Surname Supremacy? Writing Names in “”

Language Culture Society

A suggestion from Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō that foreign writers put Japanese names in the original Japanese order has touched off a debate. Why does write about Kōno Tarō and not Tarō Kōno?

When we edit the text that goes up on our goal is to make it clear, informative, and consistent. To ensure that consistency in our broth despite the presence of so many cooks—the freelance translators, checkers, copy editors, and proofreaders working on the site—we have a set of style rules that we ask them to keep in mind.

These rules have been passed down and updated since well before went online in 2011. They guided our editing of Japan Echo in our previous incarnation as publisher of that journal. From 1974 through 1979, the rules told us to write Japanese names in line with the Western practice of putting the given name first. But beginning with Vol. 7, No. 1, the spring 1980 issue, we flipped things around to put the surname first, just as the Japanese themselves do. This has been our rule ever since. (Editors are conservative by nature, and once they decide to do something a certain way, it takes a lot to convince them to do otherwise.)

The spring 1980 issue of Japan Echo, at top, marked a break with the rules we had followed through the end of 1979 (special issue from that year at bottom).
The spring 1980 issue of Japan Echo, at top, marked a break with the rules we had followed through the end of 1979 (special issue from that year at bottom).

This rule has been in the news this week after Minister for Foreign Affairs Kōno Tarō stated in a May 21 press conference that he hoped journalists writing about Japan in foreign languages would adopt the Japanese order, family name first, as they already do with Chinese, Korean, and other names from surname-first cultures. “Many foreign media organizations already write about Chinese President Xi Jinping and Korean President Moon Jae-in; ideally, they will also use Abe Shinzō” when referring to Japan’s prime minister, he noted.

Is It a Rule to Follow?

The response to this proposal in the English-speaking community has been mixed so far. Researchers who are used to scholarly writing on Japan, which largely follows this rule already, appear to see it as a natural thing to do. (In the office we count ourselves among this group. If it isn’t Jong-un Kim in North Korea or Ing-wen Tsai in Taiwan, then consistency says that it shouldn’t be Tarō Kōno addressing the press in the MOFA conference room.)

The Japan-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators recommends in its Japan Style Sheet (a free PDF download and purchasable book of immense value to people writing in English about Japan): “We encourage use of Japanese name order—family name first, personal name last—on the principle that, notwithstanding the willingness of Meiji leaders to accommodate the West, Japanese should be as free as Chinese and Koreans to present their names in customary order.”

The scholarly journal Monumenta Nipponica agrees. In its style sheet, also available online, it states: “In general, follow standard practice for Japanese names, giving family name first, when citing either a Japanese or an English-language work. But when citing a work by a non-Japanese national with a Japanese name or a Japanese national active chiefly overseas (or publishing primarily in English), follow the usage of the work in question.”

The Choices Editors Make

This exception to the Monumenta Nipponica rule outlines one difference from our guidelines: We write about Ono Yōko, for instance, rather than using the Western-order name by which she is best known around the world. But that there are differences is a key point. There isn’t one correct English writing style. Our house style is based mainly on the Chicago Manual of Style, but for certain clients we go to the Associated Press Stylebook instead, forcing ourselves to leave out that serial comma.

We keep Japanese names in the Japanese order; we put macrons on Japanese terms to indicated lengthened vowels. These are the choices we make to ensure a consistent editorial voice throughout our website. Other writers make other choices. Foreign Minister Kōno may ask the media to get on board with this rule, but it isn’t likely that the world’s newspapers will rush to make the change. The Japanese government does have the power to institute this rule in its own publications—it wouldn’t surprise me to see official websites and white papers start putting surnames first in years to come—but this doesn’t guarantee that reporters will follow suit. And indeed, there’s no way for the government to enforce the rule to see that they do.

This makes the alarm with which some reacted to Kōno’s statement surprising to me. The Guardian coverage sought to paint it as part of a rightward lurch in Japanese politics: “Some see the request as part of a movement, led by the conservative Abe, to demonstrate a growing confidence in Japan’s culture and history.” The New York Times followed suit, noting that this hint at a hoped-for shift came at a time when “the Japanese government is simultaneously nurturing a revival of nationalism and spearheading an effort to draw in more foreigners as the native Japanese population wanes.”

Meanwhile, social media commenters opposed to the idea brought out arguments ranging from “The Japanese government has no right to tell English speakers how to communicate in their language” to “This can’t possibly be the most pressing thing the foreign minister has to worry about.” (It isn’t. The press conference covered the question of wartime Korean laborers, the Northern Territories, US President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to Japan, and the publication of the Diplomatic Bluebook as well. But the Yomiuri Shimbun reporter asked a name-order question, and the minister answered it.)

Sticking with What’s Comfortable

The most convincing argument against this rule change is, frankly, “It isn’t what we’re used to.” Editors are conservative, remember? Western writers have been putting Japanese names in given name–surname order for a century or more, thanks in no small part to Japanese people who championed that practice as one way to put on a more modern, international face as the nation moved through the changes of Meiji and Taishō. And many Japanese people continue to flip their own names when introducing themselves in English, French, German, and other tongues, because “that’s the way it’s done abroad.” A tradition that has taken root over so many long decades isn’t going away because a minister wills it so.

And yet, that minister’s name is Kōno Tarō, not Tarō Kōno. His parents gave it to him in that order; it’s listed that way on his birth certificate and every official document he’s received in his country since then. He, and others who share his ideas about proper name order, have every right to ask that others talk about them with the names that they themselves use.

It’s our right, meanwhile, to choose whether to heed that request or to ignore it and stick with the writing styles and the rules we’re used to. But our rules do change. Who knows? A few decades down the line we might see newspapers around the world making that name flip that our organization did in 1980.

(Originally written in English.)

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