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Editorial: Ingenious methods needed to promote switch to surname 1st

  • September 17, 2019
  • , The Japan News , 07:46 p.m.
  • English Press

It has been decided that a new general rule will be adopted regarding how the full names of Japanese persons should be written in romaji, or Roman letters, when they are stated in documents prepared by the government, requiring surnames to be given first and personal names second. Will the new rule spread across Japanese society?


Areas covered by the new rule will include the official websites run by each ministry and agency, as well as white papers published in foreign languages. Former education minister Masahiko Shibayama has explained the reason for adopting the rule, saying, “From the standpoint of respecting cultural diversity, there is significance to using descriptions that follow Japanese tradition.”


The attempt to spread the standardized “surname-personal name” form at this point in time seems to be aimed at utilizing an opportunity to attract worldwide attention to the names of Japanese people through next year’s Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.


The long-established practice of putting the given names of Japanese people first and then the surnames in romaji is a result of the advocacy of Europeanization in the Meiji era (1868-1912). The practice was intended to make the writing of Japanese names in romaji conform to the order used in European nations and the United States.


In 2000, the then Japanese language council submitted a report that recommended the use of the surname-personal name order, and the government urged educational and other institutions to act in accordance with the purpose of the proposal. The order in which surnames are placed before personal names was adopted in English-language textbooks for junior high school students.


However, it is difficult to say that the form of surname first and personal name second has been sufficiently established in society. According to a public opinion survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun this summer, 64 percent of those polled said they give their personal names first and surnames second in romaji. This figure greatly exceeded the 34 percent of the respondents who said they give their surnames first and personal names second. This seems to show that the personal name-surname order is deeply rooted among the Japanese.


Provide convincing explanations


Meanwhile, 59 percent of those surveyed endorsed the government’s policy of recommending the order of surname first and personal name second, with 27 percent opposing the method. A noticeable number of opponents said the personal name-surname form is the international standard.


Experts have said that viewing the personal name-surname order as an international standard is a preconceived notion. In fact, people’s names are given in the order of surname-personal name in China and South Korea, just as in Japan, and this is also true with English-language descriptions of people’s names in both countries. Cultural traditions in Vietnam, Hungary and elsewhere require surnames to be placed before personal names.


To begin with, how people give their names is largely up to their individual choice. If the spread of the surname-personal name order in romaji is sought in Japan, it is indispensable to provide accurate information and convincing explanations for the public.


In changing the way of giving people’s names in romaji, there are more than a few important points to consider. When using an airline ticket reservation system, for example, if you enter your surname and personal name in the wrong order, you could experience problems with boarding.


It is difficult for Europeans and Americans to determine which is the surname and which is the personal name when they read the full names of Japanese people. Given this, it is necessary to spread ingenious methods to make it understood that the first name given is the surname. Measures include giving the entire surname in capital letters.


There are many differences between Japan and the English-speaking world regarding established customs, including how to write one’s address. It is hoped that the shift to a new way of giving one’s name will serve as an opportunity for people overseas to gain a deeper understanding of Japan.

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