What Do Car Badges Reveal About Japanese Design Culture?

Japan has a complex history of engaging (or not) with the outside world—starting in the 1600s, when the shogunate put a strict ban on foreign trading, religion, and language. Much has changed then, but Japanese designers still have an interesting relationship with Western culture. For example: The fact that the badge of every Japanese car—even the ones not destined for exporting—is written in English.

As Nissan's design guru Shiro Nakamura told Jalopnik today, the reason is half cultural and half linguistic. Japanese speakers are less likely to assimilate foreign words into Japanese, according to Nakamura. Unlike Americans—who are happy to put their own, uh, creative spin on words from other languages—Japanese speakers try to preserve foreign words exactly as they arrive, even going so far as to write English words in latin characters when the rest of a text is in Kanji.


And because cars were the vehicle (so to speak) through which Western culture made its way back into Japan after World War II, they’re is still associated with English-speaking brands and logos. So, thanks to the division between Kanji and Western words, the latin alphabet has always been—and will always be, according to Nakamura—the way car badges are designed.

In fact, Japan isn’t the only island nation to give a damn about how foreign culture affects their own language. Iceland has a long tradition of making up neologisms for new technologies rather than adopting foreign words—for example, rafmagn for “electricity.”

Image via Iwao on Flickr.


Why Japanese Cars Only Use English Badges

Here's something I've been wondering about for years: why does every Japanese car, even ones never intended for export, have their name badges in English? Why don't any Japanese cars have chromed Japanese characters spelling out their names? Tonight, finally, I found out why.

This is something that's been the case with Japanese cars from the beginning. Go back and look at Japanese cars from the '30s, '60s, '80s or whenever, and you'll find that the chromed badges in fancy script that spell the car's name are always written in Western characters. Always.


Sure, in brochures and advertisements and other materials the name may be written in Kanji or Katakana or the adapted Chinese characters Japan uses, but never on the car itself. Why is this? It never made any sense to me, so I was delighted to find myself at the Nissan 360 event, where Nissan's design guru, Shiro Nakamura, left himself carelessly unguarded, allowing me to accost him and see what he thought.

Shiro Nakamura understood what I was getting at immediately. He confirmed that Japanese cars will never — and he was adamant about that "never" — have name badges in Japanese, only English. He explained that this was because as far as languages go, Japanese is incredibly welcoming to words borrowed from other cultures and languages.


In English, we do that, too, but we tend to anglicize the words to make them more compatible with the language. Japanese does much less forced adapting, and will even maintain original character sets for given words.

This is because, Shiro Nakmura explained, Japan is as East as East gets. A little island parenthesis right off the shore of Asia. As a result, Japan really, really appreciates the concepts and ideas they borrow from outside cultures, since there's a sense that they're tucked out at the end of the world. They respect outside ideas to such a degree that they want the words used in their language to maintain the character of where the orginal concepts came from.

Cars came to Japan initially from primarily English-speaking countries, and certainly places that used the western/Latin alphabet. As a result, that alphabet is now always associated with cars in Japanese culture, and the idea of using anything other than Western characters to write the name of a car just seems absurd to Japanese people.


This is a concept unique to Japan; Chinese cars, for example, have no problem with Chinese-character badges. Just look at that example on the red Chery up there.

And that's pretty much why a JDM Juke or Fairlady Z is always going to be a "JUKE" or "FAIRLADY" no matter if it'll never leave Japan. It's because the Japanese respect the origin of things, and honor those origins with the language associated with them.

Fascinating, right?