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JAPANESE NAMES by SY Fields

SY Fields, a translator and former English teacher living in Japan, joins us again today to discuss how the common name is anything but simple in the complex language of Japanese. (SY was instrumental in the final drafts of THE WOMAN IN THE WHITE KIMONO for language and usage.)


With three alphabets, two different ways to transcribe words to English, two numerical writing systems, and thousands of written characters with sometimes more than five phonetic sounds assigned to each letter, (sometimes arbitrarily) Japanese is one of the most complex writing systems on the planet.

Even with all the language's complexities and minutia, Japan has a literacy rate of about 99%. However, there is one thing that trips up even a seasoned native speaker—names.


In Ana John’s novel, THE WOMAN IN THE WHITE KIMONO, the character Hajime can be written as: 一士, 元, 八慈明, 初, 始名, 巴治目, 晴士人, and hundreds of other combinations (source: https://mnamae.jp/p/b_306f30583081.html).

Luckily, in 2015 all name kanji were regulated to 'only' 2,979 by a decree from the Ministry of Justice. Thank goodness for their intervention, right?



David, like Ana John’s father who she dedicates her novel to, transcribes to Debitto, Deivido, or Dēbido.

First, what is a traditional name? Last names were assigned around the Heian period (794–1185), but before the Meiji restoration (1868–1912), the lower classes didn't even have official last names (source: http://www.kk-bestsellers.com/articles/-/6997). Current common last names like "Yamada" (山田-rice field by a mountain) and "Okamura" (岡村-village on the hill) were assigned (Typically, a person would introduce themselves as 'Taro, from the village on the hill in Ashiya') in regards to where a person was born or their job (Incidentally, my last name means 'pouring hot water' and is probably connected to a job at a hot spring), like 'Field' for farmers or 'Smith' for blacksmiths.


Other last names, and some first names, like my wife's, were given by Buddhist monks in a divination ritual. The 'correct' kanji was chosen, and kanji for first names was usually assigned according to the person's date of birth.

But what if you're not Japanese? How do you write your name?


Unofficially, all 'foreign' names are written with katakana. But that's just a guideline. Those with Chinese roots living in Japan generally keep their Chinese characters, and often naturalized citizens will choose kanji for their foreign names, if not a new Japanese name altogether. Still others simply choose kanji that fits their name, because it's 'cool.'


But if you want to transcribe your name, it may be a little difficult. Let's take the name Kevin McCallister, from the popular Home Alone franchise. Japanese doesn't have sounds for 'v' or 'Mc', and the 'L' sound is somewhere in the back of the throat between 'L' and 'R', which means poor Kevin's name is going to be mangled to fit the phonetic system of writing. Officially, his name is written 'ケビン・マカリスター', or, 'Kebin Makarisutaa'. But Kevin could also be 'ケヴィン', and McCallister could also be 'Makalisutā'.


Ronald McDonald is one of the hardest to say correctly: Donarudo Makudonarudo, with the restaurant shortened to 'Maku' or 'Makudo' depending on what region of the country you're in. Yes, if you read that right, his name is Donald McDonald in Japan. That's almost like Macaulay Macaulay Culkin Culkin, which is poetry in a name.


Let's put names aside and look at the word for a place to practice your karate chops: "dojo." This can be written several ways: どうじょう (hiragana) 道場 (kanji), dojo (English equivalent) dōjō (romanji variation) and sometimes written as doujyou (when typing). Technically, it could also be written asドウジョウ (katakana), but katakana is usually reserved for foreign loan words or used to express emphasis in writing, kind of like italics. That's a lot to consider before putting pen (or brush) to paper.


Kanji add even more levels of meaning to words and names, like the morphemes of English. In '道場' several meanings are assigned to道, such as road, moral, journey, and teachings, or sometimes 'the way of', i.e. 'the way of the sword.' 場 is a little more straightforward, meaning location or place. Of course, 'the place to learn' (or, 'the way of the location'?) doesn't have a sweet ring to it, so it was probably imported into English simply as 'dojo.'


Are you thoroughly confused? Trust me, we all are. That's the beauty of the language.

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​©2018 by Ana Johns all rights reserved.​  author photo credit ©caseyandhercamera

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