By Kathryn Westcott
Akio Toyoda is in Washington to deal with the crisis at car giant Toyota, the company set up by his grandfather more than 70 years ago. But why did the company change its name from Toyoda to Toyota?
The change is largely down to the fact that the word Toyota is associated with the lucky number eight, according to the company’s English-language website.
After learning this, we felt more explanation was needed.
The Toyota Motor Corporation has its origins in a company that manufactured automated looms for Japan’s weaving industry.
“Toyota originated from Toyoda Industries (Kariya) when they started its automotive division in 1933,” Dr Seijiro Takeshita, director of investment banking firm Mizuho International, London, explains .
“Toyoda (in English) and its kanji version were used in the beginning, but as the company started exporting heavily into the US, it wanted an emblem that would work in Japanese and English.
“In 1936, the company held a competition for a new name. Toyota was a popular choice among many.”“
According to the company, it received some 27,000 entries.
It says the winning design led to a change in the name of the automobiles and plants from “Toyoda” to “Toyota.”
The name was chosen “because the number of strokes to write Toyota in Japanese (eight) was thought to bring luck and prosperity,” it goes on.
The modern Japanese writing system uses three main scripts:
* Kanji, which is made up of ideographs from Chinese characters;
* Hiragana, used for native Japanese words, and is phonetic; and
* Katakana, which is mostly used for foreign words.
A Romanised script is also sometimes used.
The presentation of kanji can be highly symbolic, and an art form in itself. The name Toyoda is represented by two ideographs – the first “toyo” means “abundant”, while da means rice field.
The kanji for “da” can also be read as “ta”.
Translate Toyoda into katakana and the result contains 10 “brush strokes”. But change it to Toyota, and the result in both katakana and hiragana is eight strokes (see diagram ).
“Eight is a lucky number in Japanese because when you write it in Chinese characters, the shape of the character is wider towards the bottom,” Mika Kizu, a lecturer in Japanese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), explains .
“So people think that it indicates a thing or person is gradually prospering.”
The “lucky eight” theory is certainly an interesting one, Dr Christopher Hood of Cardiff University’s Japanese Studies Centre says .
He says that it is more usual in Japan to see the company’s name written in the katakana script – unlike, say, Nissan, which is more often written in kanji.
He also points out another “eight” link with the company.
The company has strong ties with the Japanese Association football club Nogoya Grampus Eight football, which is based in Nagoya – about an hour from Toyota’s headquarters in Toyota City – and plays home games at the Toyota Stadium.
The “eight” part of the team’s name comes the maru-hachi (circle eight), which is the city’s official symbol.
While the company’s version of the symbolism certainly sounds good, Soas’ Dr Kizu doubts that this would have been the deciding factor in changing Toyoda to Toyota.
“I personally doubt that the founder of Toyota or his successor chose “Toyota” rather than “Toyoda” because of the number of strokes. The Japanese normally care about the number of strokes for the Chinese characters (kanji) but not for hiragana,” she told the BBC.
A number of Japan experts told the BBC that the number eight is culturally not that significant in Japan. It is more of a Chinese phenomenon (hence the start date and time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on 8 August, at at 8.08), they said.
And Dr Hood said the BBC had prompted him to do “some more digging on the Japanese websites and the eight theory doesn’t seem to get a mention”.
“Japanese sites mention more the internationalisation of the company.
“It was originally called Toyoda, it seems, but later changed to Toyota (although it was felt that some in America continued to call it Toyoda for some time),” he says.
“Timing wise this happened around the same time that the town of Koromo, where the company was based, changed to be Toyota.”
In 1959, the city of Koromo, in the Aichi prefecture, was renamed Toyota City, after the company that aided its growth in terms of job creation.
Koromo, which was a major producer of silk, had already been associated with the Toyoda family via the company’s Toyoda Automatic Loom Works.
Another explanation for the name change could be that Toyota simply sounds better.
“The sound of the word “Toyota” was also deemed more appealing,” says the firm’s English-language website.
Dr Kizu concurs: “While there are many “voiced sounds” (such as da) in Japanese, they are less preferable to voiceless sounds.”
The car giant is not the only Japanese firm to have tweaked its name in this way. The company Bridgestone, for example, was founded by one Mr Ishi (Stone) bashi (Bridge).
But that is a whole different story. – BBC