From the Foreign to Familiar: The Name Game[box]From the Foreign to Familiar will address the complexities of being a foreigner in Japan and the importance of learning through observation and engagement. This column will debunk the unique customs that are often deemed weird or strange by Westerners, and provide insight into deeper meanings and definitions of intimacy, family and community in Japanese culture.[/box]
Names are important. In the very first poem of the Man-yôshû, Japan’s first poetry anthology dating from the late 8th century, the emperor-poet Yûryaku implores a young woman picking herbs on a hillside “Tell me your name!” Whether it’s an ancient emperor, The Zombies, Lynyrd Skynrd or Jesse McCartney, getting someone’s name is the way you start to make a connection. One of the first sentences you’re likely to hear in Japanese is “Onamae wa? meaning, “Your name is…?” It seems like the answer would be simple enough, right?
Pleased to Meet You. Hope You Guess My Name
I think I’ve introduced myself in Japan half a dozen different ways– surname first, first name only, first name first, surname only, as “Ikegami’s wife” or “Rachel’s mother.” Name order in Japan and other Northeast Asian countries is, like so many things, the opposite of the way we do it in the West. In Japan, affiliation with a group or larger entity is considered the most important piece of information and therefore is presented first. Information specific to something individual, like a name or an apartment address, comes after. So someone with the family name Tanaka and the personal name Hiroshi would call himself Tanaka Hiroshi. This might reasonably lead you to believe that if your name is Chelsea Thomas you should introduce yourself in Japan as Thomas Chelsea. This will lead to confusion because almost all Japanese people have learned that Western name order is the opposite of their own and in anticipation of doing things in a way that will make things easier for you, they will assume you are giving your own name in the Western order of personal name followed by surname. They will also wonder why you have a boy’s name. You could send spend a lot of time straightening it all out, only to discover another special exception that may be applied to you—you probably aren’t going to be addressed by your surname very often anyway, even in professional situations.
At work Japanese address each other by their surname or managerial title. The suffix –san usually follows the surname, so at work Tanaka Hiroshi is addressed as Tanaka-san. Among a group of acquaintances he might be called Hiroshi-san. You would only call him plain old Hiroshi if you knew him well or he was used to spending time around foreigners. As important as it is to remember to add –san after someone else’s name, it’s equally improper to add it after your own name. Honorific terms are never applied to oneself and there’s probably no more obvious way to announce yourself as a brand-new, clueless gaijin (foreigner) than by introducing yourself along the lines of—“Hi! I’m Thomas Chelsea-san!”
We are all Friends Here
Although Japanese address each other by surname in professional situations, it’s commonly assumed that Americans and other Westerners always interact casually and call each other by their first names. So don’t be surprised if you are at a business function and hear an introduction that goes something like, “This is Ms. Hamada. This is Mr. Tanaka. And this is Miss Chelsea.” Unless they think that due to your own attempt to Japanify your name you are a woman with a boy’s name, where they may just then introduce you correctly though inadvertently as “Miss Thomas.” Sometimes honorific terms are thrown out all together for foreigners, like the time I was asked to provide feedback on a faculty research report prepared by a Japanese university that added Professor to Japanese faculty member names but referred to my research partner and me as Steve and Pam. (They changed it after I pointed out that it didn’t look very professional.)
Hooked on Phonics
When I first started studying Japanese I learned that there is a special syllabary, called katakana, that is used primarily to represent words that originated in Western languages, usually but not always English. My professor left it up to us to figure out how to write and pronounce our names in Japanese. Being more inclined to written than spoken language I decided I should katakana-ize my name based on its spelling in English. It took me a couple of years to realize that this approach was the reason why it was so hard to recognize the Japanese pronunciation of my name. I had turned my family name Shaines into sha-ee-neh-su, which sounds almost nothing like the way it is pronounced in English. By the time I figured out I could and should have been spelling my name phonetically, so it came out sounding like sheyn-zu, all my official documents were already drawn up in my original, mistaken spelling. There was nothing I could do about it but keep my ears open for that funny sounding name.
You Can Call Me….
My friend Dave goes by his full name David in Japan. It’s not that he wants to be formal. It’s because the name Dave sounds very much like the Japanese word for “fatty.” I suppose it could be worse. When turned into katakana the name Troy becomes Toroi, meaning dull or stupid.If your name is Troy, you might want to consider going by your middle name in Japan. Some Western names are very familiar to Japanese, particularly those that are found in popular songs and movies. If your name is Michelle don’t be surprised if someone bursts into that Beatles’ song as soon as they learn your name. The Japanese language has a more limited palette of sounds than English. If your name is Kathy or Cassie either one will sound like kya-shee. My name Pam sounds a lot like the Japanese word for bread, pan, which is why I go by Pamela/Pa-meh-ra. This wasn’t all that helpful when I was teaching in junior high schools and class comedians decided I was named Camera or, even better, Gamera, you know, the fire-breathing tortoise movie monster.
I Now Pronounce You…
When I got married I took my husband’s family name. Japanese married couples are required by law to share a common last name, but this rule doesn’t apply if one of the couple is a foreigner. My Japanese last name confuses people to no end, in Japan and in the US. I have been told several times to sit down when my Japanese surname was called at the bank or the doctor’s office. My last employer in Japan insisted my Japanese family name be written in katakana in all school documents so no one would become confused and assume I was Japanese. Mostly it just gets a mangled pronunciation in the States.
A Rose by any Other Name can be Spelled Completely Different
Most Japanese personal names are written in the ideographic characters known as kanji or sometimes in hiragana, the phonetic syllabary used for Japanese words. Many names can be written in more than one way with the same pronunciation. What this means is that even if you know how someone’s name sounds, you can’t be sure that you know the proper way to write it. Japanese names are chosen for sound, meaning and sometimes for the number of strokes it takes to write the name.
Names, our own and those of our loved ones, are some of the first words we learn to recognize. They are an integral part of our identity, whether you are Emily, Astrida or Kathleen with a K. They shape who we are and how we think about ourselves. When we need to reshape them to fit into a new environment we change more than just a word, we change ourselves.