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.

Article was first published in The Japan Times on Sept. 15.

Warm up

One minute chat about the meaning behind your name.


Collect words related to language, e.g., words, study, communication, etc.

New words

1) striking: attracting attention by being unusual or prominent, e.g., “She wore a striking dress to the awards ceremony and stood out from the other actresses.”

2) render: to change words into a different language or form, e.g, “It is a challenge to render the Bible in Hebrew.”

3) cue: a signal for someone to do something, e.g., “My wife’s yawn was a cue for us to leave the party.”

Guess the headline

A debate on n_ _ _ o_ _ _ _ highlights an old translation issue


1) How does the Japanese government render names in its official documents?

2) When did this discussion originally start?

3) What does writing in all capital letters mean in English?

Let’s discuss the article

1) Do you think last names should come first in English?

2) Should the Japanese government be able to tell the English media what to do?

3) How could this change affect the business world?


日本の姓名に当たる単語にはいくつかの英訳がありますが、first name/last nameと呼ばれる場合は文字通り英語で書いたときの順番が最初に来る名前・最後に来る名前という意味合いが印象づけられます。一方でfamily name/given nameと訳した場合は家系の名前、個人として命名者から与えられた名前という意味合いで順番については言及していません。


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