Ministry of Kitchen Sinks

A lot of Japanese government agencies have English names that are more … descriptive … than the Japanese.

Probably the worst offender is the 文部科学省, which has the quite unwieldy official translation of Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. This is a real pain when you're constrained for space, such as when translating a table or PowerPoint presentation. At least the abbreviation is a tidy four-letter "MEXT."

Perhaps a bit less drastic is the 郵政研究所, literally the "postal policy research institute." They slipped a trendy "telecommunications" into the English translation: "Institute for Posts and Telecommunications Policy."

Another example is the 国土交通省. Literally, it's the "ministry of land and transport," but the English translation is "Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport." The MLIT was created by merging the old Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Construction; my guess is that the MOC people were upset about losing any mention of "construction" in the Japanese name, so stuck the far more trendy "infrastructure" into the English translation as a face-saving measure.

Land grab?

The MEXT started life as the 文部省, with a nice, pithy English translation of "Ministry of Education." One can only imagine the backroom deals and lavish foreign junkets overseas fact-finding missions that went into getting a 科学 (Science) tacked onto them.

Since the ministry pretty much controls its own English translation, it looks like the MEXT really let their territory-coveting hair down when coming up with the English name. I'm actually surprised that they didn't simply call themselves the Ministry of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Example of restraint

A good example of restraint is the 総務省, literally the "general affairs ministry." In 2001, it changed its official translation from Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications to Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Still more of a mouthful than the Japanese, but it's heading in the right direction.

At least some agencies get it

Of course, not all English translations of Japanese government agency names are tales of woe. A good example is the 海上保安庁, which recently changed its official translation from the somewhat cryptic Maritime Safety Agency to the much more understandable Japan Coast Guard. In this case I suspect they simply gave in to pressure, since most English-speaking media referred to them as the Coast Guard anyway, and even 海上保安庁 people usually called themselves the Japanese Coast Guard when dealing with foreign entities.

And now for something completely different

While researching this post, I noticed that Kenkyusha's Reader's Plus dictionary has a translation for "Ministry of Silly Walks": ばかあるき省.

2 comments to Ministry of Kitchen Sinks

  • Kevin

    Interesting about the 海上保安庁. I had no idea their official name was Maritime Safety Agency and if I had to guess only from the English what an agency called that was about, I’d probably guess fishing and boating licenses rather than them being the coast guard.

  • MT

    Great post (and helpful, too)!

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