Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Bicultural Japanese baby names can be double the trouble

Reflecting two cultures in a name that works in Japan and abroad is just one challenge

by J.J. O'Donoghue

What do the following names have in common: Ayeisha, December, Eli, Gabrielle, Haruki, Julie, Kaede, Koh, Leon, Louis, Lucia, Luke, Margaret, Olivia, Ryuken, Tobin and Tennis? They are all children’s names — all but one the sons and daughters of bicultural couples.

Naming a child is a conundrum. It doesn’t have to be, and in some cases it isn’t. But mostly, it is: You’re giving someone you’ve never met an appellation they will be known by for the rest of their life. And some.

Names can be changed — the musician Prince did it, sort of — but it’s not as easy as changing your Twitter handle. Names are important, because we give them importance.

In choosing a name, parents resort to all manner of tactics and devices: some opt for invention, others use vetoes, others yet settle on the “wait-and-see option.” There is an entire industry to help guide parents, encompassing books, websites, blogs, baby-name generators and consultants. And there’s always the old reliable: tradition — recycling names passed down within families from generation to generation.

While Japanese parents have to wrestle with the world of kanji, capturing the right characters to suit their son or daughter, parents of bicultural kids have to contend with a little extra baggage: their separate ethnicity, history, culture and even family demands or traditions. And that’s before you factor in concerns about pronunciation and the meaning of certain names in other languages. I knew a Nick in Japan who was the butt of all meat jokes.

In my own case, I come from a long line of Johns: my father, his father before him, we were all christened John. On my mother’s side, her father was Joseph. They collided when I was born: John Joseph. The name John is, or was, as common as a toilet in Ireland, so I settled on J.J. to be a little bit different. Also, it’s easy to spell.

When my son was born last year, by some sort of consensus my wife and I agreed to go with a Japanese name first, followed by an Irish middle name. There is no legal structure for middle names in Japan, so in official and legal documents in Japan his first name is Haruki Miceal — even though we mostly call him Haruki.

How did we arrive at these two disparate names? For his Japanese name I was thinking about names that people in Ireland wouldn’t trip over while saying; Haruki, with its three crisp syllables, fits that bill (no offense if your name is Ryosuke or Shunsuke, but . . .). Also, thanks to a certain other Haruki, also born in Kyoto but slightly better known, the name isn’t so foreign to some Irish ears.

Miceal is in memory of my uncle, on my mother’s side, who on first hearing my wife’s name, Tomomi, called her Tomato. (See what I mean about some Irish ears?)

December Rogers sounds like a Hollywood star from another age. Maybe Hollywood beckons, but December is still only a toddler. She is the only child of James Rogers, a New Yorker living in Osaka, and his wife, Harue. Rogers says he wants his daughter to be different, so it started with the name.

“I certainly wanted to give my daughter a unique name because I want her to stand out and be extraordinary in this world,” he says. “The provenance of her name? The word December comes from ancient Latin and actually means 10th month, the month my daughter was born. Her name emulates my life view of searching for the true meaning of things.”

As to what other people think, Rogers isn’t bothered.

“My wife’s parents were a little worried at first with such a unique name choice, but they warmed up to it quite quickly,” he says. “The thing is, I named her because I think it’s beautiful, and that’s that.”

Sometimes though, that isn’t that — at least not when it comes to official documents. Japanese passport office staff have been known to ask for official proof to certify the spelling. Typically they will ask to see a letter or bill with the child’s name printed on it.

Martin Hawkes, from England and now living in Kyoto, recounts that when he went to get a passport for his newborn son Louis, office staff in Kyoto asked him for evidence of the spelling of the name.

“Louis was only a couple of weeks old and we didn’t have anything,” Hawkes says.

To overcome this hurdle and bag Louis’ passport, his father went upstairs to the international center in Kyoto Station, went online to the Louis Vuitton home page, pressed “print” and then handed the officials the paper.

“That was acceptable as official recognition of his name,” he says.

Incidentally, the name Louis was just plucked from the air, Hawkes says, but he and his wife Tomoko did wait a few days after their son was born before settling on the name.

Ryuken Azen, who is Spanish-Japanese, also plucked part of his name from the air, literally.

“When Ryuken was just seven days old, my husband and I hung syllables and letters above his little head until, annoyed or interested, he pulled down some of the pieces, and they made a name: Azen,” says his mother, Junko Matsuoka, a teacher and artist living in Osaka. “We always tell him, ‘You chose your name. It’s neither Japanese nor Spanish.’ ”

While choosing a first name can be a trial, a second name can be even more of an ordeal — especially when their purpose is unclear. Indeed, many parents are happy to forego the middle name altogether and the hassle that may come with it.

Cosmin Florescu from Romania and his wife, Naoko, named their daughter Lucia.

“Not having a middle name is a huge relief, as paperwork can turn out to be a headache if you don’t get the order right,” Florescu says.

Lucia translates as “light” in Romanian and the kanji represent thousand-colored lapis lazuli — a precious blue stone — in Japanese.

Before Graham Nicol from Scotland and his wife, Maria Deasis from the Philippines, had any children, they had an agreement: He would win the naming rights if his wife had a girl, and she would do the honors if it was a boy. Dad won, twice. Ayeisha, the name of their eldest girl, is an amalgamation of Aye — Scottish for “yes” — and Ishiyama, a train station near Otsu in Shiga Prefecture. The name of Ayeisha’s sister, Gabrielle, was chosen from the Bible.

Nicol says he is glad that he has girls: Of his wife’s choices for boy’s names, Loxley was one, Constantine another. “I shudder every time I think about them,” he says.

The Pootens — Misao from Japan and Holger from Germany, both living in London — collected names while Misao was pregnant. However, “Sometimes one of us put in a ‘veto’ because Misao or I associated the name with a silly person we know,” Pooten says.

In the end they named their first son Tobin and their second Eli. Both Pooten boys were given Japanese middle names: Satoshi and Tadashi.

“I think we did that to support their Japanese identity and, if they decide to live in Japan, to give them names that Japanese can relate to,” their father says.

Junko Matsuoka says giving her son Ryuken a Japanese first name seems to make Japanese people “comfortable” on first hearing his name.

“Also, I think that is helping him to integrate better with his friends in Japan,” she adds. “In my opinion, Japanese people feel a little closer to those kids who have Japanese names than to those who don’t, because they feel the attitudes of their parents are more positive toward Japanese culture.”

When it comes to surnames in Japan, there is not much love for the hyphen, the little dash of equality that neatly combines two family names. Tennis player Kimiko Date-Krumm is certainly one of the exceptions. Legally it is possible, says Kaori Mori Want, an associate professor at Shibaura Institute of Technology who writes about multicultural issues in Japan, but it’s complicated and predicated on the whim of the presiding judge.

“Children of intermarried couples have at least two cultural heritages, but under the present Japanese family law it is almost impossible to give children a hyphenated last name that would reflect their multicultural heritage,” Mori Want wrote in a paper published last year.

By the way, Tennis, from the list of names at the start — he’s real, although his parents aren’t bicultural. I met him a few years back in Zimbabwe and thought that if I ever write about names, Tennis would have to be in there.

It just goes to show that while faces may fade from memory, names live on. And on. It may be worth remembering that before you call your baby Pooh Bear, Madeinusa or Kitty-Chan.

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