Saturday, March 21, 2020

Japanese names - family name first or given name first?

Just taking a break from all-COVID-19-all-the-time, spare a thought for poor Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan.
Not only is he having to preside over the devastation of his country's economy as the whole world grinds to a halt. Not only is he having to just stand back and wait for the decision whether nor to go ahead with the Olympics in Tokyo in July this year. But the Western press can't even get his name right.
His name in Japan is Abe Shinzo because, like many Asian languages (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese), the family name comes first in Japan. Think of Xi Jinping, Mao Zedong, Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong-un.
Historically, the use of family names or surnames in Japan only dates back to 1868, the start of the Meiji Restoration, when many Western cultural practices were adopted. Before that, most Japanese only made use of one name. Although the Japanese opted for the family-name-first structure at this time, the given-name-first order was used for Westerners, mainly for the convenience of the rather hide-bound Western diplomats. However,when Emperor Naruhito acceded to the  Chrysanthemum throne on 1 May 2019, ushering in the Reiwa Era, Japan thought it a good time to ask the international press to start writing and saying his name correctly.
So, how is that going? Have you ever seen his name written Abe Shinzo? Just as there was a lot of resistance to changing to the Pinyin spelling of Chinese names in the 1980s - Peking to Beijing, Canton to Guangzhou, Szechwan to Sinchuan, Shensi to Shaanxi, Mao Tse-Tung to Mao Zedong, etc, etc - this will apparently take some time. (And some of the old spellings, like Szechwan, still persist anyway, and China itself was never, and I am sure will never be, changed to Zhonghua). The same lag applied when India changed its colonial place-names - Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai, Calcutta to Kolkata, etc - in the 1990s and 2000s.
Convention is a heavy load to shift. Even the Japan Times, and the company literature of Japanese firms like Honda, Uniqlo and Rakuten, use the Western given-name-first convention. Japanese businessmen often have two sets of business cards, one for local use with the family name first, and another for Westerners with the given name first.
The Economist, however, has made the change, as of the begining of 2020, and that might gradually start a shift. So, expect a period of some confusion. For instance, the CEO of Nissan Motor Company is called Makoto Uchida - so, is that Mr. Makoto or Mr. Uchida?

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