“Shou Sugi Ban” vs. “Yakisugi”: Why We’re Adopting Both Terms for Burned Wood Siding

We haven’t exactly been quiet the past few years about our thoughts on how the term “shou sugi ban” is used to describe burned wood siding. As a proud Japanese brand with 50 years of product development and 60% market share for yakisugi in Japan, being bombarded with an incorrect term used to describe our products has been incredibly frustrating. Especially since it has become the most used and recognized term for burned wood siding in North America due to internet metrics being harmonic–even for false information. That being said, we’ve been using the word more frequently in our blog posts, social media and across our website. We still think shou sugi ban is a bogus word, but we’ve decided to lean into it moving forward. Here’s why:

The Origins of the Word “Shou Sugi Ban”

In North America, yakisugi is a fairly new phenomenon. It’s been used in Japan for centuries, mostly by farmers and in rural villages to protect buildings from weather and fire. However, only recently has Western building culture adopted it as a high-end, elegant siding option. Somewhere in the last few years, the mistranslated term “shou sugi ban” was mixed into the conversation. The characters for yakisugi-ita, (焼杉板) meaning “burnt cypress plank” in English, were mixed up with similar characters from the Chinese language, creating a mistranslated English word that doesn’t mean anything in any language. This was likely brought back to the United States by a graduate student who visited Japan to study traditional building materials and architecture but didn’t read the language well. And unfortunately for us, it stuck.

Historic Yakisugi in Kurashiki, Okayama, Japan
A beautiful, weathered wall of yakisugi in the historic district of Kurashiki, Okayama, Japan.

Burned Wood Siding in North America

In 2016, the New York Times published an article on shou sugi ban and how it was taking the North American architectural community by storm. For many, this was the first time they’d heard of using burned wood as siding. After that article was published, online searches went through the roof. Every company that advertised shou sugi ban saw an immediate uptick in website visitors, social media engagement, inquiries and sales. As a startup trying to keep costs low, we had to choose between our linguistic ethics and survival.

New York Times article on Burned Wood Siding
The New York Times article that sparked the Shou Sugi Ban movement in North America

The Hard Truth

For a while, we only used shou sugi ban as a search keyword to continue growing our website visitors. We kept trying to educate our audience and push them towards using yakisugi. We saw some general improvement over the past three years, but on search platforms the two keywords remain barely comparable. Shou sugi ban continues to command nearly 10x the audience that yakisugi does, making it impossible to survive in this market without consistently utilizing the term. We did our best to rectify the situation and help people learn the proper Japanese terminology, but that has proven to be a massive uphill battle. And the more time that passes, the further it pulls ahead.

Shou Sugi Ban vs. Yakisugi burned wood siding keyword search popularity

The Future for Burned Wood Siding

Shou sugi ban has proven that it’s not going anywhere soon. While its roots are in multiple languages, it has become synonymous with charred wood siding in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Rather than continue to fight it, we have chosen to embrace it moving forward. After all, language is a living organism, and is constantly changing. If advertising our products a certain way allows us to keep overhead and lead times low for our customers, then we’re absolutely jumping on that bandwagon. Yakisugi may never reach household-name-status, but shou sugi ban is well on its way. No matter what happens with either term, we still hope to continue to educate our audience and guide them towards the traditional Japanese origins of our beautiful charred wood siding products.

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