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Japanese Names

I have an embarrassing admission. It took far too long for several sources to explain to me what is up with Japanese names. Names are one of a handful of cultural issues I readily acknowledged as being different than my Western tradition before I began preparing for my trip here, but, it took me some time asking questions here in Japan before I developed an understanding, so I thought it might be worthwhile to try explain what I’ve learned, if only to hasten my comprehension.

Alright, well, we all have this vague understanding that given names come after family names in Japan, making our contemporary American conception of “first” name fairly meaningless and confusing. Moreover, the family name taking its place in the front of a person’s name is a firmly Asian tradition, from China to Indonesia to most Middle Eastern countries of which I can speak.

I’ve read some interpretations that have suggested that the family-name first order has had a historical place in developing Europe, but I haven’t the energy to confirm that, and this isn’t meant to be one of those heavy-handed history lessons on which I try to harangue you all so often.

So, we’ll focus on contemporary usage. As you know, the Roman alphabet on which the Romance languages of our Western world base themselves is a (relatively) recent import to Asia. Here in Japan, a country that had six years of overt, and closer to ten years of what was effectively, American occupation post-World War II, and has a long history of business and political ties with the Western world since, Romanization of the Japanese language is widely recognized, on subway signs, some street signs, and almost everyone can write his name with our 26-letter alphabet.

Another consequence is that almost all Japanese will transpose the order of their names when dealing with Westerners, or even whenever they use the Roman alphabet. So, while some might interpret that as a sign that the tradition is dying, do understand that when written in characters, Japanese names are never switched, always remaining family name first, given name second. In purely Japanese fashion, the government is into the regulation of names. Less than 3,000 kanji are allowed to be used in personal names, even less for the newly born, with exceptions for Japanese named before the regulations took effect, according to a poorly translated, exceedingly confusing Japanese government document I tried to read.

A host of issues crop up, as, of course, characters can be pronounced in different ways, so, Japanese passports require an official Romanized-spelling of a person’s name. This, even though, to become a Japanese citizen, one needs a Japanese name written in characters, though hiragana and, increasingly, katakana is used. Generally, in Japanese, the family name comes first and, when Romanized, the family name comes last. (Fortunately the Japanese do not typically give middle names).

For anyone familiar with Japanese names, this doesn’t get as confusing as one might think, as there are few names that can serve as both a family and a given name. Meaning, that while in the United States I have had friends with “Davis” as both a first name and last name and two legends of American pop music call themselves “Billy Joel” and “Elton John,” this doesn’t quite happen in Japan, indeed in most Asia that I know. The only name I have seen both as a family name and a given name “Masuko”, but a friend told me that “Kaneko” is another example. Still, they are few and far in between.

Anyway, in actual use, family names are often used to refer to people, most often with tag-phrases that show respect (somewhat similar to Mr. and Mrs.). Use of given names is largely restricted to familiar situations, particularly socially or when someone older refers to someone younger. Even today, many Japanese people will avoid using any name for those that are senior, instead using a title. One you likely know is “sensei” for teacher.

Most often, Western media readily transpose the order of Asian-style names, particularly for the politicians and diplomats with whom they so regularly deal. So, to anyone who has his nose in the lists of world leaders, he likely knows Japan’s Prime Minister as Shinzo Abe. I certainly do, but, in a discussion with some new friends I met while playing basketball, they laughingly corrected me. “His name is Abe Shinzo,” a young man said, trying to hold back a smile, surely a sign that he read me to be a confused foreigner.

But, there certainly are examples of names retaining their Eastern-style order. I’m sure you’re familiar with the pudgy, North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. He took over power when his father, Kim Il-sung, died. This mostly has to do with a greater openness to the Western world by the Japanese than the North Koreans. Of course, it does seem fairly odd that anyone would so easily switch his or her name order. I suppose I really wouldn’t mind, but I am not eagerly hoping someone will call me by my family name first.

The reality is that the motivation is often through embarrassment. The Asian, and particularly contemporary Japanese, devotion to respectful obedience comes in very stark contrast to a much more open, bullying Western world. Now, of course, we really don’t mean anything by it, but those hard, clangy sounds of Japanese names have been the brunt of many American jokes, and names from throughout the continent bring snickers to Westerners when they visit the East.

I believe that that has really struck many Asians, particularly the Japanese, and many are self-conscious about it, whether they know it and admit it or not. With Asian-Americans that can be seen when names like Quyen become Justin or Phung becomes Michelle. But, it is a reality here in Japan, too.

When I ask someone for their name, (Onamae nan desu ka?), I am often met by a moment’s thought, before I get a too-easy-to-pronounce-to-be-real name. Just yesterday, I tried to speak with a young college student. After it was apparent that neither of us was well versed in the other’s language, I asked him his name. After a hesitation, he said, in a heavy accent, “Dave.” Oh peculiar.

Sadly, I understand it. Westerners have a history of not being terribly welcoming to what is funny in our culture. I met a beautiful, young girl a few weeks ago and after she proudly told me her name was “Ayako,” I couldn’t help but think of a cartoon character from a television show called “The Animaniacs” that I watched when I was little. This is nothing particular to Japan. The name “Phuc” is fairly common in Vietnam, but, laughs aside, it means “luck” in the local language.

In the United States, as the Asian culture nears a century of growth in America, there appears to be a rebound in using less “American Christian” names and rediscovering old roots, albeit often those that coordinate best with Western culture. The Korean name “Soo Jin,” which sounds like “Sue Jean,” is currently very popular, according to Elaine Kim, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

I hope that confidence will help Westerners (including myself) become better accustomed to Asian names and less likely to openly laugh at some names they might encounter when traveling abroad. Plenty are tame enough, like the Japanese equivalent of John Smith, “Yamada Tar?,” but from time to time you do find a name like Korean meaning “virtue,” “Fuk.” Meaning it isn’t outrageous to find a “Fuk Yu,” however, according to Kim, these instances are lessening, even in many areas of these Asian countries.

Greater access to the Western world has altered a lot of Asian traditions, perhaps few greater than Asian names. Many better traveled Chinese will adopt a Western name to come in front of their birth names, giving rise to the possibility of you meeting a “Ted” from Shanghai. The famed Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki switched his name, but, then, if you hadn’t noticed, NBA player, Yao Ming, a legend in China, hasn’t made the switch, and the back of his number-11 Houston Rockets jersey reads simply, “YAO.”

I suppose it is all a personal choice, but an interesting one indeed. I suppose awareness is the first step towards understanding, no matter how silly you think some of those names sound.

Jaa ne,

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