanising a foreign language such as Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Thai and others is an extremely difficult task. Many have tried and come up with internationally recognized "standards" which always approximate the real sound but cannot really be spot on. The written word is a little easier to handle, especially with computers. The rule is simple : start with a standard romanised name, type it in and if the computer spits the correct foreign name out you have the correct romanisation... well ! do you ? ... perhaps not always.

Example 1 : the Japanese Horai chiku ( ) needs to be typed as houraichiku ( ) in order to get the correct katakana or hiragana which are sound related scripts, similarly Hoo chiku (Hô chiku) needs to be typed as Hououchiku ( ). The kanji characters may or may not vary depending on the word. Usually in the context of a word the meaning of any character is understood ... as long as one knows Japanese well because a rare technical name can contain very obscure characters indeed.

Example 2 : "hotei" of Hotei chiku ( , ), on the other hand cannot be written 'houtei" because it cannot be converted into meaningful kanji.

The trick is that one has to know the many standards of romanisation, the foreign script and vocabulary in order to convey to the reader the exact words. How many dictionaries have you ever seen displaying both a foreign word and its corresponding romanisation ? I could count those on the fingers of one hand and I have had to consult literally hundreds of dictionaries, glossaries, catalogues etc., those mentioned in our references are only the most relevant.

JAPANESE is perhaps one of the most difficult languages to handle because on one hand it has 3 different scripts which are used either separately or in combination (see file on Perilla for example). On the other hand it is considered simple by scientists because only one script is generally used for scientific names. This script called katakana is the simplest of the 3 and is used to transliterate any non-Japanese word into a Japanese-sounding word, even botanical names in botanical Latin can be spelt in katakana when no Japanese name describes a specific plant. However in Japanese the letter v is commonly replaced by b as in Spanish so Bambusa vulgaris can become Banbuusa burugarisu, Gigantochloa atroviolacea can become Gigantokuroa atorobiorashii.

Examples in other languages are common, see for instance the Russian index (see also below zucchini - an Italian word and pepo - a .... botanical word). Unfortunately real people never use only katakana characters on their own, so a foreign scientist addressing Japanese people with katakana will convey - say for argument sake - 70% to 80% of the meaning across but may miss some little detail which would be contained in the most complex script called kanji. This is because the same set of katakana characters can represent different kanji characters with very different meanings. There are also a few traps that most non-Japanese speakers fall into when romanising katakana.

Example 2 : the tortoise-shell bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis (Carrière) Houzeau de Lehaie 'Heterocycla') has been called "Kitsukou chiku". I only realised once I had typed and viewed via a web browser the Japanese kanas for that name next to the correct name (Kikkou chiku) that it was based on a misunderstanding of the little character indicating a doubling of the following consonant K. "ki kou" becomes kikkou. Incidently kou is not spelt "ko" although it does sound like "ko" in English.

incorrect spelling, correct spelling for the kanji


In practice Japanese people handle all the above difficulties in different ways. They may write everything in kanji and add tiny hiragana characters above the most complex characters in order to give the reader an idea of the sound of those characters.

Suzutake can be written as or

This is very common in dictionaries, encyclopedias, magazines and the very good catalogues (all catalogues appear to be pieces of art in Japan). In the botanical world it is common to find hybrid names made up of 2 different scripts ; either a combination of kanji and katakana or more often kanji and hiragana. Easily recogniseable kanji characters start the word and the less common kanji is replaced with the simplest characters. Incidently all kanji is either pure traditional Chinese or sometimes Chinese with subtle nuances.

EXAMPLES : Zukkiini, Mini zukkiini but (Yellow zukkiini)


Seiyou kabotcha (foreign pumpkin)

Pepo kabotcha (pepo cannot be represented in kanji)



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Date created: 03 / 01 / 2001
Authorised by Prof. Snow Barlow
Last modified: 09 / 01 / 2001
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