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In Japan, who do you think you are? Fun and games with foreign names in katakana

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

You would think that after a few decades of owning a name, you’d have a good idea of how to pronounce and write it. Then you arrive in Japan and suddenly you’re not so sure. Welcome to the wonderful world of foreign names rendered into the phonetic syllabary of katakana, where experiences can range from the amusing to the infuriating.

The closest rendering of American Heidi Emoto’s first name in katakana is ハイディー (Haidii) but she has become used to older generations calling her ハイジ (Haiji), from the highly popular 1974 Japanese animated adaptation of the classic children’s book. “Ironically, that is the character my name is originally from,” she says.

In a similar vein, Andy Moore from Britain found himself adapting his last name in Japan.

“I pronounce my family name モー (), but this is the sound a cow makes in Japan,” he explains. “So, after trying other variants, I finally settled on ムーア (Mūa), as this is what celebs such as Roger, Demi and Gary are called.”

Katakana has a long history, dating back to the Heian Period in the ninth century, when Buddhist monks developed the phonetic writing system from existing Chinese kanji characters as a form of shorthand. In a nod to these origins, the name katakana means “fragments of syllabic script.” Katakana was used by scholars to help them annotate texts in Chinese, and was also added to official government documentation.

Today, katakana is commonly employed to indicate words that entered Japanese from another language, such as terebi (television), as well as for foreign place names and personal names. Other uses include for technical and scientific terms, in advertising and to add emphasis — similarly to the way italics are deployed in English. A modified version is also used to write the Ainu language.

While it is clearly a highly versatile writing system with a distinguished pedigree, katakana can cause headaches for foreign nationals when names are transcribed wrongly, as Linh Nguyen of Vietnam found when he ended up with two different versions of his last name in katakana on his ID.

“My first bankbook has ヌイェン (Nuyen) but the actual pronunciation is グエン (Guen). The first version was how the staff at my university wrote it when we did the paperwork four years ago,” he says.

Nguyen has learned to deal with the situation, saying it isn’t usually an issue provided he can use his name in romaji (the Roman alphabet) on applications. He did, however, have a problem when he went to a real estate agent to sign a new contract and they refused to set up payment from the bank account with the incorrect version of his name. After three months of having to visit the company to pay his rent in person, they relented.

Foreign nationals may end up acquiescing to an arbitrarily assigned name just to keep the peace, as American Christine Tanaka did. She had been happily using one katakana version of her name while studying in Japan but suddenly found herself with a new moniker after starting her first job.

“The company had already prepared name cards and began filing for my social insurance with a (katakana) variation they had chosen. When I followed up with them, they offered to prepare new name cards for me. However, they made it very clear that they didn’t want to go through the paperwork and process to change social insurance, saying they’d need ‘proof’ my name was changing — seemingly rather than being able or willing to call it a mistake,” she recalls.

As with many long-term foreign residents, Tanaka says she never expected to settle down in Japan, so she just sucked things up and got on with her job. “Only over time did I realize the trickle-down effect — my health insurance card serves as an official form of ID and was the only one with my name written in katakana. After a few years, all my medical records, bank account and insurances had adopted the katakana name that an HR assistant chose for me so many years ago.”

Dee Johnson is celebrating her newly earned Ph.D., but issues with the name on her graduation certificate threatened to take the shine off her achievement.

“My student ID card was written correctly in romaji so there never was an issue — that I was aware of — with my name until I had to apply for graduation,” she says. “I wanted my certificate to be written the way my name is registered, so there are no issues in the future.”

Having filled out the copious paperwork for her application to graduate with her names in both romaji and her official katakana version, the Canadian was shocked to find that university administrators had “fixed” the katakana to match the version of her name on their records, and eliminated the English altogether as “romaji isn’t allowed on the forms.”

After making inquiries, it transpired that the student affairs office at the university had taken it upon themselves to assign their own katakana reading to Johnson’s name, despite the fact that her My Number and other Japanese ID have the “official” version listed.

“They said that ryūgakusei (foreign students) don’t know their katakana. I responded that, as a permanent resident, I’m not a ryūgakusei and I do know my katakana.” To add insult to injury, at first it seemed that Johnson’s romaji name wouldn’t even appear on her graduation certificate — just the incorrect katakana.

Things were eventually resolved after it was explained to the university that Johnson could face problems if her certificate did not match her name as it was officially registered, and the document was finally issued with her name in romaji.

“They had to go back and fix all their documents and records, as it had been wrong for the past five years,” she remembers. “What I don’t understand is how a country that prides itself on names and the explanation of kanji cannot respect other cultures’ names!”

Johnson advises other foreign nationals to familiarize themselves with how to write their name and address in Japanese, as well as their birth date in the Japanese system, as many official documents use the traditional calendar, which is based on the reign of the Emperor.

For long-termers in Japan, one more potentially problematic area is pension payments. Now retired, Jean Boucharlat was surprised to learn that, according to the pension office’s records, there were three of him.

“Over the years my name had been transcribed in katakana in different ways and not always in the same order (name, surname), so I was seen by computers as three different people. This was partly due to my being French, a language whose pronunciation is mostly unknown to Japanese,” he says.

The pension office staff have been working with Boucharlat to fix the issues, but it can take time to confirm older information. If you intend to retire in Japan and suspect your own pension details might be a little murky, it would be prudent to check up on your records sooner rather than later.

A follow-up Lifelines column with practical advice on dealing with katakana-related headaches will be published later this month.

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