Official Renderings of Personal Names

An article appeared in a few of the newspapers this week discussing a move by the Ministry of Education to promote the official naming convention for Japanese names in Roman letters as surname followed by given name, the standard order of Japanese orthography. The reasoning goes that Chinese and Korean names already follow this pattern (Li Keqiang, Lee Nak-yeon) with only Japanese names following the Western order of convention when appearing in Roman letters (Shinzō Abe, obligatory macron over the letter O).

It's certainly logical in terms of preserving standard East Asian custom, although some might argue that it's easier to render Japanese names in the Western order than it is for those from some of the other countries. But maybe the current system just stuck. Everyone knows who Kim Jong-il was, but I met a man in the US with the same name, and there he was Jong-il Kim because he was an American citizen. (And to be absolutely sure no one confused him with the other guy.) Whenever ordinary people reside in the US (and probably many other Western countries) for any length of time, regardless of the order in which their names appeared in their native languages, they are obliged by law or custom to adhere to the local standard. (I no longer recall whether this is a matter of law or custom, though I'm pretty sure driving licenses have to be printed with surname following given name.)

The first time I took a Japanese class and heard Westerners introducing themselves with their names in the Japanese order, it struck me as an affectation. After several years of living here, it seems the more natural rendering, because it should be easier for local people to know which name is which. The problem is that they rarely understand which part of my name is the surname and which is the given name even after being told multiple times.

There are times when, for whatever reason, a particular institution or organisation wants to render my name in Roman letters rather than in katakana. In such cases it is irksome when they render it in the Japanese order--especially when they insist on using ALL CAPITALS, because that just looks really, really strange.

If I received a utility bill in Italy, for example, it would be addressed to XENOS TREMAIN because all such documents appear in that order for Italian names as well, but I have yet to see a Japanese name appear in official capacity in such peculiar Romanisation. I could be wrong about that. In the US the same bill would be to TREMAIN XENOS. (I think it probably would be in Hungary, too, because Hungarians generally put foreign names in the order in which they appear in the original culture, even though Hungarian names are always surname followed by given name, unlike in most other European countries.)

When called on to render my name in both orthographies, I follow the conventions of each respective culture: In katakana, with surname first (ゼノス・トレメイン), and in English, with given name first (Tremain Xenos). None of this mucking about with surnames in ALL CAPITALS on the principle that that would CALL ATTENTION to the SURNAME. That's just not done anywhere, though many people insist on printing business cards in that fashion. Really, writing anything that is not an abbreviation entirely in capital letters is unconventional, aesthetically unpleasant, and potentially confusing.

Other problems arise when institutions such as banks try to insist that I follow Japanese conventions even when writing in English, even though no personal name in Japanese kanji ever appears with given name followed by surname. For people sufficiently acquainted with Japanese names to know which is which, TANAKA HIROSHI and HIROSHI TANAKA are both perfectly manageable, but 寛田中 never appears in any context whatever. And no bank in any Western country would try to force the individual so named to write his name that way.

It's possible that the new move by the Ministry of Education could improve understanding, but it could just as easily make things even more confusing than they already are.

(Also, by the way, we all know who 孔子 was, rendered also as "Kǒng Fūzǐ," but we call him "Confucius" in English.)