The design-critique blog Brand New last week reviewed the new look of LNER, a British railway with a nearly century-old history under various names and owners. The most recent owner was Virgin, which operated the line as Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC); the railway is now owned by the UK’s Department of Transport, and the LNER acronym – which stands for London North East Railroad – is appearing again for the first time since 1948.
The point of the review was, of course, the new LNER logo, but what caught my eye was a paragraph about three-quarters of the way down about the newest fleet of trains. Brand New says they’re “nicknamed” Azuma, but in fact Azuma is their official name.
Moreover, “Azuma” isn’t entirely new; the LNER/Azuma identity designer, Brand Cooke, tells us that it had been developed by VTEC – in 2016, according to a Wikipedia page – and was already familiar to passengers.
But what does this un-British-sounding name signify?
Here’s how the Railway Technology website explained it in a May 2018 post:
The Virgin Azuma is a British Rail Class 800 Super Express electro-diesel train built by rolling stock specialists Hitachi, with the name Azuma translating to ‘East’ in Japanese, in homage to the Japanese bullet trains that inspired the design.
I’m sure the “zoom” syllable in Azuma is just a lucky coincidence. (Remember those zoom-zoom-zoom commercials from Mazda, another Japanese transportation brand?)
The Azuma wordmark, according to Brand Cooke, “integrates the letter N from LNER so it reads North East in Japanese.” I puzzled over this explanation for quite a while, and even queried two Japanese-speaking acquaintances, John Wada and Rochelle Kopp, about it. The best we could figure was that no, it doesn’t “read North East in Japanese”; rather, it embeds the symbol for “north” into an old Japanese word for “east.” (The contemporary word is higashi.)
A launch-day promotional brochure showing the LNER and Azuma wordmarks.
The “Azuma” name rang a bell for me, but not from any railway associations. I know it as the name of a Tokyo-based food company with a U.S. office here in the Bay Area, in Hayward. (Here’s a link to the corporate website, which is badly in need of a redesign.) Azuma is a wholesaler of “specialty Japanese-style seafood products,” including “Sea Salad” and the intriguingly named “Shrimp Swirl Pops.”
This Azuma was named not for a cardinal point but for the company’s founder and CEO, Mr. Toshinobu Azuma. (There are plenty of directional English surnames, too. Consider, for starters, Mae West, Clint Eastwood, and Oliver North.)
I came across another Azuma in my research: It’s the name of a festival celebrating African culture in, of all places, Guymon, Oklahoma (population about 16,000, including about 450 immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, and South Sudan). According to a 2016 story in Oklahoma Today magazine, “Arabic is one of many languages in wide use across Africa, and azuma is an Arabic word for gathering.” (For the record, I’ve been unable to confirm that azuma means anything in either Arabic or Swahili.) The Azuma festival has been held every year since 2013, and it received Oklahoma Tourism’s Redbud Award for Best New Event in 2016.
Azuma got me thinking about a place name from my own microculture: Azusa, in Los Angeles County. I’d always heard that the name was coined from the phrase “everything from A to Z in the U.S.A.,” which is cute but untrue. In fact, “Azusa” is an Anglicization of Asuksagna, the name used by the indigenous Tongya people who lived in what’s now called the San Gabriel Valley beginning in about 55 BCE.