Voices | COMMUNITY CHEST

Readers’ views: katakana name frustration, U.S. gun violence and Europe as a Japan study-abroad option

A selection of responses from readers to recent stories on the Community pages:

What frustration’s in a name?

Re: “In Japan, who do you think you are? Fun and games with foreign names in katakana” (The Foreign Element)

I would like to thank Louise George Kittaka for her April 4 article on foreign names and katakana. Haven’t we all been through the same thing as the people she introduces in the article? I myself have been here since 1979, and during those nearly 40 years have gone through many different approaches to how to “name” myself here.

At first I resisted katakana, because the pronunciation was so different from what I was used to in English that it didn’t sound like my own name. I soon got over that, and then I had to deal with the name order. At church, my wife and two children were always listed in the Japanese way, with the family name last, and only I would be listed in the English way with my given name first — and this was in katakana. Fortunately, we were easily able to convince them to list us all — as a family — in the same way in the Japanese name order, but many people still would refer to me verbally with my given name first.

Early on, when I was still feeling alienated from the katakana pronunciation, I also wrote my name in the English order, but after the church experience I started writing my name with my family name first on everything. Of course, what do you think happened? Everybody then arbitrarily changed it back to given name first. Some people even found it “odd” that I would write my family name first!

For years I had had to put up with being called “David-san” at the post office and bank because my name was in the English order. The Japanese couldn’t tell which was my family name, so they reverted to their own cultural conventions and called me by the name listed first. Yet, most people still insisted on writing my name in the English order even if they knew David was my given name!

As far as I’m concerned, you should follow the conventions of the language and culture you’re dealing with in order to make understanding easier. Westerners would not know that Watanabe Hanako should not be called “Watanabe” as if it were her first name. And why should they?

Finally, my university had a policy of referring to all foreign teachers by their Roman alphabet initials and the family name in katakana, in that order. Initially, this struck me as a holdover from my father’s generation; nobody in my generation ever used their initials in writing their given names.

I protested and asked them to spell out my given names in katakana, but I got nowhere except at the Christian Center (it’s a Christian university). They actually finally asked me how I wrote my name in katakana, and they began using that katakana. They were the only people in all my years so far in Japan who have ever “respected” my “spelling” of my own name. Even people who are otherwise culturally sensitive don’t appear to pay any attention to the way I sign my name and just go ahead on their own and transliterate it into katakana however they please.

At first, after I had long come to accept the katakana version(s) of my name, I still felt my name was somehow being taken from me and no longer really belonged to me. I can only assume that foreign names just aren’t “real” names to most Japanese. After all, there are no universal rules as to the name order, no rules as to how to transliterate them — no rules at all because they are not real in the way Japanese names are. Yet, as your story pointed out, officialdom will give you all kinds of grief if they have more than one katakana version of your name on record.

While nothing will ever excuse any of this, it does, I’m afraid, remind me of the way many “strange” foreign names were Anglicized and changed when immigrants passed through Ellis Island in New York. After all, not knowing what to do with foreign names is not unique to Japan, although Japan has its own peculiar way of mishandling them.

DAVID BURGER

Saitama

A beautiful sharing of feelings

Re: “A shooting at my school, Florida’s Douglas High, viewed from afar in Japan but still so close” by Melissa Uchiyama, Foreign Agenda, March 11:

A beautiful sharing of feelings from so far away but so closely connected. Ilene Dickerman, Melissa’s mom, sent me this link, and as an elementary school teacher in Oregon, watching and listening, I get it.

Thank you for your expressions of condolences, and hope for a change in attitude about guns in schools. We are hoping that all U.S. citizens will recognize that assault rifles are not used under the guise of hunting, but rather sick acts of killing. May children all over the world live in harmony not hate.

DEBRA GELZER

Oregon

Why not try Europe?

Re: “Why not try Canada, eh?: For Japanese students, a university up north is worth considering” by Michael Hassett (Learning Curve, March 28):

Here’s an idea for an article to add to the Canada idea: Europe. As an overseas university counsellor at Kumon Kokusai Gakuen, we’ve been sending students to UBC (University of British Columbia) for years as a good-value alternative to the U.S. But UBC recently increased fees for overseas students by 50 percent, so we’re now looking at more specialised universities in Europe where far better-value courses are on offer.

For example, I just returned from Bocconi in Milan, where one of our students will become among the first Japanese undergraduates in September (they have a new Japanese assistant professor, too). Then there is IE University in Madrid, where about 70 percent of students are from overseas (check out the new campus at bit.ly/iecampus). Also, they have a stunning campus in Segovia, a UNESCO heritage site. We hope to send students there, too. Both universities are grounded on the success of stellar MBA programmes and have strong ties to the international business communities.

Other places we are looking at are Karlsruhe Benz Institute for engineering in Germany and Leiden (a graduate who’s currently studying at Tokyo Uni is on exchange there now) in Holland for political science. There are many more opportunities from medicine to architecture within the EU, all offering excellent value for money.

GAVIN WILLIAMS

Yokohama

Dates refer to when stories were published online, and headlines may differ from those used in the print edition.

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