The city Tokyo was sometimes called Tokio, as can be seen in ngrams, and as one example, the WWII anti-Japanese movie Tokio Jokio.

Why was Tokyo sometimes called "Tokiyo"?

The Japanese hiragana for Tokyo is とうきょう, and according to Wikipedia's article on the romanisation of Japanese, the "きょ" component would be romanised, under all of the Hepburn, Nihon-shiki, and Kunrei-shiki systems as "kyo".

The section on historical romanisations has "kio" as a romanisation of "きょ", but that was a romanisation suggested in the 1600s. Were those romanisation schemes still in use in the 19th century, for a city renamed in 1868?

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    I don't know, but I'm guessing because English orthography doesn't have a perfect representation for the phoneme "kyo" (which isn't quite k<hard-stop>yo and yet isn't quite kee-oh).
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 8, 2014 at 11:18
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    I have always wondered who was in charge of the Bureau of Transliteration. Somebody with a sense of humor, surely.
    – TRomano
    Nov 8, 2014 at 11:44
  • Not a big deal Andrew but did you mean Tokio (as in your film example) or Tokiyo?
    – Fattie
    Nov 8, 2014 at 13:10
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about Japanese pronunciation, not English as such Nov 8, 2014 at 13:38
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    @FumbleFingers: Actually, the question is about English pronunciation of a much-used-in-English Japanese city name.
    – Robusto
    Nov 8, 2014 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


The name Tokyo is represented by two characters in Japanese: 東京 and the syllables (some fussy linguists insist those be called morae) used to sound those out are four: とうきょう or to-u-k[yo]-u. Japanese is an isochronous language, meaning every syllable has to be expressed as a (roughly equivalent) duration in time; whatever you call that duration, Tokyo has four beats in Japanese but three in English.

Note that the third syllable, which normally represents the sound ki, has a tiny subscript yo next to it. This is how the Japanese introduce what is essentially a y-glide between the consonant and vowel sounds of certain syllables, because no single character in the syllabary can be used to express those sounds without creating another syllable.

I just asked my wife's aunt, who is Japanese and taught Japanese to college students, about the oddball spelling you point out. She explains that some renderings of Tokyo were given as Tokiyo as a way of bringing the ょ across in the transliteration. This is non-standard, however, and should be avoided, since most English readers hardly care about the phonological representation of such an abstruse issue as this.

Additional note: The u sounds in the original Japanese, coming at the end of rounded vowels, are almost completely disregarded by Western ears. Syllable duration isn't encoded for meaning to our ears, so those u sounds get dropped when a Westerner makes a transliteration. What remains from Tokyo, then, is to-ki-yo, which is how it's pronounced in English. The "tokiyo" spelling, then, seems to represent rather an obdurate insistence that the pronunciation be entirely Anglicized for English consumption.

Further elucidation: I believe the way to think about Japanese "syllables" is to liken them to music on a phonograph that may be sped up or slowed down. The speed of the passing notes may change, but their relationship to each other at any given speed remains the same. You may hear a Japanese speaker rush through part of a sentence but the syllables will all be there relative to each other at any given speed.

  • Wow. "Japanese is an isochronous language, meaning every syllable has to be expressed as a duration in time": TBC do you mean THE SAME duration in time (in the example, all four would/must be identical); or do you mean each one must have an extent in time? Thx
    – Fattie
    Nov 8, 2014 at 13:09
  • @JoeBlow I think it means the syllables have each a specific defined duration unique to each syllable. tsu or shi are barely said, relative to mo or to.
    – SrJoven
    Nov 8, 2014 at 13:16
  • Fascinating and thanks. That must make songwriting very, very, very difficult.
    – Fattie
    Nov 8, 2014 at 13:20
  • @JoeBlow: Yes, I mean the same duration. The duration is usually approximate (i.e., not exactly metronomic), but expressed nonetheless.
    – Robusto
    Nov 8, 2014 at 13:33
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    I'm not saying each syllable isn't allowed a length, but I do know that if I tried to say do-i-ta-shi-ma-shi-te versus doughytashmashtay, (roughly), I'm thinking I'm going to stand out as an American vs native speaker.
    – SrJoven
    Nov 8, 2014 at 17:27

It is spelled as “Tokio” in several European languages (including Dutch, German, and Spanish). How to represent (transliterate) Japanese words in Latin letters (romanise) has only been standardised recently. It is possible that this spelling was once widely interchangeable with “Tokyo”, the now accepted spelling in English (and Portuguese). The Dutch and Portuguese have deep historical ties to Japan which may be the origin of the alternative English spellings.

While it is often pronounced as “To-ki-yo” I’m English, this barely resembles the modern Japanese pronunciation: I would discourage using spellings apart from Tokyo or Tōkyō in English. The characters きょ (with small よ) is read as on sound “kyo” which has a different meaning in Japanese to きよ “kiyo”. Similarly とう (tou) and きょう (kyou) would strictly romanise with “u” as long vowels under the Hepburn system which is why the Japanese pronunciation is marked with macrons (Tōkyō).

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