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Why the car company is named Toyota, not Toyoda

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; A16

"My name is on every car," Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota Motor, assured Congress on Wednesday.

Not exactly.

The company started by Toyoda's grandfather did indeed have his name -- Tokyo Toyoda Motor Sales -- until 1936, when a stroke of the brush changed it to Toyota.

Writing "Toyoda" in Japanese requires 10 brush strokes, explains John R. Malott, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington DC, but writing "Toyota" requires eight.

While "8" is considered an auspicious number, "10" is not, said Malott, who visited with the company during his years as a State Department official. "Ten" consists of two strokes crossed against each other and resembles the "plus" symbol, or even a crossroads or an uncertain path. Not a good omen for a company.

"It's a very Japanese way of thinking," Malott said.

Chie Tamaki, a Japanese language expert at Arlington County-based Rosetta Stone, said in an e-mail that the name Toyoda consists of two characters, one meaning fertile and the other, rice paddy.

Tamaki was skeptical of a theory that the name was changed to make it sound less rural. Toyoda is a common name in Japan, not unlike Smith in English, she said, and most people don't think of blacksmiths when they hear Smith, she observed.

According to an official corporate history, the company changed its name to Toyota because it "sounded better" -- but whether it sounds better or not depends on the speaker, perhaps.

"I'm from Chicago," Malott said, "so it's all Toyoda, anyway."

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