Can regular Japanese folk read English words?
June 1, 2012 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Work-related question: Can the average Japanese-only speaker read and pronounce English words?

Hello all!

My work is taking me to Japan (yay!!!). I work as a backstage wardrobe supervisor for theater. We have a system that has been working well in the states that I'm trying to figure out if my Japanese stagehands will be able to function with it or if I need to come up with something else.

For example, if their notes tell them to get a costume labeled "Jones", will they be able to get it from the person named "Jones"'s dressing room and put it on the chair backstage labeled "Jones". I have about 30 last names they will have to deal with, even my English-speaking stagehands get confused. Another way would be to do this all numerically - but this would be a FREAKING TON OF WORK and I have about a week to get this all organized.

I know I would totally suck if I had to dress a show in Kanji. I know Japanese stagehands are kinda used to getting shows from the States, but this is a "word-heavy" show rather than just using numbers, which most shows do, if that makes sense.

I literally have hundreds of costumes that the Japanese will be dealing with. Should this work or should I try to come up with something else.

Thanks so much for your thoughts!!!
posted by ashtabula to opelika to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
This seems like a tall order if they don't have any experience with printed English (Jones and James look very similar, but are different names, for example.) Any chance you could supplement with photos?
posted by absquatulate at 3:26 PM on June 1, 2012

There is a lot of shops and products with names written in English - in my experience, most of the Japanese people I taught were familiar with the alphabet and could read English, even if they didn't understand it very well.
posted by Wantok at 3:30 PM on June 1, 2012

Highly recommend a number-based system. Maybe augment it with geometric shapes or colors if there are logical groupings.

The average Japanese-only speaker would have a difficult time hearing a name in English, remembering it, and associating it with the written version. My wife is a native Japanese speaker who has since become fluent in English. Even so, she has a very difficult time remembering names, because it's essentially a completely different set of vocabulary that is never formally studied. I found this to be the case with other Japanese speakers I've met, and the reverse is true for myself when I try to read/remember Japanese names.
posted by mshrike at 3:31 PM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sorry, didn't see that the names will be written down in the notes. That would make it much easier than verbal instructions, but I still think a number-based system would be more efficient and reliable.
posted by mshrike at 3:39 PM on June 1, 2012

If they can carry the name with them and compare it, it should work, but will probably take a bit longer for them to confirm they have the right names than it does for your English-speaking stagehands.

Most Japanese have studied or learned at least some English, and reading is a whole lot easier than listening comprehension. But names are harder than words since there's no meaning to associate with them. Think about it this way - you're unlikely to mix up 'teriyaki' and 'sukiyaki', because you know what those refer to. But it's a lot more likely you'll get 'Tanaka' and 'Takeda' confused. And more likely to keep them straight if you have a slip of paper saying which it is.
posted by Lady Li at 3:42 PM on June 1, 2012

Names shouldn't be a problem. Even without considering the fact that many Japanese schools teach some English, or that people unfamiliar with the language would be able to match the shape of "J" with another "J", roman letters are pretty common in Japan.

Another alternative - I don't even think kanji would even be useful in this case, as many kanji names are more "meaning" than pronunciation (I mean, it's that too, but one name kanji could be pronounced numerous ways). If there is any confusion, get a stagehand that's good at English and Japanese and see if they can transfer the names to katakana. This alphabet is typically used for foreign names/words and is more about sounds than translations. It's very, very easy. If you have sticker labels for the costumes, you can just print out a whole bunch of "Jones (ジョーンズ)" stickers and add them as needed....
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 4:20 PM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm with Mshrike & Absquatulate. Everyone will have had 3 years mandatory English in school, 6 if they finished High School. So this MIGHT work, but if it's already giving your native English speaker's trouble, the amount of time it will take for someone to match up what they think you're saying to what's on a label may be more than you can afford.

Written will be much easier to handle than spoken, because even if people study, they're not familiar with actual spoken language complete with slurring and slang and everything. So if they read, say Clark Gable, they may not be able to match the spelling (or at least not quickly) with the correct pronunciation. Nevermind if you have anyone named something like Sczepczenski or Babineaux

If you already have everything named I'd just ADD a sticker or something as you unpack them all. I bet the stagehands can help with this too. When you're not on a time crunch to find the one 'Gable' in a hundred costumes, language shouldn't be a problem.
posted by Caravantea at 4:27 PM on June 1, 2012

Learn katakana, its used for English names and words. Theres about 50 characters and it's not too hard to pick up. It'll only take you a few days to learn, and light practice to be fluent.
posted by wongcorgi at 5:00 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Everyone has taken mandatory English lessons in school, but that is often a class kids blow off. It is true that English writing is used commonly on company logos and stuff though. To a certain extent this will be regional. In the bigger cities more people will be more familiar with English. It's most likely you'll be in Tokyo, where you'll have the best luck.

Given that, I do not think it is unreasonable to expect people to just use the names written in roman letters. That said, I think it would be a great idea to transliterations people's names into katakana for the labels on the costumes and the signs on the dressing rooms. It will help the people with weak English skills feel more comfortable, even if they could scrape by without, and the people who do not need this will still appreciate that you are making an effort to accommodate them.

I would try to find some one to help you do this - the katakana syllabary is not especially difficult, but someone who knows this could save a lot of time.

If you don't have time to label everything, it would still be great to label the dressing rooms, because that will make it easier for people put faces to the names they've been hearing, and to associate which English spellings go with the sounds if they're struggling.
posted by aubilenon at 6:31 PM on June 1, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks folks! I will have a translator when I get there, at least for a while. I'll go with the katakana on dressing rooms and signs and probably costumes and see how far that gets me!
posted by ashtabula to opelika at 9:39 PM on June 1, 2012

Be sure to put both katakana and Roman characters on everything; that way nobody will be confused.

Anybody who's experienced with katakana could transliterate a list of 30 names in a few minutes. Heck, give me the list and I'll do it for you.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:43 AM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Good choice - Katakana will be smooth as you're going to get. Plus they're already used to dealing with kana pronunciations printed even underneath Japanese names since some Japanese people use alternate readings/pronunciations of Kanji for their names.
posted by p3t3 at 4:44 AM on June 2, 2012 is a quick and easy way to get katakana names from Roman names.
posted by gen at 5:43 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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