Japan grapples with putting family or given name first ahead of 2020 Tokyo Olympics


With around a year to go until the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the age-old question of whether to put family or given name first when writing Japanese names in English has started to garner attention.

The issue was recently put into the spotlight by Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who suggested in May that major foreign media organizations should write the name of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “Abe Shinzo,” with the family name coming first.

But the proposed change prompted strong push-back by those who claimed that the reversal of long-standing customs would cause confusion. Even Abe’s own Cabinet members were divided over the proposal, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying that his given name should come first in English.

When Japanese names are written in Japanese, the family name customarily comes first, followed by the given name. But when rendered in Roman script, they are written in the opposite order, in line with Western tradition.

According to professor Yasuyuki Shimizu, who specializes in Japanese language studies at Japan Women’s University, the earliest public records of Japanese names in English script were written with the family name preceding the given name.

When the Tokugawa shogunate, rulers of nation during the Edo Period (1603-1868), concluded the Treaty of Peace and Amity with the United States, the first treaty between the two countries, in 1854, the Japanese interpreter signed the treaty in English with the family name first.

But English-language magazines published in Japan started to put given names first for Japanese names from the 1880s, and the style was popularized in the 1890s.

A report drawn up by a now-defunct Japanese language council at the Cultural Affairs Agency in 2000 attributed the change in style to the effects of Europeanization in Japan during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

The report went on to say that putting the family name first was desirable from the perspective of “linguistic and cultural diversity.” This was reflected in English textbooks used at junior high schools in Japan, which currently put Japanese people’s names in order of family name and then given name.

The agency had originally planned to call on government bodies and media organizations to adopt the family-name-first style, but it halted the move due to disagreements within the government.

Calls to put the family name first have also sprung up from the general public.

One such advocate is Shoichi Hasegawa, an executive of Jichi Medical University.

Hasegawa, 61, first took notice of the issue while working as expatriate staff in Paris for the now-defunct Home Affairs Ministry about three decades ago. He found that, while French people called each other with the given name first, it was not strange to find the family name preceding the given name in official documents.

This confusion about name order, he said, continued after he returned to Japan. During the Olympic Games, Hasegawa noticed that Chinese and South Korean athletes’ names were displayed with the family name first, in line with their cultural customs, while the names of Japanese athletes were displayed with the given name first.

Seeing the upcoming Tokyo Games as an opportunity for change, Hasegawa started contacting former ministry colleagues and friends from school in March to call for having the family name put before the given name. Support for the change gradually grew after a former colleague and current member of the Diet took up the call, when the statement by Kono was issued.

But Hasegawa said that it is not necessary to coerce people to adopt the family-name-first style.

“Government offices and the media should unify around family name first, given name second, but on an individual level, it should be left up to people,” he said.

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