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Different types of scripts may affect judgment on similarity of trademarks in Japan

October 10, 2012

Scripts in the Japanese language

The Japanese language comprises three different types of scripts; Chinese ideographic scripts (kanji characters) and two syllabic scripts (hiragana characters and katakana characters).  Each hiragana and katakana character represents one sound in the Japanese language.  Hiragana characters are used for the Japanese language words and often used to represent the sounds of kanji characters while katakana characters are typically used as transcription of foreign words into Japanese.

Let us give you an example.  The sound of an English word “SKY” in the Japanese language can be represented typically by the katakana characters as “スカイ (su-ka-i)” or sometimes by the hiragana characters as “すかい (su-ka-i) ”.  The meaning of the English word corresponds the Chinese character “空” which has its own hiragana characters “そら (so-ra) ” ( or katakana characters “ソラ (so-ra) ” in some cases).




Katakana character

Hiragana character







Chinese character





 *A single Chinese character may have one or more different readings which are categorized as on’yomi, (Chinese reading) and kun’yomi (Japanese reading).  Here only kun’yomi is introduced to avoid complexity.

Difference of the scripts has to be considered when judging similarity of trademarks

Having the above three types of characters causes difficulties for foreign applicants when judging similarity of trademarks in Japanese practice where the similarity is basically judged by three elements; the sound, the appearance and the meaning. 

Taking the above case for example, in order to protect the trademark (or avoid infringement of the trademark) “SKY” in Japan, in theory, a similarity research should be conducted not only on the English word itself but on the five Japanese scripts; katakana and hiragana characters representing the Japanese sound of “SKY” (i.e., “スカイ”and “すかい”) , a Chinese character representing the Japanese meaning of “SKY” (i.e., “空”) accompanying katakana and hiragana characters for “空” (i.e., “ソラ”and “そら”).  In other words, once a trademark “SKY” is protected, the scope of trademark protection can theatrically cover the five Japanese scripts.

However, when a foreign word is neither plain nor common, or a coined word, and seems to be unknown to the target consumers or traders in Japan, the word will not allow easy translation into katakana/hiragana characters or Chinese characters.  Therefore, it will be uncertain whether the foreign words can cover the five types of scripts. 
In such a case, it is recommended to protect your rights by filing the Japanese version of your trademark in order to prevent others from using it.  An appropriate Japanese version of your trademark varies according to the foreign word.

If you need further information on this matter, please contact us at

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