Sunday, February 20, 2011

The problem with foreign names in Japan... - What's in a name? Pt. II

To follow up on my previous post on the difficulties that a foreign name can cause here in Japan... But I guess some rudimentary explanation on the Japanese language and names are in order first to put stuff in context. Basically, the Japanese writing language consists of three separate "alphabets" used for different purposes, there's the "hiragana" alphabet mostly used for grammatical purposes and then there's the "katakana" alphabet which is used for loan words from other languages and then there's the vast amounts of "kanji", the Chinese characters used for the bulk of text.

For names, the basic rule is that Japanese people have their names written in kanji although there are some exceptions. Also, one big difference in naming compared to names given in the Roman alphabet is that the Chinese characters can have different pronunciations and meaning. Say for instance, that the common female name of "Tomoko" can be written in quite a few ways depending on the meaning that the parents wants to use in the name and it is impossible to guess which one just based on seeing it written in roman letters.

So, for foreigners coming to Japan with a name that's not native to the Japanese language, the natural way for the Japanese writing system to handle this is by using the katakana alphabet and, as closely as possibly, imitate the sound of the name with katakana. Although it is theoretically possibly to find a combination of kanji that could give a similar pronunciation, it's a sure way to 1. confuse Japanese people on what the name is supposed to be 2. create a flurry of different wrong pronunciations and 3. making you look like a douche bag that can't chose a simple way to make your name understandable.

Also, Japanese people do not have middle names and only one first name and one family name and the whole system is adapted to this simple and static naming. It doesn't matter which alphabet the name is written with, as long as it follows this basic pattern, things will be easy enough.

Whew, ok, that was the very basic context of how names work in Japan. The problem that I face then is the number of names that I have... I have three "first names", two Swedish (one which is my "main name" and one from my grandfather) and one Japanese, then I have a Japanese "middle name" and finally the Swedish family name. So in my passport my name is written as;

First name: Tomas Bengt Kenjiro
Family Name: Yutani Weyland

Since I have Japanese family, the characters of my Japanese family name (湯谷) is decided and follows that of the family on the Japanese side, but for "Kenjiro" the name was never officially registered on the Japanese side and therefore I can write it pretty much as I like but usually do it in kanji since it looks strange to write such a name in katakana or hiragana.

Most people in Japan know me as "Tomas Yutani" as that is the combination I use for work, but legally, my real family name, and the way I sign documents in Sweden is "Tomas Weyland". To further complicate things, Mrs. Sunshine and Baby Sunshine have taken the Swedish family name and are legally named Sunshine Weyland and Baby Weyland with no Japanese family name in there as it proved too complicated for Mrs. Sunshine to add her old family name as a middle name and she didn't want to have separate family names (which is allowed in Japan).

Now, the big problem I face is in official documents where I'm required to write my "full name". There are quite a number of difficulties that come into play here;

1. There is not enough space for me to write the full name

2. Sometimes it's designed to be written "as in the passport" for non-Japanese but sometimes it needs to be written in Japanese (i.e. mostly in katakana with kanji for the family name)

3. The order the names are written; Japanese prefer to write names family name first, followed by first name

What really makes things confusing here is that, when running into problem (1), the way this is handled can vary depending on the person I'm interacting with. Some people just give up and ask me to write the "most important" ones as I can fit them in while some people get really creative and makes space for me to write it in miniature letters. (2) usually doesn't cause me any direct problems, but makes it confusing since my name is written in different alphabets depending on the institution. (3) is also a point of confusion as the order in my passport is first names (all three) followed by family names (two of them, one legally a middle name, but the Japanese system doesn't take that into account) but this can cause my name to appear "backward" with "Tomas" being my family name. Not to mention that all of these three problems can very much be cumulative and compounded.

If you think this sounds complicated, believe me, it's nothing compared to what I have to deal with when trying to sort out paperwork here in Japan. I have to try and keep track of what name, in what constellation and in which alphabet for all my different accounts. Without fail, I always gets documents returned with a mark on the name and asking me to write it in way X in which it's registered. It makes me feel a bit like an International terrorist having a number of different identities to chose from, but also a quite bad one since I can never keep track of which one I used where.

