Here’s a conundrum for all you conundrobuffs. My assistant and pal at work confronted me with the question: When writing in English, what is the correct spelling for the name ゆうた (yuuta): “Yuuta” or “Yuta”?

The former is the Romaji, the official system used for creating a literal phonetic transliteration of Japanese using English (Roman) characters. It allows for perfect preservation of the original word’s sound, assuming you know how the system works. In other words, it’s just a code that was created so English-speakers could pronounce Japanese.

The latter is a common example of a Japanese word being corrupted to make it easier to read for a “layman” non-Japanese person. The original Japanese name ゆうた is composed of the three characters “yu”, “u”, and “ta”, and thus the Romaji is the more accurate spelling to use. The problem is that it’s not entirely practical when you consider that the readers are more likely than not people who haven’t studied Japanese. There’s no such thing as a “double u” in English (unless it’s a “w”), so when your average American reader sees something like “Yuuta”, they may or may not figure out what that’s supposed to express. In this sense, “Yuta” is the better spelling to use. But is it correct? Technically, no.

My colleague seemed to be arguing in favor of “Yuta”. “‘Yuuta,'” she argued, “is Japanese (the language). ‘Yuta’ is English.” She’s got a point. It’s the same reason Yoko’s name is written “Yoko” instead of the more accurate “Youko”. Japanese speakers will get it, but everyone else is likely to think “Yuko”, since in English, “you” is pronounced “yu”.

But if I haven’t lost you at this point, consider this: If we are allowed to arbitrarily slap together spellings for Japanese names to suit English-speakers’ reading tendencies, how far do we have to go? Take the Japanese name “あかね” (Romaji: Akane). Some people may look at that and get it right immediately. Others will think “Huh, some weird word with a silent e. Must be ‘a-CAIN’.” Should we therefore resort to bizarre creations like “Ockonnay”? It’s the most accurate representation of the original name that still applies to English rules of phonics. But then everything is randomized. Perhaps there is no perfect solution. Even native speakers often fumble over the names of other native speakers. I can think of four pronunciations for the name Andrea and just as many spellings for the name Kristen. Even as native speakers, all we can do is tell each person we meet how our name is pronounced and hope they remember it. As such, would it not be more practical to use a streamlined system when transliterating Japanese names? That way, the more Japanese people one meets, the more likely one is of figuring out how the names work. Plus we can avoid generating monstrous eyesores like “Ockonnay”.

Then again, didn’t they used to “Americanize” everybody’s names back in the Ellis Island days, either by changing the spelling, removing syllables, or just changing their names entirely? My great-grandfather from Greece (or Macedonia, not clear) came to the States with the name Evangelou Evangelopolis, only to change it to Pete Johnson. Maybe Yuuta ought to just change his name to something hip like Hayden, or Zach Morris.

Ultimately, my answer to my colleague was, “Yuuta is correct. But he should use Yuta.” As an American, is this something to be ashamed of?

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