The Problem With Names In Japanese And In English

A Tokyo Olympic meeting in November 2018 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Eugene Hoshiko, AP)

Yesterday, Japan’s foreign minister asked the English-language media to write Japanese family names first, as done in Japanese.

This would change how Japanese names are typically written in English. For example, famed animator Hayao Miyazaki is Miyazaki Hayao in Japanese, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto is Miyamoto Shigeru and Prime Minister Shizo Abe is Abe Shinzo.

“The new Reiwa era was ushered in and we are hosting the Group of 20 summit,” Foreign Minister Kono was quoted by Mainichi as saying. “As many news organisations write Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (in the family name, first name order), it is desirable for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name to be written in a similar manner.”

Korean and Chinese names have traditionally been written surname first.

Not everyone supports the change. Switching now would be certainly confusing—and costly. At least, that’s what Yoichi Masuzoe, former governor of Tokyo, thinks.

For over a hundred years, Japanese names have been written in English with the family name last. The Japanese began this practice during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), an era when the country industrialized, modernised and Westernized. Japan was the first country in Asia to do such, and the government did many things to show the West that it was an advanced country, such as ban tattooing and snake charming. (Note Japan during this period had a very high literacy rate, a robust publishing industry and was home to the biggest city in the world, Edo, or modern-day Tokyo.)

The influences of that period are still felt. The European-style dress still worn by the Emperor and politicians in official ceremonies was also established during this period.

The Japanese government is now citing a 2000 report by the education ministry’s National Language Council pushing for Japanese family names to be written first in English. A poll from that year revealed that 34.9 per cent of Japanese preferred surname-first in English, while 30.6 per cent preferred given-name first and another 29.6 per cent were fine either way.

English language versions of Japanese newspapers have yet to change as their own style guides put Japanese family names last. For example, Kyodo News both use “given name-surname” for Japanese names. Chinese and Korean names are written in the surname first style.

(English-language academic writing, however, has long followed the original Japanese style name ordering.)

To complicate things further, the Japanese government has long been following the English-language name order. Below is a screenshot of press releases from the last two months.

Screenshot: Japan Kantei

As someone living in Japan, the sudden refocusing on name order is fascinating.

In Japanese, foreign names are typically written phonetically in the order that they appear in their original language. For example, “Brad Pitt” is written phonetically as “Brad Pitt” in Japanese media (ブラッド・ピット or “Buraddo Pitto”) and not “Pitt Brad.” The phonetic writing system changes the pronunciation of the words, obviously, but the order of family name last means that Japanese people often refer to foreigners by their first names.

There are several reasons for this. The big one is that the first name they see is your first name and instinctively address others by it. The other reason is that foreign last names can get quite long phonetically in Japanese. For a language that can seem hellbent on shortening words (for example, “rajio kontorooru” or “radio control” in Japanese is simply “rajikon”), foreign last names can be a mouthful. Foreign surnames are often unfamiliar compared to many foreign first names, which are often shorter.

Among adults, the problem is that in Japan addressing people by their first name isn’t typically done in many environments. While among friends, first names and silly nicknames are common, in many situations, it would be considered either too forward or even downright rude to address someone in such a manner.

In Japanese, there are honorifics that are attached to family names, such as “san.” However, at work, for example, “san” would be dropped for your boss and his or her work title would be used instead. Your co-workers would still be “san,” unless you are speaking to a client or someone else outside the company about a co-worker. Then, “san” would be dropped and in this case, it is not impolite.

However, it is rude to drop “san” in other situations in which the honorific is required. All of this is very important. (More here.) While names and naming conventions are front and center in Japanese culture, it’s not that uncommon for “san” to be dropped for foreigners. The speaker might not intend any disrespect, but instead, is trying to follow English conventions. (They might even use an English “Mr.” or “Ms.” instead.) Context and intent are key!

This does mean that if a Japanese person introduced themselves surname first in English, addressing them simply by their surname, as one would instinctively do, you could sound rude. (However, I don’t think anyone would be really all that fussed!) But knowing the Japanese language conventions might cause some natural uneasiness.

For example, in Japanese, you would your call co-worker “Yamada-san” when talking to them or about them with other colleagues. “Yamada” is that person’s last name. But addressing that co-worker as simply “Yamada” in Japanese would be rude.

This is why if someone introduced themselves as “Yamada Taro” in English, the natural inclination would be to call that person “Yamada,” and even though this is in English, it might sound impolite to someone who knows both languages. Then again, “Taro” might be too casual. It’s complicated, but that’s been the standard for the past century.

When I still lived in the States, I can remember knowing people only by their first name and having no idea what their last name was. The reverse is true in Japan.

Typically, I introduce myself by my last name when speaking Japanese because that is the custom in Japan where I live. On the phone, I am slightly amused when people ask me if my last name is the name of a company—not quite understanding that it’s a last name! I don’t mind if they butcher it, as long as they try, but it is annoying when people say, “Oh your name is too long” or simply start calling me “Ash.”

I don’t mind that in English, but it is off-putting to hear the hospital receptionist call out “Ash-san,” especially when my last name is clearly written out phonetically in Japanese and when the same receptionist would never ever call Yamaguchi-san “Yama-san” or Nakamura-san “Naka-san.” It’s even more irritating when teachers can’t be bothered to call my kids by their last name when they do bother for the other students. Why not follow the cultural conventions established by your own country?

When speaking a foreign language, you absorb those cultural conventions. Japanese formality comes across when speaking Japanese. You become aware of things you might not when speaking your native language. You use different ways of expressing yourself. You notice how language reflects culture. The same is true for when speaking English. But some things translate perfectly and others are lost completely.



    There’s no need to reorder. Just capitalise or underline the family name for clarity.

      That doesn't work for speech, though.

        You can always shout the capitalised words. That's what it looks like the person is doing when they write things that way.


            No, Alex, you just capitalised James’ given name which is going to confused everyone. Or is it his family name? It just occurred to me that the name James can be either. I don’t know what is happening. Help.

    I don't see the problem with changing it going forward.

      Yeah, I’m not sure where this “boatload” money would come into it... unless they’re talking about the staff hours required to update things like websites and directories.

        Yes its pretty much updating websites/directories... but its not just that you would have official documents that would need to be edited, templates that need to be altered and so on... sure it seems simple for one company but imagine every facet of business and government having to amend all their records. Its not a small task..

          That makes sense. It’s not going to cost any one company/government body a huge amount, but the collective cost would be large. Assumedly, Japanese companies and government departments already use the family-given format already, so the burden would largely be placed on international companies to update their records.

      Yeah, sounds reasonable to me. It's just a style guide change for western script. I don't see any huge cost to this either - in printed publications just start doing it for new ones, and for online publications just grep and replace with a single action.

    Switching now would be certainly confusing—and costly.It's been confusing me for decades because English publications haven't been consistent with it so I always interpret it the Japanese way (having learned Japanese) and sometimes it's right and sometimes it's not. Over time you learn common surnames but sometimes it's like the English equivalent of something like Cooper Davis where either name can be a first and surname.

    Make you a deal: lose the kanji and we will reverse the name order.

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