Facts of Life
May 2001


Why bow to "Western" convention when it comes to giving names?

WHEN introducing themselves in English or writing their names in the Roman alphabet, most Japanese offer their given names first and their family names last. Use of this "Western" name order is particularly prevalent in the international arena, and as a result there may be a lot of foreigners who think that Japanese surnames always come last. As faithful readers of Look Japan know, however, in Japanese, the family name comes first and the given name second.

Opinion poll: "Which order do you prefer for Japanese names in English?"
Surname-first 34.9%
Given name-first 30.6%
Either way is fine 29.6%
Source: Agency for Cultural Affairs, Jan. 2000

Chinese and Koreans use the same name order as Japanese, but Western media usually do not reverse their names. Take Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin, for example, or South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung. So, why do Japanese switch their name order when speaking and writing English?

It all comes from Japan's struggle in the nineteenth century to protect itself from being colonized by Western powers, to be accepted by the West, and to catch up with the West. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world after 200 years of isolation. At that time, Japan signed unequal treaties with a number of powerful Western countries. To protect its independence, Japan made a major effort to adopt Western ideas and lifestyles.

When it entered the Meiji period (1868—1912), the new government put a high priority on revising the unequal treaties. In order to prove that it was not a backward Asian country but a "civilized" state, the government pushed for Westernizing policies under the slogan of Datsu-A-nyu-O (Dissociate from Asia, Join the Western powers). The government built the Rokumeikan, an elegant, Western-style building, in 1883 in Tokyo to entertain important foreign visitors. Western-style balls and other events were held there in emulation of international high society. This and other policies were taken to promote Japan's image as a modern country, and it was about this time that Japanese officials began reversing their name order when they met foreign visitors.

This habit has survived more than a hundred years of history. Today, most Japanese use the "Western" order without giving it a second thought. Now that Japan has become a major economic power, however, some people are questioning the practice.

"The only reason for switching names [to the "Western" order] today is that there is a practice [among Japanese] of switching their names," says Lynne E. Riggs, a member of the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators (SWET), a Tokyo-based organization of professional wordsmiths working with English in Japan.

The Japan Style Sheet (Stone Bridge Press, 1998), a guide for those working on English-language publications about Japan published by SWET, includes a recommendation that the traditional name order be used as much as possible. The recommendation derives from editors' and translators' concern for consistency and veracity.

Riggs points out that Japanese name order in English isn't always consistent in the publishing world. Although the common practice in popular journalism is to write given names first and surnames last, the names of historical figures are often rendered in the traditional Japanese order, especially in scholarly works on Japan.

For example, in some books the names of contemporary figures are given in the Western order while the names of historical, pre-Meiji period figures like Minamoto no Yoritomo are written in the traditional way. Some books do not adopt a consistent rule. This is not only a headache for writers and translators, it is also a source of confusion for readers.

"When you publish a book about Japan," says Riggs, "you are publishing it for people who want to know about Japan. So they are interested in learning something new or something as it is supposed to be."

In the realm of publishing, however, it is also true that changing something that has become part of common usage is not easy. The Japan Foundation, for example, decided in 1986 to use the surname-first order in all of its English-language publications, but a spokesperson in its publishing division confessed that some publications such as popular English-language newsletters remain under the spell of British and American culture. SWET's Style Sheet recommends a selective approach, suggesting the surname-last order for international conference papers and other documents aimed at readers who are unfamiliar with Japan.

Many people who support original Japanese name order insist that names are part of a country's culture and history, which is especially important as the world becomes more internationalized. Hungarians are among those who write their surname first, given name last. There are also some cultures in which the concepts of "family name" and "given name" do not exist.

The tide began to turn towards the surname-first rule last December, when the education ministry's Council on the National Language released a report recommending that Japanese return to the traditional surname-given name order when writing their names in romanized form. Acknowledging the importance of "humanity's linguistic and cultural diversity," the Council found that, "it is in general desirable that personal names be presented and written in a way that preserves their unique forms, except for registries and other documents with specific standards." To avoid confusion that might arise from the change in usage, the Council suggests that the surname be distinguished from the given name through use of capitalization (YAMADA Taro) or a comma (Yamada, Taro).

The most obvious change was seen in English textbooks. Since 1987, only one schoolbook publisher had been using the surname-first order in its English language textbooks. This year, six out of eight such publishers have adopted the surname-first order.

From now on, it's quite likely that more and more government agencies and schools will follow suit. In the future, we may see more Japanese people proudly offering their family names first when introducing themselves in English—and more Western media using the surname-first order when reporting on Japan.

"What is important, however, is not the government committee's decision but the Japanese people's self-awareness," says Riggs. "It's time for Japanese people to recognize that they can do things in the way most natural to them, without forcing themselves to copy foreign cultures."


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