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Radio the way it should be: DavidsWebcast

Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View

* 2000 COLUMNS

11 March, 2001



I used to be a news junkie, turning to a handful of media sources to keep up on headlines from around the world. These days, though, I can't indulge my news habit, and I've cut back. Now I get my daily fix of news from National Public Radio.

NPR's morning business news anchor cannot seem to say "Tokyo" without pronouncing it with three syllables: "TOE-kee-yo."
With my increasingly harried life, sitting down with a newspaper before heading to the office has become of a luxury of the past. I usually skim my Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post for interesting stories a few days after they're delivered. Magazines pile up week after week, month after month, so I end up catching up on old news. And I just don't seem to have the time for my old standby, television news, anymore.

But during the commute to and from work, I've come to trust NPR to tell me what's going on throughout the globe. The public broadcasting network's mostly monotone reporters, anchors and commentators have become mainstays in my daily routine. Names such as Bob Edwards and Linda Wertheimer may not be as familiar to most as Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw from the TV networks, but they are almost like friends to me.

One thing about NPR has irked me for a long time, however, and the recent tragic sinking of the Japanese fishing trawler Ehime Maru by a US submarine has highlighted the irritating fact: NPR news reporters and anchors often mispronounce Japanese words even when the pronunciation is relatively simple.

The most common example, which I almost every day on the way to work, is the word "Tokyo." It's a simple word, two syllables pronounced "toh-kyo." Yet, the morning business news anchor cannot seem to say it without pronouncing it with three syllables: "TOE-kee-yo." The mispronunciation is highlighted because the network's business reporter based in Tokyo has the benefit of living in Japan and says it correctly when he reports on the day's Nikkei average and other financial news. Other NPR reporters and anchors mispronounce "Tokyo," but the morning business anchor is the one we hear almost every day.

Erin and I have both sent e-mails to NPR regarding the pronunciation, but have never heard any improvement. But it's a losing battle - even Dan Rather, the star anchor for CBS Evening News, said "Toe-kee-yo" on a recent newscast.

The mangling of Japanese words by the US media became a hot topic recently on the "Ties-Talk" Japanese American e-mail discussion group (the Internet's a great way of discussing issues) because of the ongoing news coverage of the sinking of the Ehime Maru. One Ties-Talk member sent an e-mail wondering why reporters couldn't get the word right. He kept hearing the pronunciation "ee-HEE-mee mah-roo" on the news. Another member noted that even the special envoy sent by the US government to apologize to the Japanese pronounced the name of the boat in several creative ways but not the correct one.

CNN's coverage varied. A quick search of CNN's video clips archived on the Web site since the sinking (again, it's great that the Internet allows this type of review) had two reporters saying "AH-hee-me mah-roo" like "sashimi."

Don't these guys have an expert they can contact, or a coach they can ask for help on pronouncing foreign words? Not surprisingly, Marina Kamimura, the Japanese Canadian CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief who lives in Japan had no problems with the name in all of her reports. She even pronounced "Maru" correctly, with the hard "r." But obviously, no one else at CNN bothered to ask her advice.

In listening to news reports, it's almost as if American reporters are avoiding having to say the name of the Japanese boat, using terms such as "the Japanese vessel" instead of the proper name. The avoidance seems obvious when the name isn't uttered once in a two or three minute report about the Ehime Maru, as in the stories broadcast when videotapes of the sunken shop were released by the Navy.

The US media aren't the only ones who mangle foreign words. Americans often mispronounce Japanese, including "saki" instead of "sake," "kamakazi" instead of kamikaze," "geey-YO-za," instead of "gyo-za," "teri-YACK-ee" instead of "teri-ya-ki," "hary-cary" instead of "hara-kiri", "o-RI-gamee" (as in polygamy) for "origami," "temp-OH-ra" instead of "tempura" and "OO-dawn" instead of "udon." (15-year-old Jared gets especially incensed when he hears Japanese food mangled at restaurants.) There are also plenty of familiar words that have been mispronounced so long they seem correct: "NAI-kawn" for the camera instead of "Nee-kohn," "HAWN-duh" instead of "Hohn-da" for the automobile. But it sure seems to me that the media should have a better grasp of pronunciations than the typical citizen, since they not only inform, but also educate the public.

I don't want to seem picky, and realize that not everyone should or is even interested in pronouncing foreign words the way a native of that country would. I don't say "Pa-REE" the way a French person would pronounce Paris, and I'm sure no one in the US media does either. And I would be the first to admit that Japanese, including Japanese media, mangle English words regularly.

But it's a matter of journalistic principle, and for me, a matter of heritage, to point out these mispronunciations.

After a few days of discussion, a new member of the Ties-Talk list chimed in with some media background, since she has worked in public radio. She said that yes, NPR and other media outlets mispronounce many words, including not only "Tokyo" but also "Kee-oh-Toe" (Kyoto) and "Ree-oo-tar-oo" as in Ryutaro Hashimoto. She said she wouldn't be surprised if there was a policy to mispronounce certain words because it would be easier for US audiences to understand. She did urge us to keep sending e-mails, because the media can change - she used the example of Chilean dictator Pinochet, who was referred to as "Pee-no-shay," but in the past few months the official pronunciation has become the correct "Pee-no-chet."

So maybe there's hope for the future of Toe-kee-yo, even on NPR.

I wrote a column several years ago about the many ways my own name has been mangled; you can read it in the 1998 Nikkei View Archives.


Copyright 1998-2002 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
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