Abe Shinzo, Kondo Marie, Osaka Naomi: Japan suggests reversing English naming conventions

In Japanese etiquette, people tend to introduce themselves or call each other by their surnames.
In Japanese etiquette, people tend to introduce themselves or call each other by their surnames.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be referred to, in English, as "Abe Shinzo", the decluttering guru Marie Kondo as "Kondo Marie" and tennis star Naomi Osaka as "Osaka Naomi".

That is, if at least two ministers in the Cabinet get their way in pushing for a reversal of the given-name-first convention that Japan has been following since the early 20th century.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on Tuesday (May 21) that he will ask media organisations - both foreign media and English language services of the domestic media - to follow the Japanese naming customs in English, by placing surnames before the given name.

This will reverse the conventional naming order when using the Latin script, in which the first name comes before the family name. This order came in vogue during a period of rapid westernisation in the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Today, business cards carried by the Japanese also tend to have English names printed, often but not always, with their given names first.

In Japanese etiquette, people tend to introduce themselves or call each other by their surnames. First names are used only among friends or peers and signal a close relationship.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga was among those who urged greater caution on the idea: "There are many factors to be considered, as it has been customary (to put given names first). Relevant ministries and agencies will discuss the possibilities."

Likewise, Olympic Minister Shunichi Suzuki said: "We need to gauge public debate a little more before deciding on the matter."

Still, Mr Kono told a news conference a change was timely as Japan enters a new imperial era Reiwa (beautiful harmony) and a series of international events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games are on the horizon.

He noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are referred to by their surnames first, as is the case in Mandarin and Korean respectively.

Mr Kono, whose business card reads "KONO Taro" and who is very fluent in English, said: "It is preferred that Abe Shinzo's name is written as Abe Shinzo in English."

His request was echoed by his colleague Masahiko Shibayama, the minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, at a separate news conference the same day.


With a change in naming conventions, decluttering guru Marie Kondo could be referred to as "Kondo Marie". PHOTO: AFP

Mr Shibayama said that almost 20 years ago, a government council had recommended restoring consistency in the naming order in both English and Japanese, stressing the need to "respect the cultural diversity of each country".

The recommendation was widely ignored. A poll at the time said people were split almost equally between favouring the surname-first order, the given-name-first order, and those who did not care.

The Yomiuri daily reported on Wednesday that Japanese passports have been following the surname-first order since 1992, although the given-name-first order is still in popular use.

Mr Shibayama, admitting sheepishly that his name card followed the given-name-first order, said on Tuesday that Japan's Cultural Affairs Agency will call on all administrative bodies, schools, and local and prefectural governments to follow the Japanese naming customs when using the Roman alphabet.

The switch was effected on his ministry's website as of Tuesday evening, with Mr Shibayama's name changed to "SHIBAYAMA, Masahiko".

Still, it will be difficult to reverse a custom that is entrenched in Japanese businesses with global operations like Fast Retailing company which owns Uniqlo, as well as those that use English as their in-house official language, such as Rakuten, Shiseido and, by next year, Honda.

However, Japan-born Singapore permanent resident Shigeru Ichige, 66, told The Straits Times he preferred that Japanese naming customs are followed in the Latin script.

"This is a part of Japanese tradition and history," said the retiree, who is married to a Singaporean and has lived in the Republic since 1982.

The Straits Times will consider changing its house style if and when it receives an official notice from the Japanese government.