National / Politics

Time for a change? Japan wants international media to put family names first

Kyodo, Staff Report

Foreign Minister Taro Kono plans to ask overseas media outlets to write the names of Japanese people with the family name first, as is customary in the Japanese language.

If realized, the new policy would mark a major shift in the country’s long-running practice for handling Japanese names in foreign languages — which began in the 19th to early 20th centuries amid the growing influence of Western culture.

At a news conference Tuesday, Kono said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name should be written as “Abe Shinzo,” in line with other Asian leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Now is the right time to make the change, given that the Reiwa Era has just begun and several major events — including next month’s Group of 20 summit and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — are approaching, Kono said.

“I plan to ask international media organizations to do this. Domestic media outlets that have English services should consider it, too,” he said, citing a report released in 2000 by the education ministry’s National Language Council that said it was desirable to write Japanese names with the family name first in all instances.

At another news conference the same day, education minister Masahiko Shibayama said his ministry will also call on other government bodies to use family names first.

Foreign media outlets contacted by The Japan Times Wednesday declined to give any immediate response. But one government official urged caution toward Kono’s policy, citing potential technical problems, while others showed overall support.

A senior Japanese official said the government will “cautiously” consider adopting the name order proposed by Kono, citing concerns over possible repercussions including overhauls of computer systems. “This is not an official government policy yet,” the official said of the minister’s suggestion.

One senior Foreign Ministry official said he personally wonders if his non-Japanese friends and acquaintances could get confused, because he has always written his given name first and many of those people referred to him using his first name.

“It’d be just OK” if the order of the names in English is reversed as Kono has proposed, the official said.

Kono, who was educated in the United States and is fluent in English, has raised the issue in the past. In March he said the Foreign Ministry would consider making the switch in official documents, which may include passports.