Just having the simple name of "Sven Svensson" would make all the paperwork a whole lot easier... But to also up the future confusion for Baby Sunshine, I've also made sure to register another first name for her in her Swedish passport (but not in Japan), it's bound to give her problems further down the road!


Mr. S. said...

"Yutani Weyland": very clever pseudonym. I should buy stock in your company!

All of my names are written in katakana, but though I am an Anglo, two of them are not well known names even in my own country: something like Evan James Mallon. I do not have your level of complication, but in unofficial documents I underline the surname. When I introduce myself I do so in European name order, because that's what Japanese expect to decipher. How to handle your three-culture names... ?!

You are right to point out that assuming kanji for foreign names makes one a tool. Though I have a three Chinese character name from a poor attempt to study Mandarin, even as a young man I was not pretentious enough to try to use them in Japanese. I am pretentious enough to use them as my email address.

Family registers are a further complication. (Japan! Grow up! 10% of your babies are not 100% ware-ware-Nihonjin!) I did not coerce my Japanese wife to change her surname when she had to make a new FR because she could not join a Japanese husband's FR (Japan! Grow up!). What I did not know, and she did not tell me... is that in Japan my child does not have my surname now. I would not mind except the purpose of giving him a Japanese first name, and my Anglo surname, was to honour both cultures. Sigh...

Chris said...

Just write:
"Foreign Salary man in Japan"

Cut out a knife from cardboard that is obviously cardboard. If anyone gives you stress about the name just take out the obviously fake knife and make threatining slicing motions across your neck.

You should be O.K.

Janne Morén said...

I just never mention I have a middle name unless I am forced (the "as in your passport" requirement, basically). And I always skip the accent in my last name - nobody can input it anyhow.

Sometimes I wish my name was Bo Ek - couldn't be simpler.

TheOctopus said...

My parents burdened me with first and middle names which caused no end of ambiguity about my perceived gender back on the old continent, so for many years I have been going by a shortened version of one and a differently spelled version of the other, which made life in general much easier, but still caused all sorts of nasty problems when dealing with organisations who needed to know my proper, official appellations. For example, my bank in Germany, after about 15 year banking with them, suddenly decided they'd been addressing me erroneously as "Mr." all these years and decided to change this to "Mrs." without asking me.

Luckily this is a total non-issue in Japan, as no-one is really with the names in question, and the ubiquitous "sama" means the whole Mr./Mrs./Ms. thing is a non-issue anyway, so all I have to deal with are the usual foreign-names-in-Japan problems.

(On the flip side, I know a lot of Japanese ladies resident in Germany with first names ending in "-ko" have problems as "-ko" is more associated with male names there).

Mr. Salaryman said...

Whew, I put off replying back here since you guys wrote quite long comments that I should reply to a little more than "huh? great stuff".

Mr. S. - Wow, it seems like your wife did a little number on you behind your back, making sure that the kid didn't get your name? But it also seems to be quite complicated and most Japanese people don't really seem to know the ins and outs of this (which is not surprising since they don't really have a reason to). One "problem" with a Japanese surname is that the Japanese automatically assumes that that is the "main" one; more convenient for them to handle than "Weyland", this has caused me some problems from time to time...

Chris - Huh? Great stuff ;)

Janne - Yep, that's my general strategy as well, but it can get a bit messy when credit cards and stuff gets involved as well for me (it's the whole "two family names but one is actually a middle name" that really gets things confused)

Octopus - Yeah, the gender confusion that quite a few Japanese names can give (particularly if you don't see the kanji for it, just the name spelled out in roman letters) really is solved easily by the "san/sama" thing. At least all my names are very manly manly names. Too bad it was in Germany though, if it had been in the US you might've been able to sue the bank for the emotional damage it caused to you to be referred to as a lady!

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