If you were in a record store and you wanted to look for a CD, you’d go to the CD section and perhaps look in the right section pertaining to genre, and proceed to the location where the CD would be. And that is facilitated by a system which arranges the CDs by artiste/band’s name in alphabetical order. Metallica will be before RATM, but after Pearl Jam. Elementary. You don’t even need a crappy blog post to teach you something a 7-year old knows.

But say you are at TSUTAYA near the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo and you wanted to buy the latest CD by Ayumi Hamasaki. Easy, go to the H section, right? Wrong. The CD’s are arranged in an alphabetical system but not the Roman alphabet, but, for obvious reasons, the Japanese one.

Here’s the hiragana 「ひらがな」 which is one of two Japanese kana 「仮名」 syllabaries[1] and they are arranged, as we do the ABC, in a particular order:

If you notice, the kana follows the A-I-U-E-O order. Also, my dad told me the mnemonic A-KA-SA-TA-NA, HA-MA-YA-RA-WA that he learnt in school as a kid during the Japanese occupation of Malaya which really made remembering the hiragana easier. Hence, it made my first ever trip at a Japanese record store just as easy. Kind of. Interestingly, I was not told about how music CDs are arranged in a store and no mention of this was made in my Lonely Planet Guide. But it did make my search for records interesting.
Back to the Ayumi Hamasaki CD I mentioned. So, you’d now say just go follow あ (a) (Ayumi’s name is spelt in Roman letters on her records). Wrong again. The Japanese have the surnames first – ie Hamasaki Ayumi is under は (ha).

What about bands that have English names[2], like SCANDAL or FLiP? The same system is used but now you need to know how it is written in Japanese. SCANDAL is essentially スキャンダル (SU-KYA-N-DA-RU), hence you proceed to す (su).

To complicate matters, you may notice that the kana doesn’t necessarily have a Roman equivalent (eg tsu), and vice versa (eg there is no ti, but there is chi).

Even with this, I did find myself going in circles. And if you’d see a gaikokujin murmuring akasatanahamayarawa along the aisles on the 2nd floor of Tower Records, that’d be me. Or someone who had read this blog post.

Better still, you’d probably would grab the nearest floor staff and ask where the MAN WITH A MISSION CD’s are in the store for a quicker result!

[1]Which is a set of written symbols representing syllables. In Japanese, the hiragana is used for native Japanese words.
[2]I’d like to add that as I didn’t go around looking for CD’s by Western artistes, I do not know if they are arranged in the usual Roman alphabet order or the Japanese alphabet.