A problem newspaper readers in Japan confront on a daily basis is that no definitive rule exists for writing foreigners’ names.

Keizo Nagatani, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, took up the issue in the Sankei Shimbun on July 10 in a column titled “Shimbun ni katsu!” (“A call to newspapers”). Here is a translation:

It’s not such a huge problem that one should start a clamor, but I have some bones to pick with the way Japanese transcribe foreigners’ names. In general, these are written using katakana, a method that while used in Japan from long ago, is not without problems.

Many foreigners have spent brief or extended periods at universities in Japan, and perhaps due to an order from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, their names must be registered entirely in katakana. This extends to nameplates on doors at research laboratories, which I find incomprehensible.

Some foreigners do nothing more than show a strained smile, while others will indignantly paste a strip of white paper bearing their name in Roman letters above the katakana. The rule on use of katakana appears particularly strict at national universities, but what’s wrong with registering names in Roman letters?

Most vexing of all are names of people from countries in the so-called “kanji cultural sphere” (漢字文化圏). To write these in katakana is discourteous, and for that matter using the Roman alphabet is also incongruous.

Years ago, I asked a school principal how he would identify [Chinese leader] Mao Zedong if he were a visiting scholar. “Would you address him as ‘Professor Mou?'” I asked. He was lost for words.

As far as I know, the rule in Japan is to write names of people within the kanji cultural sphere in katakana.

When perusing Japanese-language newspapers, one thing that strikes me as odd (various publications take a scattershot approach) is the peculiar distinction made of reading Chinese and Korean personal names. Chinese names are read Japanese-style — without use of furigana [phonetic transcriptions to indicate how the character should be pronounced] — while South and North Korean personal names are read in an approximation of their native Korean sounds. As a result, [China’s paramount leader] Hu Jintao is transcribed Ko Kin Tou, whereas [South Korean President] Yi Myong Bak is read I Myon Baku.

I don’t know why such discrepancies appear, but I surmise it is a result of demands on the mass media by the people of the Korean Peninsula, who have a strong self-awareness, in reaction to use of Japanese-style pronunciation. On the other hand, Chinese do not show much concern as to how minor ethnic groups on their country’s periphery pronounce their names, which may explain why they are read as-is in the Japanese style.

It is necessary to use the names of important foreigners in daily conversation — not only those living overseas but also those residing in Japan — and in such cases “Ko Kin Tou” is problematic. It should be pronounced “Fu Jin Tao.” In polite terms, that is more appropriate.

How about newspapers taking the lead and starting a movement to learn and use the native [local] pronunciations of personal names? After that, while some effort might be required, I would also like to see newspapers show alphabetic transcriptions of other foreign personal names.

Footnote from Mark Schreiber: This problem extends to writers working in two or more languages. Japanese readings of Chinese names must be learned by rote memorization. Former Nationalist Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, for instance, is a Cantonese reading of the name, which is pronounced Sho Kaiseki in Japanese and Jiang Jieshi in Mandarin.

As another confusing example, take TV personality and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Agnes Chan, whose name is transcribed in katakana as アグネス・チャン. Her Chinese name is 陳美齡 (Chan Meiling in Cantonese), but she prefers to go by her English given name. “Chan” in katakana closely approximates the original Cantonese. But the name of popular actress Zhang Ziyi in katakana is チャン・ツ ィ イー (Chan Tsui-i). So the Japanese media is transcribing two very different Chinese surnames — “Chan” and “Zhang” — exactly the same. But Zhang’s name (章子怡) according to the on-yomi reading of their kanji would give “Sho Shi’i,” which would be virutally unrecognizable to speakers of Chinese and English — as well as to Japanese cinema fans already accustomed to the seriously mangled katakana version in use. A closer phonetic approximation of Zhang Ziyi in katakana would be ジャン・ズーイー (Jan Zuu-ii).

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.