New options raise the stakes in the ‘Name that Baby’ game

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Since middle names are not used in Japan, the parents of a newborn need only agree on one name for their offspring. This is probably just as well: Choosing a kanji name involves a whole host of complex considerations, and while some couples settle on a name written in kana (Japan’s phonetic script), the majority opt for a moniker of one to three kanji for their little bundles of joy.

Many new parents uphold the tradition of consulting fortunetelling charts to determine whether a potential name is “auspicious,” based on the number of strokes in the characters comprising it. The pronunciation of each kanji must be decided upon, with obscure options often available, and the given and family names must sound harmonious together. The meanings of the characters are also of critical importance, reflecting, as they often do, the hopes parents hold for their child.

Since 1990, the Justice Ministry has limited the kanji allowed for use in Japanese personal names to the 1,945 general-use (joyo) kanji and 285 name (jinmei) kanji. Beginning last month, however, a wide range of new naming options became available: Responding to public pressure, the ministry has increased the number of jinmei kanji by 488, bringing the total to 773.

The working group charged with choosing the additional characters first drew up a proposed list, based on frequency of use, from the Japan Industrial Standards (JIS 1 and 2) kanji lists. The public was then invited to voice its opinion on which characters were inappropriate for use in names. Approximately 90 JIS kanji were axed from the initial list — including “ant,” “hemorrhoid,” “mother-in-law” and “debauchery.”

However, many of the characters that did survive the cut to become jinmei kanji seem unlikely to appear with any regularity on elementary-school rosters in the coming years. These include the characters for mundane household objects such as “chopsticks,” “tiles” and “pots.” Ditto body parts (“armpit” and “kidney”), sea creatures (“shrimp” and “sardine”) and the verbs “to crawl” and “to lose weight.” “Bee” also seems something of a long shot, with “honey” a bit more likely, perhaps for a girl’s name. The odds seem long for the likes of “lonely,” “claw” or “mochi (rice cake)” being widely used in names for either gender.

Some of the new jinmei kanji, however, do possess the potential to emerge as serious players in the ‘Name That Baby’ game. Watch for “Strawberry” to press its way into the top-10 list of girls’ names within a year or so. Japanese parents are also now free to name their daughters “Apple,” just as American movie actress Gwyneth Paltrow recently did. Given that girls’ names containing the kanji for “peach,” “pear” and “apricot” are already common, newcomers “melon” and “persimmon” may also attract interest.

The current boom in flower-kanji monikers for girls — as demonstrated by “Hollyhock (Aoi)” and “Bud (Moe)” in the 2003 top-10 girls’ names list — is likely to continue: “Kikyo (bellflower)” and “nadeshiko (pink — the flower)” are comprised of new jinmei kanji, and the Japanese media has them pegged to become hot new names. Other promising nature newcomers include “amber,” “birch” and “raindrop.”

For boys born in the next few years in the Japanese archipelago, look for newly allowed nautical-kanji like “rudder,” “gunwale” and “sea gull” to make a splash. In addition to sea gull, a flock of other bird-kanji — “swallow,” “heron,” “crow” and “wild duck” — are new jinmei characters, but the soaring “eagle” seems the bird most likely to land in the list of boys’ names. Kanji representing “wing” and “soar” appear in four names in the 2003 top-10 boys’ names list, reflecting parents’ hopes that their sons will ascend to great heights in life.

“Hillock,” the second character in place names Shizuoka and Fukuoka, is now available for use in personal names, and may begin to pop up in boys’ names. The kanji for “Korea” is another jinmei newcomer; one hopes that the current boom in Japan for Korean television dramas will do its part to eat away at lingering discrimination against ethnic Koreans, and bring this character into contention in the name game.

It remains to be seen how many parents will use the additional jinmei kanji to craft brand new names for their little ones. In the coming months, make a point of asking new Japanese parents the meanings of the kanji in their babies’ names, and don’t forget to check whether they considered any of the newcomers discussed in today’s column.

To read 60 previous Kanji Clinic columns, visit www.kanjiclinic.com. Send comments to Mary Sisk Noguchi at kanjiclinic@aol.com.