“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.” —Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1709–1784

We do a massive amount of custom Japanese embroidery on Karate uniforms and belts, and are constantly amazed at how many of the (Japanese) designs we are sent with customer orders are mispelled, are grammatically incorrect, have been reversed (mirror image) or sometimes are even upside down AND reversed!

The culprits are not always the fly-by-night companies who use a Japanese dictionary and then “wing it,” we have seen some hilarious translations coming from the best and most expensive manufacturers in Japan and Okinawa as well.

There are two problems you have to overcome if you want good Japanese embroidery that will neither cost a fortune nor embarrass you, and the key to success is knowledge.

Firstly, Japanese is a very, very complicated language which uses four distinct sets of characters or alphabets: Kangi, Chinese characters, pictograms and ideograms borrowed from Chinese which are used for verb and adverb stems, nouns, personal and place names. Each kanji can have many meanings depending on the characters it appears in combination with, and even more pronunciations. For example, Nakamura, a common Japanese family name, means middle 中 of the village 村.

To read at Japanese high school level, you need to learn 2,136 Chinese characters (joyo kanji). Then there is Hiragana, the original Japanese native phonetic script of 51 characters that is used to write Japanese sounds. Next, there is Katakana which has 51 phonetic characters also, and is used to write foreign sounds, non-Japanese words like Coca-Cola. Finally, the Roman alphabet is also in use as are the Hindu–Arabic numerals (1–9). Therefore to be able to read a newspaper in Japan, you must understand around 2,500 characters instead of the 35 we make do with in the West.

To make matters worse, even if you can read Chinese characters, that does not guarantee that you will understand what they mean unless you have a deep knowledge of the culture that created them. For example, the two characters that are shown here read, (日) Sun and (本) origin, how can they mean Japan? Well, if you were a Chinese person looking to the East from the Chinese shoreline in the morning you would see the sun rise from the ocean, or “originate” from the East, so “Japan” was the “origin of the sun.” Depending on what dialect of Chinese you spoke, your pronunciation of these characters sounded like “Yerpen” to Westerners who mispronounced it as Japan the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Another example is 万年筆 man nen hitsu, the literal meaning of which is “ten thousand year brush.” Surely you understand what it means, it’s so obvious. A fountain pen of course, because they just keep on writing! You’ve come this far so there’s no turning back now.

How do you get an accurate, sensible translation of something into Japanese! First, find somebody who is bi-lingual and knows martial arts, then explain very clearly what you want. Finally, listen to them and take their advice. Just because it’s written on your belt or certificate does not make it correct, anybody can make a mistake, even your teacher, especially if he has no idea of how to pronounce your name correctly.

If a Japanese embroidery specialist says, “you cannot translate that accurately into Japanese,” accept it and work with them to find an alternative that is satisfactory. Even native Japanese speakers sometimes have a problem with their own language, which is why you will often see them in conversation on the street waving their fingers in the air drawing imaginary characters to make their point clear. It is also the case that different translators may use different phonetic characters to create the sound of your name, and both could be correct!

Why can’t I write my name in kanji, Chinese characters? Well you can, in a way, if you want to take a chance on it. This is called ateji, kanji used to phonetically represent native or borrowed words with less regard to the underlying meaning of the characters. In other words, you ignore the actual meaning of the Chinese character and just use its most common pronunciation to sound out your name. This rarely gives a satisfactory outcome, it can be hilarious, and at times, obscene. I recommend that you avoid it unless you are bi-lingual in Japanese.

Now, several true stories. When I was training in Japan in 1970 my teacher was 8th Dan and his teacher, 10th Dan. Being “Old School” they would often write letters to each other discussing technique and training. The letters were written so formally and in such beautiful characters that they could hardly understand what the other had written, so after reading them they would telephone each other to discuss the meaning of their correspondence. At this time Anzawa Sensei was one of the most famous teachers in Japan, and my teacher taught at Gakushuin University where many of the Imperial Family are still educated. The lesson here is that even the very brightest and most highly educated Japanese can encounter problems with their own language.

Furinkazan: The motto of Takeda Shingen, the Warlord of Kai. Taken from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

“As swift as the wind, as calm as the forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as a mountain."

A colleague of mine went to Japan and bought some very expensive equipment upon which he paid to have his name embroidered in Japanese. Even when asked to repeat his name over and over, out loud, he was unconcerned and convinced that all was well, which, sadly, was not the case. The reason the Japanese embroiderer asked him to repeat his name so many times was that he could not believe that this was actually what his customer wanted embroidered on his expensive equipment. The man’s name was Barker, ババ ーカー which in Japanese sounds just like BAKA バカ which means FOOL.

Last word on the subject, and one that will bring a wry smile to the lips of a colleague of mine across the border. This gentleman had a belt embroidered in Okinawa with his name, McDonald. Subsequently, he sent it to us as a sample and asked us to duplicate the embroidery. This caused us a problem as the translation was not good, and we were therefore very reluctant to copy it. On the other hand, how do you tell a customer that they paid a lot of money for a belt that was mistranslated. Finally, I summoned up the courage to tell him that we would prefer to use our own translation, at which point he asked what was wrong with the one that he had sent us. Well, we said, it doesn’t actually say, McDonald. So what does it say he asked! The nearest we can come to it in English, we told him, is McDonut. I could give many other examples that are funny, embarrassing and sometimes pretty graphic!

Here at Meijin, we will not make a mess of your translation. We may call you to point out problems, and in certain cases, we may refuse an order because we value the reputation for authenticity we have built over the past 50 years. One thing we can promise is that we will not embarrass you and in most cases, our translation and embroidery services are FREE!