Japan conservatives want to reverse how people write names | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 26.09.2019
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Japan conservatives want to reverse how people write names

A century ago, Japan promoted the Western custom of using a first name followed by a family name. Now some conservative Japanese politicians want a return to using a family name first, and young Japanese are asking why.

More than 100 years after Japanese people adopted the Western style of writing their given names followed by their family names whenever they wrote in Roman letters, the government has decreed that it is time to go back to the traditional Japanese convention of family name first.

In early September, the government announced that it intends to standardize the writing of Japanese names when they are written in Roman letters on official documents. Thus, Premier Shinzo Abe would write his name as Abe Shinzo.

Officials said they hope the private sector will also switch to using the surname first, as is typical when Japanese write their names in Japanese characters.

"In light of the globalization of societies, it has become important for all human beings to be aware of the diversity of each other's languages and cultures," said Masahiko Shibayama, Japan's minister of education and culture in advocating the proposal. 

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"It is meaningful to adopt the notation of names in accordance with the Japanese tradition of writing the surname first."

The Western style of name order became standard in the Meiji era, between 1868 and 1912, when Japan was opening up to outside influences and turned to other countries for modern technology, such as trains, shipping and advanced manufacturing techniques.

In tandem with the adoption of technology, came the introduction of Western ways of thinking, which some at the time criticized for subverting traditional Japanese attitudes and beliefs.

Tradition vs. modernity 

There was little debate on the issue until the Council on the Japanese Language issued a report stating that the order of family name followed by given name would be "preferable." Traditionalists agreed, and the conservative-minded Liberal Democratic Party has now put that into motion.

"I believe this decision to go back to the old standard is natural and completely reasonable," said Hiromichi Moteki, acting secretary general of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact.

"I never understood why it was decided back in the Meiji era to adopt the Western order for names when the system that we had was in common use and understood by everyone," he told DW.

"This was the Japanese custom, as well as the normal way of things in other countries, like China and Korea," he said.

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Moteki conceded, however, that young Japanese, who are influenced by Western movies, literature and norms, might be reluctant to change.

"I don't know if they would be the majority, but young people now tend to follow foreign ways of thinking,” he said. "Even if those ways are ridiculous."

Megumi Okazaki works in a Tokyo-based publishing company that produces magazines in English and said she "cannot see the point in making us change the order of our names."

"It seems such a waste of time and effort," she said. "I feel completely comfortable using my first name and then my family name when I write them in English and I think everyone else thinks the same. I can't see what they want to achieve by doing this."

Mayako Shibata, a graduate law student from Tokyo, says she read about the government's plans in a newspaper and was "shocked."

Misplaced priorities? 

"I do not understand why they are trying to fix something that is not broken and when there are so many other problems that the government should be tackling at the moment," she said.

"It's also ironic that while the government keeps saying they are keen to make the country more international and to welcome more foreign visitors, why would they do something that runs counter to something that is internationally accepted and has been part of our society for more than a century?" she said. "It makes no sense to me. I wish they would deal with some far more important problems."

Remarkably, the order of Japanese names is not the only name controversy preoccupying the government and society at the moment.

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Under Article 750 of the Civil Code, a husband and wife must have the same family name, making Japan the only developed nation where it is mandatory for a married couple to have the same surname.

While a married couple can take the name of either the wife or the husband, around 96 % of married couples end up with the husband's family name. Once again, the law was introduced in 1896, during the Meiji era.

Moteki says he supports the present law on the grounds that "permitting a woman to have a different name to her husband will weaken the family unit and cause confusion in society."

Other name problems 

Okazaki said she would have no problem in taking her husband's name because it is the accepted decision in most societies, but having a law that forces a couple to make that decision is wrong.

"I'm not married, but a lot of my female friends say that it's very inconvenient when they get married to have to change all their bank accounts, join their husband's 'koseki tohon' [family register] and explain to their company and cause a lot of work for other people,"she said.

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Some Japanese women keep their maiden names when they are at work even though they have legally taken their husband's name.

"But I can see all sorts of problems, such as when someone travels on a passport that is in a different name to a credit card that it was bought with, for example," said Okazaki. "I can see no reason why this rule is still in place today."