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As a gyudon addict I have noticed that the names of the three major national restaurant chains all end in "ya" but they used two different characters:

  • "吉野家" (Yoshinoya)
  • "松屋" (Matsuya)
  • "すき家" (Sukiya)

Other shops and restaurants I've noticed just use the hiragana instead:

  • "や" (ya)

So is there a subtle difference where one is more like restaurant and the other is more like shop/store? And is the hiragana a handy way to be ambiguous or would people reading such a sign immediately know whether "や" stood for "屋" or "家" based on their language intuition?

While I'm at it, is this yet another character for "ya" used in the same contexts?

  • "店"
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That last one I've always heard as 「てん」 (e.g. 喫茶店). – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jun 15 '11 at 3:59
@Ignacio: Glad I didn't include that one in the question then thanks. I think I've just naively read it as "ya" and never looked it up or asked about it. Also I know there are other kanji for restaurants I didn't include because I didn't think they had "ya" readings. – hippietrail Jun 15 '11 at 4:02
+1 for 牛丼 fandom!! – istrasci Jun 15 '11 at 6:54
+1 牛丼ポウワー! (btw @hippietrail: typo on the word 'gyudon' in your post... SE won't let me post an edit of less than 5 chars) – Dave Jun 15 '11 at 10:58
This is Japanese article about 屋号 ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%B1%8B%E5%8F%B7 – Gradius Jun 28 '12 at 5:00
up vote 9 down vote accepted

屋 and 家 both roughly mean "house", with 屋 tending more towards the meaning of building and 家 more towards home. The choice of which to use is entirely the owner's. や is the ambiguous way to write either and is pretty much a stylistic choice. Do keep in mind that in the olden days Japanese stores tended to be part home, part store, with the owners living in the back while serving guests out front. You can still find such stores today, but they're disappearing in favor of purely business stores. The naming stuck though, possibly due to it's "homeliness".*

ten has the pure meaning of "store".

* Note that I'm pretty sure that even in in the olden days there were purely business stores called -ya. I can't say whether 屋 was used for such whereas 家 was used for "home stores" or whether the choice was always arbitrary.

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deceze's answer may be correct (I do not know), but in present Japanese, 屋 means that it is a store whereas 家 puts more emphasis on the fact that it has been inherited for generations. For 屋, besides your example, it is often combined with the merchandise: 靴屋, 自転車屋, 魚屋, etc. 家 usually combines with the family name that is inherited.

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