When Japanese names are rendered with Latin letters — that is, “romanized” — the given name comes first and the family name comes last. That is the reverse of the order in which the names are actually read in Japanese.
Now, some government officials, including Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Minister for Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Masahiko Shibayama are calling for the situation to be rectified.
It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the Japanese people are ready to accept such a switchover and abandon the habit ingrained over many years of using a Westernized format. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s Office should take the lead in this regard.
The two ministers made their declaration at a May 21 press conference. Kono called on foreign media organizations to use Abe Shinzo (family name, given name) instead of Shinzo Abe, as is commonly written now, when writing about the Prime Minister. He noted that this is the order used for other Asian leaders, such as China’s President Xi Jinping.
This proposal did not come out of the blue. As long ago as December 2000, an advisory group to the Minister of Education at the time issued a report recommending that. when the order of names are expressed in Romanized form, last names should come first.
The report noted that naming conventions are established based on cultural and historical backgrounds. It added that it was important to respect unique modes of presentation by introducing and explaining them.
Taking his cue from this perspective, Minister Shibayama declared that he wanted to get the word out about the need for revision. He added the cultural agency, which he is in charge of, would be encouraging the new usage by government agencies and others.
In response to the call from the language advisory group two decades ago, English-language textbooks have been adjusted so that the ones students study in Japan’s junior high schools today use the traditional Japanese name order. Passports also have family name first and personal name second.
Nevertheless, not all government officials have reacted the same way to the proposal. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, for one, has been cautious, saying: “We also have this long-accepted practice, and there are many factors to be taken into account.”
The English homepage of the Prime Minister’s Office uses the order Shinzo ABE, with the family name capitalized. The foreign ministry English homepage does the same. Unless the Cabinet and other government offices achieve consensus on this point, the public is likely to be totally confused by the debate.
Interestingly, when United States President Donald Trump presented a special trophy to the winning wrestler at the Summer Sumo Tournament, he read the name of the rikishi as “Asanoyama Hideki,” with his professional name first and given name second. Perhaps if Japanese athletes participating in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 are introduced by family name first and then given name, the practice will start taking root.
Nowadays we are enjoying more opportunities for interchanges that transcend barriers of differences in language. But for that to happen, mutual understanding of our traditional cultures is essential. Some experts in language teaching warn that giving short shrift to one’s own culture while trying to adapt to please others is actually an obstacle to real understanding.
If Japan succumbs to a self-flagellating view of history, in which we turn our backs on our national flag and national anthem and display a wobbly stance concerning territorial issues, we will lose the trust of international society.
Changing the way Japanese names are expressed to foreigners to bring them in line with the actual situation offers a perfect opportunity to truly think internationally.
(Click here to read the column in its original Japanese.)
Author: The Sankei Shimbun Editorial Board