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Thinking of naming your baby ‘Spiderman’? Think again

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Unlike that of many countries, the Japanese government has the legal authority to prevent parents from giving their children certain names — say the kanji incarnation of “Spiderman.”

In order for the birth of a baby to be registered with local authorities in Japan, all the kanji in the child’s given name must be chosen from characters approved by the Justice Ministry. Parents are allowed to select from the 1,945 general-use (joyo) kanji and a list of name (jinmei) kanji, or, alternatively, to write the name in kana.

Last June, the ministry announced that the 285 jinmei-kanji list would be expanded, and, citing increasing diversification of values in Japanese society, that the public would be allowed to have its say in the matter.

A ministry working group first drew up a proposed list of 578 characters, based on frequency of use, and then gave the public one month to submit feedback on the would-be inductees. By the time the final list of newly allowed characters was announced in September, approximately 90 kanji — including “spider” — had been axed.

Soon after the deadline for responses, the ministry proclaimed that nine god-awful proposals — “feces,” “corpse,” “curse,” “cancer,” “wickedness,” “lewd,” “bear a grudge,” “hemorrhoid” and “mistress” would be the first group of kanji to be expunged from the list. Each of these highly unpopular candidates had been given the nix by over 100 respondents.

Anatomical kanji such as “buttocks,” “crotch,” “jaw,” “knee” and “throat” were later stricken from the list, as were unsavory body fluids “pus” and “spittle.” Kanji painting pictures of violent death — “to drown,” “to crush” and “to hang” — were given the ax, as were several characters related to criminal activity: “jail,” “prostitute,” “to bribe” and “to peep” (as in “peeping Tom”).

Several animals with image problems — “rat,” “fox” and “raccoon-dog” (tanuki, that pudgy animal with the jumbo-size scrotum you see in ceramic form outside of Japanese drinking establishments), for example — were banished, and so was “female animal” (the second character in the kanji compound word “bitch”).

Regarding the elimination of animal and insect characters, there were, from my perspective, a few surprises.

The industrious “ant” got stamped off the list, but the pesky “bee” managed to avoid a death sentence. “Frog,” whose gero-gero croak features in a traditional children’s song about the onset of summer, was exterminated, while the predatory “crocodile” was spared. And why, after all the complaints heard from Tokyoites about crows breaking open garbage bags — not to mention fears of their spreading avian flu — was “crow” not shooed away?

Unlike their jinmei counterparts, the joyo kanji have not been vetted for appropriateness of use in personal names, and there are some real stinkers among them, too: “Pig,” “death,” “urine,” “poison,” “mosquito,” “tears,” “dirty” and “hate” are just a few of the over 300 general-use characters that name guidebooks for parents counsel steering clear of. So why doesn’t the Justice Ministry give the public an opportunity to disqualify joyo characters it considers distasteful, just as it did for the new jinmei characters?

This begs a larger question: Are disqualifications of any frequently used kanji really necessary? With few exceptions, Japanese parents can be counted on to give their children inoffensive — if sometimes difficult to pronounce — kanji names. Besides, universal agreement on the appropriateness of several thousand individual kanji for use in names is impossible. As a demonstration of this problematic fact, check out the quiz below with a friend or spouse and see how your opinions differ.

QUIZ: In each pair below, one is the English keyword for a new jinmei kanji, the other is the keyword for a kanji eliminated from the Justice Ministry’s original list. Identify which of the two, if either, you find more inappropriate for use in names. Those actually eliminated are given at the end.

1. spine/armpit 2. puzzle/lie 3. jealousy/gloom 4. to leak/to get wet 5. to kick/to scold 6. turnip/animal feed 7. to bark/to give off a smell 8. to crawl/to shave 9. mother-in-law/old woman 10. male animal/old man

Answers: 1. spine 2. lie 3. jealousy 4. to leak 5. to scold 6. animal feed 7. to bark 8. to shave 9. mother-in-law 10. old man

To read other columns about Japanese given and family names, visit www.kanjiclinic.com