When it comes to expressing it in writing, Japanese is a bit of a funny language. For instance, if you don’t know the kanji compound for some word, like 学校 (“school”), you can get away with writing it phonetically as がっこう. This doesn’t look entirely correct, but it’ll get your point across. In all technicality ガッコウ in phonetic katakana would say the same thing, though it’d look pretty odd to write “school” like this in most circumstances.

With various ways of expressing Japanese sounds in romanized writing systems, you run into the same mess of relatively correct but different ways of writing the same word. For example, with the above example, my first inclination is to write it as gakkou, but others chose not to use the u as it would look more like it’s supposed to say oh-uu than a longer oh, so instead they’d write gakkō or gakkô. But if you’re too lazy to insert the special character, you would probably get away with gakko, though this looks really odd to my eyes. You could say they’re all correct because there is no one, single, “correct” way to write the language in a written form is wasn’t designed to be expressed in.

Sure, we have a few formalized systems with various merits and demerits, and when users are mindful, they typically stick to a single style. For example, in US academic writing I think you’ll usually find Hepburn, whereas Kunrei-shiki is commonly accepted here at elementary schools, but I still run into elementary schools teaching the very odd-looking Nihon-siki. Yeah, that -siki is not a typo. That’s why I very occasionally see it written that I live next to Lake Sinji, not Lake Shinji. (The Izumo dialect does tend to have more of a si sound than a shi sound, though!)

Then again, is it Lake Shinji, or is it Lake Shinji-ko, or just Shinjiko?

For any given proper noun in Japan, you can probably find it written in multiple ways across official and unofficial websites, maps, post offices and tourism guides. The central government–as well as local governments around the country–have recognized that this is a problem, and have started a national effort to fix the messy-looking mismatched expressions and awkward English expressions… or at least fix the awkward English, anyway. Matsue, given its managable size and array of tourism facilities and designation as one of Japan’s three International Cities of Culture and Tourism, was among the first areas to have focus groups to assess the locals terms. I was one of the native English speakers asked to comment on this. At first I didn’t quite grasp the scale of the project when I was given a long Excel document to review, but it was a big enough deal that I had an appearance on national morning news while I was walking around with a focus group one winter morning and looking at odd signs. Though I didn’t see it this news segment, maybe it was the part when I was saying “No! Don’t call it Matsue-jo Castle, just call it Matsue Castle!”

Thankfully I think “Matsue Castle” will remain the standard instead of adding “castle” behind the full Japanese name, which would give you something like “Matsue Castle Castle.” This is like saying “Mt. Fujiyama” when you could just say “Mt. Fuji”. However, it starts to get more difficult when the name seems completely different after chopping off some of the Japanese. No one seems to find “Gesshō-ji Temple” very weird even though it is “Gessho Temple Temple” but “Gesshō Temple” would sound very odd, perhaps even unrecognizable. Even if strict standards were enforced, I’ll bet people would say all kinds of different things in English conversation anyway, though of course there is a difference between how locals know something and how visitors passing through from other countries would know something. It’s a big sticky mess, and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of road signs to try to make consistent.

Some things are pretty well set, though. Like how sushi and samurai are now international words, we’re at least going to try to change all these strange “spa” signs to say to “onsen.” Got that everyone? While “hot springs” would technically be correct, we all should start using the word “onsen” for Japanese-style hot spring baths! Onsen! ONSEN!!

The assessment stage was followed by a couple meetings to discuss–sometimes a little heatedly–the finer points of using hyphens and what to leave in Japanese, what to translate, and how to translate it, and even if you leave it in Japanese how to express it in Japanese without getting something weird like Shinjikooohashi.

The daunting project–given how, when you start looking for them, errors and inconsistencies are everywhere–reminded me the giant Fudoki project of 8th century Japan, which endeavored to record all the basic geographical, biological, economic and cultural characteristics of each province of ancient Japan. For part of that project, they had to assign names to geographical features, and the names had to fit strict linguistic requirements. It required years to travel, gather data, make judgement calls, and make everything consistent. I think it’s the consistency that is most daunting, considering how many people of different linguistic habits must collaborate on such a mammoth project!

Despite the years of hours and hours of collective effort, most of the Fudoki are now lost, and of the five remaining ones, only the Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki remains mostly intact. Therefore, we know a lot more about 8th century Izumo in more detail than we know about 8th century life in the rest of Japan, and it was so detailed it can even be applied to modern day taxonomy studies. The Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo has a really outstanding exhibit based on the information recorded in the Izumo Fudoki, as well as how the Fudoki project was conducted. Being such a history nerd/geek/dork/otaku/what-have-you, I’ve visited many, many museums and exhibits of Asian history across a few different countries, and this is one of the ones that left the deepest impression on me. I’m not just saying that out of San’in region pride, either.

Cutting back to modern day, eventually a set of standards for road signs was printed. If you can read Japanese and you’re really curious about it, you can find it here. It seems to be more so a set of flexible guidelines than strict rules, though. Flexiblity is good, but I feel that if they’re going to make a push for it now, now’s the time to enforce a little strictness… assuming we could all agree on whatever to call a street an avenue or a road.

Whatever. Come to Japan and enjoy the onsen, everyone.