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Japan pushes media to fall in line on name order

September 25, 2020

Foreign journalists working in Japan say they are coming under pressure to give in to the government's request to reverse the order of individuals' names in their news articles. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Copies of Japan's Nikkei newspapers, left side, are piled at a kiosk in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Friday, July 24, 2015
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama

Japan adopted the Western style of writing a person's given name followed by their family name when writing in Latin script about 100 years ago, when Emperor Meiji encouraged the introduction of foreign ideas for the nation's government and society as part of what is known as the Meiji Restoration. Along with rapid industrialization, land reform, the creation of a professional army and the introduction of free schools, people were encouraged to write their names in the Western-style when using the Roman alphabet.

In September 2019, the government of then prime minister, Shinzo Abe, announced it intended to standardize the writing of Japanese names when they appear in Latin script on official documents, and said domestic media should do the same.

Uptake of new name rules patchy

National broadcaster NHK was swift to adopt the new style, but the takeup elsewhere has been less successful.

A foreign journalist writing for the English-language Nikkei economic newspaper told DW that managers haven't switched, but added, "There have been some mumblings about changing this after [then defense minister] Taro Kono first made comments about the matter, but there has been no firm decision to date."

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Other media groups such as The Japan News, the English-language version of the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, The Asahi, The Mainichi, The Japan Times and the news wire service Kyodo News have also yet to change their editorial policies on names, but some journalists have said the pressure is likely to grow for them to fall into line.

Once that happens, the government will step up its efforts to get foreign media to similarly comply. Correspondents say the campaign has already begun.

"Kono goes on about this a lot, saying that he wants to be referred to as Kono Taro," said a European journalist for a leading wire service. "I interviewed him a few weeks ago and, aware of his preference, I felt I had to try to explain that we went with the current form because that was the style that was used by the Western media."

"We could change to surname first if that was how it was consistently used in Japanese government documents, in the business world or elsewhere. [But] that is not currently the case and any change by us, the foreign media, would just cause confusion," he added.

No official comment on name order

DW tried to contact the Foreign Ministry, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry and the prime minister's office by phone and email about the government's position on foreign media continuing to use the Western-style name order, but the inquiries shed little light on the issue. Press officials either declined to comment or failed to reply to written requests for clarification.

An official with the Cabinet Office did, however, offer an explanation.

"It was decided to change the order of names because it is Japanese culture to have the family name first," the official told DW. Asked why it had taken a century to reintroduce this aspect of Japanese culture, she said that Japan had "adjusted" to European and US norms in the past but that Tokyo has "recently changed that policy."

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The Japanese government has called on domestic English-language media to adopt the new name order in its stories, but said it was not clear if official requests have been made to foreign media reporting from Japan. The official denied that media organizations that refused to comply with the government's request would face punishment, or miss out on opportunities to interview ministers or leading government officials.

Other journalists have insisted the Japanese government has already managed to largely stamp out criticism in the domestic media and has now set its sights on doing the same with overseas news outlets, with this "diktat" one of the first steps to that end.

"This is just another way for the Japanese government to try to control the foreign media, in exactly the same way that it controls its own news agenda," said Jake Adelstein, the Japan correspondent for US news site The Daily Beast.

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Government taking 'carrot and stick' approach

"They complain and then they discipline domestic news outlets that do not comply by limiting their access to news sources," he said, an approach known in Japanese as using "the whip and candy," or the "carrot and stick" approach.

"But now they are applying a little more stick than in the past," said Adelstein, who was previously a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun and wrote a bestselling book about his time investigating Japan's "yakuza" underworld groups.

"A couple of months ago, I was told to put the family name of a minister first in a story, but they were ticked off when I refused," he told DW. "They told me that foreign media put Korean family names first and it's the same in other countries, such as Thailand, but they cannot dictate something like this.

"It's just another way of trying to make the foreign press do what they want and to slowly get the media to do things their way, which ultimately means not criticizing the government of Japan and its policies."

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Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea