Home Travel DTW Has Airport Signs In Japanese. Why? Blame Delta

DTW Has Airport Signs In Japanese. Why? Blame Delta

by SharonKurheg

As written in Medium a few years back, although English is the primary language of the United States, we have no official language. The Founding Fathers believed it would be divisive and undemocratic in a multi-lingual country such as ours to have an “official” language.

18 languages were spoken on Manhattan Island [now part of New York City] as early as 1646. The Dutch, Flemish, Walloons, French, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Portuguese, and Italians were among the settlement’s early inhabitants.

Vincent N. Parrillo, Diversity in America, 2008, p. 45

That being said, in areas where there’s a large population of non-English speakers, some cities or specific areas of cities will have “subtitles” on certain signs (i.e. Spanish, Chinese, etc.). It’s just a matter of courtesy, just as you may see English subtitles on signs in non-English speaking countries that get a lot of English-speaking visitors, such as this directional sign in Macau (which also has subtitles in Portuguese):

PC (cropped): Destron Commander / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

In Detroit’s Wayne County Airport (DTW) though, there’s an anomaly to all of that – for decades, the directional signs throughout DTW’s McNamara Terminal have been subtitled in Japanese.

PC: Imgur

Even the informational sign for the Express Tram is translated into Japanese.

PC: Foursquare

And yet all of the signs OUTSIDE the terminal are only in English.

PC: DTW / Facebook

So what’s up with that?

A lot (and I mean a LOT) of people thought the subtitles were because of the automobile industry. Although the city is no longer the powerhouse it once was, Detroit had been a major player in the car design and building industry since the late 1800s. Chrysler, Ford and General Motors were BIG, big deals in Detroit through a good part of the 20th century (albeit more in the first half than the second half), and yes, Japanese executives made frequent visits to “Motor City.”

But if the airport signs were for visitors from Japan, you’d think (A) the signs in ALL the terminals, not just McNamara, would have the Japanese translations, and (B) the signs outside the building would have had subtitles as well, right?

It turns out the auto industry has nothing to do with why there those signs have Japanese translations. You can actually blame Delta Air Lines for the subtitles. Well, sort of. Read on…

According to airport spokesperson Erica Donerson, the McNamara terminal opened in 2002 and Northwest Airlines was the terminal’s primary carrier. Tokyo, Japan was a Northwest hub (in fact, Northwest has previously been known as Northwest Orient Airlines). The terminal signage included Japanese to assist passengers traveling to or connecting through Detroit from Japan.

So they’re another example of “courtesy” signs.

Northwest Airlines was absorbed by Delta Air Lines in a 2008 merger. That made Delta the hub carrier at McNamara. And, for what it’s worth, Delta still operates in Japan, with flights between Detroit and your choice of Tokyo or Osaka so…

The signage has never been modified. However, if/when it ever is, Donerson suggests they may not have the Japanese subtitles any longer.

And now you know! 🙂

H/T Axios

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derek September 16, 2022 - 6:28 pm

What languages should DTW signs be written in, besides English? In my opinion, I rank languages in order of preference. I rank Spanish a little lower because the terminal is mainly for air travel, which is different from the general population.

1. Chinese (Traditional) – used in Taiwan, Hong Kong
2. French – used in France, Quebec, many African countries, consideration for Air France, a SkyTeam airline
3. Chinese (Simplified) – used in the People’s Republic of China, Singapore
4. Korean – consideration for Korean Air, a Sky Team airline
5. Arabic – somewhat more common in the Detroit area, minimal similarities to English
6. Spanish – common in the general population

Jon W September 16, 2022 - 6:31 pm

Many signs in Macau include Portuguese because Macau was a Portuguese colony from the 1550s until 1997.

Michael N September 16, 2022 - 7:00 pm

Macau signs are in Portughese because it was a Portughese colony until 1997.

Oliver September 16, 2022 - 7:01 pm

Why do we need to “blame” anyone for having bilingual signage?

James September 16, 2022 - 8:46 pm

I’m with Oliver. “Blame”? Like it’s some sort of problem?

BCF September 16, 2022 - 9:21 pm

Agree with the above – how is this a problem and why are we trying to blame anybody?

Christian September 16, 2022 - 9:55 pm

More languages doesn’t hurt anybody. If anything, I’d add more.

Detroit vs Everybody September 17, 2022 - 6:02 am

Delta has direct flights to/from Japan in the McNamera terminal forever. Also Detroit rules.

Karl John May September 17, 2022 - 2:45 pm

What’s the issue? Japanese airports have signs in English. And by the way, when the McNamara Terminal was built, the US automakers were smaller and in bad shape. Japanese auto executives would have had limited reason to visit DTW. Today, the US auto industry is much stronger so that follows signs should be put up today vs. 20 years ago.

Jeff Hicks September 18, 2022 - 11:15 pm

The airport announcements at DTW’s McNamara teeminal regarding Detroit being located in the Eastern Time Zone are also announced in Japanese.


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