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The NES was known as the "Famicom" in Japan, short for "Family Computer".

But why was it given an English name in Japan, given (I assume) most people wouldn't know what the words "Family Computer" meant? Why did they not give it a name in Japanese?

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    Don't be so eager to assume they wouldn't know the meaning. Foreign words, English in particular, are relatively common in their language (they even have a syllabary for that, which is Katakana). In particular, "computer" in Japanese is read (in romaji) KONPYUUTA, approximately as the English word.
    – Piovezan
    Jan 12 at 0:49
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    English-language branding is quite common in Japan, as the language has some cachet here. One relevant example would be Family Mart, a chain convenience store, which sells "Famichiki," a boneless fried chicken.
    – Jim Nelson
    Jan 12 at 1:29
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    @JimNelson Oh yes, prepare for a culture shock when visiting a Japanese 7eleven :)
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 12 at 2:55
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    @Piovezan Strictly speaking, katakana has nothing to do with foreign language, it just happens to be used for it (kana in general are used all over the place in Japanese language for all kinds of other things). The bigger factor here is that English language is a mandatory part of Japanese secondary education (though I’m not sure if this would have been the case back when the Famicom came out). Jan 12 at 13:13
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    @JimNelson: Many Japanese toys have names which are formed from combinations of English words, such as "Pocket Monster" or "Micro Machines". That's a general cultural phenomenon, and the Nintendo Famicom ("Family Computer") is a very typical example.
    – supercat
    Jan 12 at 17:33
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But why was it given an English name in Japan

Foreign Branding is a common marketing strategy to give a product a more distinguished name. Think 'Häagen-Dazs', a fantasy name with some Nordic 'flair' created in the US by a Polish Immigrant), or like French named 'Au Bon Pain' can be found in many US malls, but not anywhere in Europe.

Oh, and then there is that US company called '当たり', although, spelled in latin :))

given (I assume) most people wouldn't know what the words "Family Computer" meant?

Well, no need to do so, as it was repeated in all marketing material:

Famicom Logo

The sub title 'ファミリーコンピュータ' reads literally 'Family Computer'(*1), so people would be able to pronounce it when using the name even without any knowledge in English.

A name is just a name, there is no need to 'understand' the name. Or do you understand the word 'horse' beyond it naming for a kind of equid?


*1 - Well, transcription is more like 'Fu-a-mi-ri-ko-n-pi-yu-ta', pronounced like 'Famirikonpyuta'

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    Minor nitpick for the transcription. Japanese doesn't have a fa sound, so the fu is followed by a small ya which transforms the two characters to fa (or technically fya), the same is true for pi + (small) yu = pyu. ri and pyu are followed by a "long sound symbol" which elongates the vowels, so the transcription is a little off and should be something like fya-mi-rii-ko-n-pyuu-ta :)
    – QBrute
    Jan 12 at 9:21
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    @QBrute ァ is a small ア (a) rather than ヤ (ya), so it's fa and not fya. (But otherwise I agree.)
    – N. Virgo
    Jan 12 at 10:14
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    off topic, but delighted (though not surprised) to spot yet another use of the famous Avant Garde font in the wild! Wish I knew more about the pecularities of latin/japanese font pairings...
    – kubi
    Jan 12 at 12:31
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    @kubi There's a nice (German) site about typesetting for Japanese with a Section about mixing fonts. Of course, above is rather dictated by logo design than typesetting guidelines, avoiding many pitfalls.
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 12 at 12:48
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    Like an American company naming itself Atari?
    – Davislor
    Jan 12 at 15:41
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There are several interviews with Masayuki Uemura (the creator of the familiy computer) online that contain a section about the name “family computer”. Many publications seem to be copied from each other, making it hard to find a definitive source. The following is taken from soranews24 dated April 2013:

The name “Family Computer” was chosen by Uemura himself. At that time Nintendo had its developers choose the name of its products rather than the marketing department. He often would hear the terms “personal computer” or “home computer” but liked the idea of a “family computer” and could envision a family gathered in the living room playing his machine together. Although the shortened “Famicom” came about organically in Japan, Uemura had been ahead of the trend thanks to some sage-like advice from his wife.

“When I told my wife about the name Family Computer she said ‘Why not just call it Famicom? Everyone’s just going to shorten it to Famicom anyway.’ I thought she had a good idea so I took it to my boss. He rejected it saying ‘Famicom? That makes no sense.’ (laughs)”

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