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Kanji Clinic #72, The Japan Times, August 11, 2005
“Scoping out kanji puns in advertising can be addictive”

World Expo 2005, currently underway here in Aichi Prefecture, continues to pack them in, with up to a quarter of a million sweaty bodies pressing through the turnstiles daily. Expo posters plastering the prefecture feature hairstylistically-challenged mascots Kiccoro and Morizo as well as a kanji phrase with a clever twist, “愛*地球博.” (A sketch of a two-leafed sprout appears in place of the asterisk).

愛 (meaning “love”) is the first character in 愛知 (Aichi). 知 (chi) has been substituted with 地 (also pronounced chi, and the first kanji in the compound word 地球, chikyuu, meaning “earth”). 博 (haku) is an abbreviation of 万博 (banpaku), meaning “expo.” The four-kanji phrase, roughly equivalent to “Love the Earth Expo,” thus evokes the theme of the event, “nature’s wisdom,” as well as giving a clue to its location.

Kanji with identical pronunciations like 知 (chi) and 地 (chi), not to mention the plethora of homophonic kanji compound words in Japanese, may be headache-inducing for foreign Nihongo learners, but they provide limitless raw material for advertising copywriters in Japan--masters at dreaming up attention-grabbing puns (駄洒落, dajare).

Dajare in advertisements range from the sophisticated, designed to require a bit of sussing out, to the groan-inducing corny variety easily grasped by the likes of my fifth-grade son. Sean was recently amused by an ad for insect repellent showing a man covered in mosquitoes, lamenting, “もうかなわん” (Mou kanawan, “I can’t stand it anymore!”): In addition to being the first syllable in kanawan ("can't stand"), ka also means "mosquito."

Another of Sean’s favorites is a used car company ad that pictures his baseball hero, Hideki Matsui, hitting a homerun. “高くうって!” (Takaku utte!), the ad cries out, the meaning of which has been left ambiguous by writing the verb utte in hiragana instead of in kanji. “高くうって” could mean either “Hit it high!” (高く打って!) or “Sell it (your used car) at a high price!” (高く売って!).

Creators of a woman’s hair product ad coined the compound “髪様” (kami-sama) by substituting the first kanji in the compound word “god,” 神様 (also pronounced kami-sama) with the kanji meaning “hair” (kami, 髪), to come up with “hair goddess,” and superimposed it on a photo of impossibly gorgeous tresses.

A soybean-based beverage maker is currently running a print ad themed around two words pronounced mame: 豆 (“bean”) and まめ (“diligence”). A 60ish man in a business suit is shown admonishing a young fellow with no necktie wearing a sheepish look on his face: “君は豆がたりんな” (Kimi wa mame ga tarin na, “You are lacking in beans.”).

The brains behind a home remodeling company advert inserted the kanji for “house” (家, ya) in place of the final katakana ヤ (ya) in ハレルヤ (hareruya, “hallelujah”), rendering it ハレル家: “hallelujah house,” implying that customers will feel joyful having remodeled their homes. And I recently saw a clever use of an English song title in an instant noodles ad: “Only You: カップヌードル” (“Only You: Cup Noodle”) extols the ease of making instant noodles: One only needs to add hot water. The English word “you” is a homonym for the Japanese 湯 (yu, “hot water”).

Japan’s trains and subways are excellent venues for dajare ad hunting. In addition to constantly changing advertisements for junk food, cell phones, tourist attractions, toiletries, cram schools, and the like, keep your eye out for the ads of weekly magazine AERA. Commuters on public transportation throughout Japan are treated every Monday to a new topical dajare on posters advertising its latest edition; this one in early June announced Japan's win over North Korea, which made it the first team to be ensured of a berth in the 2006 World Cup soccer finals: “まサッカー、一番乗りとは” (Masakkaa, ichibannori to wa, “No way! They’re first on board.”). Masaka means “No way,” but its final two characters (normally written さか in hiragana) have been nimbly replaced here with near-homophone sakkaa (katakana サッカー, “soccer”). (To view archived AERA dajare, visit

Instead of taking a snooze on the train, why not jot down dajare ads you scope out there and share them with your co-workers, students, or family members? Pun hunting is just one more way to feed the addiction to kanji you are likely to develop as you unravel the fascinating intricacies of the Japanese writing system.


I don't have the picture, but I saw a funny ad outside a koban (police station) in Nagoya.  It said Matsu Ken, referring to the Matsu Ken Samba pop-hit song, including a photo of the samurai drama actor/singer who has made it famous, Matsudarai Ken (松平健).  The reference was actually trying to get children to Matsu ("wait," 待つ) and Ken, ("look," 見) before crossing the street.
John S.

I would like to share a Dajare I saw the other day in the Tokyo Metro that allowed me to remember the on-yomi (in)for the kanji 飲, which has the kun-yomi "no-mu". It was an ad for a coffee (sorry, I don't remember the name!),and there was written: 飲スピレーション, which reads "insupire-shon", just like the English "inspiration". Presumably drinkers of this coffee will become inspired. Thank you for your wonderful columns.
Tao R.

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