Once again, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic committee has failed mightily, in terms of global credibility, with a PR event that could have gone so much better. I’m talking about the announcement of the names for the Olympic mascots, Miraitowa and Someity. Say what? You have to wonder if there are any English native speakers on Japan’s Olympic creative team. Actually, no need to wonder.
Any branding professional working in Japan knows that one of the essential steps in approving names for global application is making sure the Romanized versions of the names (if originally from Japanese) work from a global perspective. That means the Roman character version of a Japanese name should be easy for Westerners to pronounce and spell, especially Americans, British and Australians, who are notoriously bad with foreign languages. Like it or not, the U.S. Olympic contingent, of both athletes and media, is going to be enormous, and communicating with those folks should be of paramount importance.
With the initial Olympic logo debacle well in the rear-view mirror, it appears the committee has learned nothing from their mistakes. Granted, the logo issue was more about bad design and plagiarism, than global appeal, and you have to give the committee props for making good when they got a do-over.
Perhaps you may think it’s silly to be grousing about mascot names while the world appears to be in turmoil in all fronts, with deadly floods in Japan, killer wildfires in California and bungling Brexit in Europe. In fact, the importance of mascots alone is debatable, but this is Japan and mascots we must have, so mascot names we will debate.
Mission not so impossible: make sure no one can understand these names
It appears as if the Tokyo Olympic committee willfully (or even gleefully?) decided to create the most difficult and cumbersome mascot names they could imagine. Names that have absolutely zero chance of being properly pronounced or even spelled by English natives. Furthermore, without the katakana, I’ll bet you a casino bill that many Japanese would be clueless as well.
Talk to any bicultural couple in Japan in which one of the partners is Japanese. When naming children, often one of the first priorities is making sure both sides of in-laws can easily say the name. “Sorry, honey, I know ‘Lorelei’ was your beloved granny’s name, but it doesn’t work in Japan.” That’s probably why you find so many biracial girls in Japan named Mia and not Katsumi.
This is what the official Olympic 2020 website has to say about Miraitowa.
“The name MIRAITOWA is based on the Japanese words "Mirai"(future) and "towa" (eternity) connected together. This name was chosen for the Olympic mascot to promote a future full of hope forever, in the hearts of all the people in the world.”
As you can see, it appears that they didn’t even bother to ask a native to check the copy that they “connected together.” However, it’s good to hear that we’ve got “hope forever” going for all us “people of the world.”
Next up is Someity, which for some reason reminds me of Hermione of Harry Potter fame. The website copy clears it up for us, kind of.
Someity is not so mighty
“The name SOMEITY comes from "Someiyoshino", a popular cherry blossom variety, and the phrase "so mighty". Someity has cherry blossom tactile sensors and can show enormous mental and physical strength. The mascot represents Paralympic athletes who overcome obstacles and redefine the boundaries of possibility.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, no doubt, but who’s going to get “so mighty” from Someity? Some have even suggested it could read like “so matey,” which isn’t necessarily a bad sentiment, but “mighty” it's not.
One could easily brainstorm a few names that would better represent Japan and also please foreigners. How about “Toki” and “Kio”? Or maybe “Fuku” and “Shima,” giving a nod to the Fukushima disaster victims and displaced, which the government has clearly failed by most practical measures. I know what you’re thinking about “Fuku”. Stop it.
We’re just brainstorming here. That that’s something the Olympic committee clearly failed to do. Like the failed attempt to shove “Yokoso” down visitors’ throats, it appears that the people in charge of the creative for the Japan Olympics are living in their own “omotenashi” bubble. You got the Olympics, Tokyo. Now, it’s your chance to show off the global credentials of a country that most people in the world admire, if not love, already. It shouldn’t that difficult.
It's not like this country doesn't have creative people who can develop excellent names that work well in both Japanese and Romanized versions. These people are out there and they are talented. Case in point is the name for Tokyo Skytree Town, the shopping arcade that circles Japan's tallest tower and newest tourist attraction. Japanese name: Solamachi, which in Japanese roughly means "sky town," and is a name that would easily roll of the tongue of most any foreign visitor. The logo-type is also well depicted, seamlessly combining Roman, kanji and hiragana characters.
Perhaps, we should give the final word to the Japan Olympic committee, who leave us with this tantalizing proposal.
“Let’s create summer holidays memories with the Tokyo 2020 mascots Miraitowa and Someity.” Pronunciation guide not included.