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Japanese Words and Names Sound African. Why?

By Farooq Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi Most Japanese words and names sound like—and actually appear in—most languages in west, central, e...

By Farooq Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Most Japanese words and names sound like—and actually appear in—most languages in west, central, east, and even southern Africa. The reverse is also true: Japanese people find a curious phonetic correspondence between their language and most African languages.

The most famous example of this is the name Obama, a Luo name from Kenya, which is also the name of a town in Japan. When Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008, the town shot to international prominence. 

We later learned that Obama means a “small beach” in the Japanese language. (There’s also a town called Obama in Nigeria’s River State).

Until relatively recently, I used to think Ajinomoto, whose seasoning was omnipresent in Nigerian kitchens when I lived there, was a Nigerian company that derived its name from a Nigerian language.

In fact, just yesterday, I asked my wife, who is half Nigerian (Igbo) and half American, to guess what language Ajinomoto came from. She said with cocksure certainty that it had to be Yoruba! (She spent three years in Ogbomosho and speaks some Yoruba). She was shocked to realize that Ajinomoto is Japanese.

Japanese brands like Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki, etc. resonated with us when I was growing up in Nigeria because they sounded every bit African, even Nigerian.

But it gets even more interesting. Japanese capital Tokyo used to be called Edo, the name of a state and people in midwestern Nigeria. 

The Japanese also bear personal names like Chika, an Igbo name; Aina, a Yoruba name; Fumi, a Yoruba name; Ikimi, an Edo name; Yaru, a Borgu name; Sambo, a Fulani name; Maitama, a Hausa name; Adachi, a Nupe/Igala name; and so on.

Tutor-World identified several more Japanese personal names that are either also personal names, names of common things, or names of towns in Nigeria, including: Azuka, Baba, Duro, Eijiro, Emiko, Femi, Fuji, Gobe, Goro, Haruna, Imoko, Iyamu, Kano, Kwashi, Mabuchi, Maduka, Mai, Obi, Oba, Ogi, Okada, Osahon, Sada, Ta-Daura (even Buhari’s adopted hometown made the list!), Waka, and Zoro.

Many people have pointed out that most words and names in Black African languages have a phonetic, and sometimes semantic, match in Japanese words or names—and vice versa. 

Take, for an example, the word Yoruba, the name of a major ethnic group in Nigeria. It also occurs in Japanese and can be translated as a “night horse,” according to the Sundaland Research Society, which says “yoru” means night and “ba” means horse in Japanese.

 Several random words in Japanese can also have meanings, often unrelated to the original, in several African languages.

In spite of the uncanny congruence between the speech sounds of Black African languages and Japanese, there is no evidence that it’s anything more than a pleasantly giant phono-semantic accident.

It’s similar to the similarities in sound and rhythm between Plateau State languages and the Sino-Tibetan languages of China and its neighbors. 

Many Plateau State names can pass for Mandarin names. A former Plateau journalist I used to be fond of (because of the exotic musicality of his name) is called Shok Jok. That name could pass for a Mandarin or Cantonese name. 

There’s also a Professor Pam Dung Sha who teaches political science at the University of Jos. People who pay attention to politics are probably familiar with the late Senator Gyang Nyam Shom Pwajok. Names can’t get more Chinese than that! 

How about Plateau State names like Chuwang and Vongkong that Chinese people actually bear? The popular Plateau State name Gyang sounds similar to a place in Tibet called Qungdo’gyang.

Similarly, many Plateau State toponyms such as Qua'an Pan, Pankshin, Shendam, etc. sound distinctly Chinese. (This is also true of the toponyms, and sometimes personal names, in southern Kaduna and southern Adamawa.)

The first time I visited Jos in the late 1990s, I stayed at a hotel called Kufang Chindi International Hotel. I honestly thought it was a Chinese-owned hotel, more so that it had “international” in its name, but its name is actually native to Plateau State!

I read about a Japanese linguist who was intrigued by the sounds of Plateau State names and decided to map the glottochronology of the languages. 

His lexicostatistical analysis found that less than 30 percent of the similar-sounding words between Plateau State languages and China’s Sino-Tibetan languages share similar meanings. Linguists call these kinds of similarities "accidental evidence." 

In other words, the researcher found that there was no evidence of even a remote common origin for Chinese and the Plateau State languages. It was merely a case of accidental similarities in sound.

Interestingly, Chinese-sounding Plateau State languages and the Japanese language don’t belong to the major language families of their locations. They are both what linguists call language isolates.

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