Transliteration for Japan

Monday, October 13, 2008 at 11:05 AM


I'll never forget the first time that I'd traveled to Japan, when I'd nearly missed a train because I couldn't make heads or tails of the route markers that displayed city names in kanji, the Chinese-based Japanese character set. Though I'd studied katakana (alphabet for foreign words) and hiragana (alphabet for native words), kanji was entirely different. For starters, they aren't phonetic like the other two but more conceptual (e.g. ideograms or pictograms). What's more, there are thousands of them. Last count was in the tens of thousands. The problem for me, of course, was that geographic names are written in kanji.

Fast forward to this past summer when I returned to Japan and tried to plan my route to the Tokyo Google office using Google Maps. Again, I couldn't make sense of the subway station names. Well, this time I could do something about it. This week we will be releasing English labels of city names, prefectures, districts and transit station names in Japan. We have used a combination of transliteration (local pronunciation into English alphabet) and translation so that "Shibuya Eki" would read as "Shibuya Station", for example. We thought it would be more helpful to transliterate the name but let users know the difference between a city or a station. We've even used macrons so "Tokyo" reads as "Tōkyō" to help with pronunciation.

As it turns out, I wasn't the only one having problems reading kanji. Users have been asking for this for a long time. Back in February, the Maps team got the ball rolling with major city names and now, we're working towards adding more English labels. In the future, you can look forward to additional coverage with street names and other points of interest.

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