There's more to a name than meets the eye

As someone who has crossed the Pacific Ocean over 450 times since 1956, I am constantly fascinated by the similarities and differences between the United States and Japan. Among the challenges facing someone who lives in both societies is that what is so positive in one country can often be so negative in the other.

I was reminded of this during a visit earlier this month to Los Angeles, where I was invited to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Japanese American National Museum. There, I spoke about my experiences as a sansei (third-generation American of Japanese ancestry) growing up in California and Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. In the U.S., it was hard not to be defensive about my surname, because many Americans found it unpronounceable and some even associated it with a certain four-letter word. In fact, I remember growing up often being teased by the guys who would want to insert a “c” after the first “u” in my surname. And some girls (this was before women’s liberation) were embarrassed to say my last name out loud, since they were afraid it might sound obscene.

In Japan, by contrast, “Fukushima” has a noble and venerable tradition and is the name of a prominent prefecture that has played an important role in the history of modern Japan. In addition, the word “fuku” means good fortune, luck, blessing, prosperity and wealth. “Kofuku” means happiness, “fukujin” means a fortunate person, “fukutaku” means happiness and blessings, “fukuju” means prosperity and longevity, and “Fukurokuju” is a god of wealth. Since “shima” means island, my name translates into English as “island of good fortune” or “island of prosperity” — a far cry from the indecent connotations some Americans inferred from the English spelling and pronunciation.

About five years ago, a friend of mine named Shinji Fukukawa, who used to be vice minister of the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry, now renamed the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, organized a private study group called “Fuku-no-Kai” (the “Fuku Association”). This group, which continues to meet every two or three months to discuss current economic, political and social issues, comprises about 15 prominent individuals whose common link is that their last name includes the character “fuku.” I was fortunate to be invited to join this group, as its youngest member, from its inception.

Among the members are a former senior diplomat and now justice of the Japanese Supreme Court, the chairman of an eminent research institute and former member of the board of the Bank of Japan, the chairman of Japan’s leading cosmetics company, the vice president of one of Japan’s largest trading companies, the chairman of a major Japanese real estate company, the chairman of a prominent Japanese beverage company, the president of a noted Japanese publishing firm and one of Japan’s most respected economists. That such a distinguished group of Japanese chooses to form an association based solely on the “fuku” in their surname attests to the name’s prestige and appeal.

In fact, the word “fuku” is such a source of pride among Japanese that if one goes to a souvenir shop in Japan one can actually buy ornaments signifying good luck — cuff links, tiepins, earrings, etc. — composed entirely of the 13-stroke Japanese character for “fuku.”

A similar culturally based linguistic dichotomy can be found in the name of a noted Japanese journalist friend of mine. His first name is “Satoshi,” but the 10-stroke character for this name can also be read as “Tetsu,” which my friend prefers because it is the pronunciation used for such lofty words as “tetsujin” (wise man, sage), “tetsugaku” (philosophy) and “tetsugaku hakushi” (doctor of philosophy). However, when I knew him as an exchange student at Stanford in the late 1960s and as a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard in the mid-1970s, I witnessed Americans ridiculing him by calling him “Tits” — grossly debasing what in Japanese is a highly dignified name.

Of course, the reverse can also occur, where a perfectly respectable name in English can become trivialized in Japanese. One example that comes to mind is an American journalist friend of mine whose surname is “Impoco.” Unfortunately for him, the Japanese have adopted a similar-sounding English word and shortened it to “impo” to represent a certain sexual dysfunction. My friend has lamented to me that Japanese, especially young women, are too embarrassed to utter his name in polite company.

Many more examples can be cited, but the important point is that the cultural and linguistic differences between the U.S. and Japan can lead to contradictory impressions, assessments and connotations in the two countries, where what is highly positive in one can be acutely negative in the other. The above examples focus narrowly on the different impressions the same name can convey in the two countries, but this can be generalized to social behavior more broadly.

Let me conclude with just one example. A Japanese friend who spent her senior year in high school in Kansas told me that the biggest lesson she learned in her one year living in American society was, “In the United States, if you don’t speak up, you’re considered stupid.” After returning to Japan and re-entering the Japanese educational system, she concluded, “In Japan, if you speak up a lot, you’re considered stupid.”

Indeed, in a profound sense, it is not easy to appear intelligent simultaneously to both an American and a Japanese audience.

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