Some laugh it off as a First World problem. But others say the topic touches upon issues of identity, sovereignty and press freedom.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono recently stirred controversy by saying he wants to change the way Japanese names have long been rendered in English — given names first, family names last.

Kono said he intends to issue a “request” to foreign media that they hereafter refer to Japan’s prime minister by the order used in Japanese — “Abe Shinzo,” instead of “Shinzo Abe” — bringing him in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, leaders of countries where the family name is also traditionally written first.

Why are Japanese names automatically inverted in English usage in the first place? Is changing such a long-held custom really doable? And what is it about the order of the name — a seemingly trivial matter — that some people find so controversial?

Why now?

Kono suggested that now is a good time to raise global awareness of how the Japanese really refer to themselves, as Japan is set to host major global events such as the Group of 20 summit, Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But in fact, this is not the first time the issue has been discussed within the central government.

In 2000, an education ministry panel compiled a report proposing Japanese names should be written out in English with the surname first, citing the importance of protecting “linguistic and cultural diversity.”

In a 1999 survey conducted by the Cultural Affairs Agency, 30.6 percent said that when written in English, Japanese first names should come first, while 34.9 percent of the respondents said last names should come first.

Why did the Japanese start adopting the Western order in their English names?

Experts say the current practice dates back to the dawn of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) after Japan ended its 200-plus years of isolation and opened up to Western nations.

“Increasing interaction with European people made Japanese realize Western culture is far ahead of theirs, putting psychological pressure on them to align themselves with what they considered a more developed culture,” said Erikawa Haruo, a professor of English language education at Wakayama University. Erikawa asked that his family name be written first.

The practice of flipping names around, he said, began taking hold when Japan’s elite diplomats and intellectuals bent over backward to portray their nation as a civilized society as part of their drive to revise unequal treaties with Western powers.

Treaties such as the 1888 Japan-Mexico Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation as well as the 1894 Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation show that Japanese diplomats signed their names in reversed, Western style, Erikawa said.

The inverted order championed by the nation’s elites would trickle down to the public with the publication of English textbooks that employed this order. The Western naming convention in those English textbooks, Erikawa said, remained persistent even in the face of Japan’s soaring nationalism leading up to World War II, with a 1944 document referring to Imperial Japanese Navy Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto with his given name first.

How common is it that Japanese names are rendered in a Western style?

Swapping names in English usage is a common custom in Japan, such as on credit cards and business cards and for email addresses.

At e-commerce giant Rakuten — which has applied an English-only policy to its internal meetings and documents — the English names of its employees are arranged to appear with their surnames last on their business cards, according to its public relations department.

The nation’s top politicians also take the same approach. Abe is referred to as “Shinzo Abe” on the official English website of the Prime Minister’s Office. The prestigious scientific journal Nature, too, follows this practice, placing personal names first when listing Japanese authors.

But there are exceptions, too.

English textbooks for junior high school students have basically used the Japanese name order since fiscal 2002, apparently heeding the proposal by the education ministry panel in 2000.

Even before that, publisher Sanseido had blazed a trail to change Japanese names back to the original order in the 1987 edition of its New Crown English textbook series, based on the belief that “each individual’s name symbolizes their own or their ethnicity’s identity, and so even in English, their original order should be respected,” according to its website.

The Japan Football Association, too, said in 2012 that it will retire the Western name order of Japanese players, and in turn capitalize all the letters of their family names — which it has since placed first — to avoid confusion.

Are there controversies over a possible change to the Westernized name order?

Yes. Some found Kono’s announcement disconcerting, saying it verges on an infringement of press freedom.

“It should be up to the media organization to decide how to present the names of the subjects they report on, based on their internal guidelines,” said Kayo Matsushita, a former Asahi Shimbun reporter and an associate professor at the College of Intercultural Communication, Rikkyo University.

“Although minister Kono intends only to ‘request’ the change, it will inevitably put pressure on the media, possibly infringing on their freedom to report,” she said.

Matsushita further voiced concerns that the changed order of Japanese names in media outlets could spawn a “confusing” inconsistency with past archives in their database, significantly slowing efforts by scholars, journalists and authors overseas to correctly cite Japanese sources in their works.

A policy shift on the part of media, she said, could also go a long way toward changing the global perception of Japanese names, heaping “indirect pressure” on those already active on the international stage — such as artists, athletes and academics — to flip their names that have long served as their “representative symbols.”

“When non-Japanese refer to novelist Haruki Murakami, for example, that carries something unique and special, and that can be lost by calling him Murakami Haruki,” she said.

On top of that, “there doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to justify the confusion this change may cause. … I can be more understanding if it’s something that’s been strongly pushed by the public, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either. I can’t help but think it’s an agenda imposed by particular politicians,” she said.

Erikawa, who himself is an active proponent of the Japanese-style name order, says he agrees forcing a particular style on the general public isn’t the right way to go.

But calling the reversed order a symbol of Japan’s idolization of the West, the professor said that at the very least politicians and diplomats alike who represent the nation “should seek sovereignty even in the way their names are written” in English.

He also said he disagrees with the argument by some that the rule of the English language — given names first, family names last — should take precedence over cultural diversity or an individual’s preference.

In an age of “World Englishes” — a term referring to varieties of English spoken throughout the world — English is no longer “monopolized” by native speakers but has morphed into something that can be localized by nonnative speakers to reflect their own perspective or culture, Erikawa said.

“So native speakers of English should realize their rule isn’t necessarily absolute and accept that there are many people out there who use English and still place their family names first,” the professor said.

Is the government united over the topic?

Apparently not. Education minister Masahiko Shibayama seems in agreement with Kono, saying he has instructed the Cultural Affairs Agency, an entity under the jurisdiction of his ministry, to issue a notice encouraging “related organizations and media” to change their English rendering of Japanese names.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular press briefing Wednesday that he goes by “Yoshihide Suga” when he identifies himself in English, revealing a gap in attitudes with other members of the Cabinet.

When asked if policy on the English-style rendition of Japanese names should be unified within the government, a cautious Suga said “there are multiple factors to consider, including long-held practice.”

A senior government official at the Prime Minister’s Office also said that Kono’s proposal is “not an official government policy yet,” citing concerns over possible repercussions, including an overhaul of computer systems.

Foreign media outlets so far remain mum.

When contacted by The Japan Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and AFP all declined comment on whether they have any plans at the moment to initiate internal discussions following Kono’s announcement.

The Associated Press and Reuters could not be reached for comment by the deadline of this article. Given that no official request has come from the Foreign Ministry yet, The Japan Times has no immediate plan to change the way it refers to Japanese individuals.

But American news and opinion website Vox already took a bold step Tuesday, changing the way it refers to the prime minister to “Abe Shinzo” from the previous “Shinzo Abe.” An Editor’s Note attached to its article explained its “style guidelines on the Japanese prime minister’s name have changed to better reflect Japanese naming conventions.”

Meanwhile, Shuichi Abe, governor of Nagano Prefecture, told a news conference last week that he, too, has always found it “odd” that his names are flipped in English. The governor said he has instructed the prefecture’s international communication department to revamp a mock-up design of employees’ business cards so that family names will precede personal names on the English side.

“But we won’t force each employee to go with the new order,” Yukio Nebashi, head of the department, said.

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