Nagoya – Minister of Defense Taro Kono is back on Twitter asking for the English media to use his desired name order, Kono Taro. In the process, he stirred up an 150-year-long public debate on how Japanese names should be rendered in Western languages.
Last fall, Japan embraced a policy to swap the order and write the surname first on all official documents, recommending capitalization to emphasize which name is the family name. Accordingly, Shinzo Abe would become ABE Shinzo and, it follows, Hayao Miyazaki would be MIYAZAKI Hayao, and Naomi Osaka, OSAKA Naomi.
It’s a striking, dramatic change. It retains the order of names as used in Japanese, for one, while giving a visual cue to the importance of family name over given name. The drawback, of course, is that it may seem that in traditional Japanese culture, surnames must be screamed at loud volumes at all times. (That’s because, for all you Japanese readers, all caps in English symbolizes someone yelling.)
The change had been long in the works, with the National Language Council first recommending a swap in 2000, citing the importance of paying respect to linguistic and cultural diversity. The Agency for Cultural Affairs says that in this regard Japan is aligning itself with other East Asian countries that put family names first, including China, South Korea and Vietnam, embracing the traditional values that hold the importance of family over that of the individual. “It is desirable that personal names be presented and written in a way that preserves their unique forms,” says the Council on National Language.
The difference is that Japan has used the first-name-first order in Western languages since the mid-19th century. It started with Japan’s bid to culturally and technologically Westernize, a small but crucial element that put Japanese on equal footing with the imperialistic Western nations. At this point the standard has held up, particularly in international business, for nearly 150 years.
Recent surveys have shown that a majority of Japanese support the change. A professor of cross-cultural communication at Rikkyo University even called the adoption of Western name order “insulting” to Japanese tradition.
The reaction among Japanese communities with international ties has been mixed. Some argue that such a move will cause confusion and cost businesses money, and signal that Japan is taking a step away from its ties to Europe and the United States. Others say that the change is nothing more than politically motivated nationalism. Japanese consultants and businesspeople see the first-name-last-name order on their English business cards as a representation that they can do business the Western way, not just the Eastern way.
If you start thinking of all the potential problems with bilingual names, the issue really opens up. When interacting with Americans in Japanese or with Japanese in English, the spoken language tends to set the cultural terms. I’m always Margolis-san in Japanese until I ask people to call me Eric (to which they still affix –san). Likewise, a Japanese person will be called by their first name in an English-language setting unless they ask otherwise.
So does the media have a responsibility to uphold the cultural values of a name, that you or I wouldn’t in a conversation? If so, would that mean –san should be added when writing about a Japanese person in English, for the sake of upholding tradition? Does the Japanese government want Donald Trump, for example, to refer to Yoshihide Suga as Suga-san if he mentions him in a speech?
As a translator, I see both sides of the argument. Some translators opt for pulling the original language’s culture into the reader’s language, while others opt for pushing the reader into the original language’s culture. A translator focused on demonstrating the family-oriented, traditional aspect of Japanese names would write ABE Shinzo, while a translator focused on drawing a parallel between a Japanese prime minister and a European one would write Shinzo Abe. The former emphasizes the cultural difference of Japan, and the latter emphasizes the parallels between governmental systems. It’s a tough decision for a news organization to make.
Ultimately, if Japanese people want to be referred to by their last names first in English, it’s worth respecting. But it’s still important for translation to highlight connections rather than differences between cultures. The “unique culture forms” of Japan can be a slippery slope that, with bad translation, leads to Orientalism and divisiveness.
Either way, can we at least agree to DROP THE ALL CAPS? I know I don’t want to have a little voice in my head screaming “SUGA!” every time I look at the news.