Japan to put surnames first for documents in English

TOKYO • Japan will start using the traditional order for Japanese names in English in official documents, with family names first, a switch from the Westernised custom the country adopted more than a century ago, said government officials yesterday.

The idea has been floated for years and some ministers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ultra-conservative Cabinet recently started pushing for it again.

The Cabinet agreed yesterday to begin making the change with government documents, though no timeline was given for its start.

"It is important for all of us in the world to recognise language and cultural diversity as we live in an increasingly globalised society," said Education Minister Masahiko Shibayama, a vocal supporter of the move.

"It is significant to make a change per Japanese tradition and write family name before the first name."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said usage guidelines and other details still need to be discussed further. He added that he looked forward to going by Suga Yoshihide, as he is known in Japan.

China and South Korea traditionally stick with the surname-first order both at home and internationally. But Japan has chosen to be seen more as part of the West rather than Asia.

Japan adopted the order of first name before surname for use in English about 150 years ago as a way to modernise and internationalise itself by imitating the Western style, according to the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The Western-style name order has since been widely accepted and used in English journals, school textbooks and magazines. The style has also become standard on credit cards and at many private companies.

A government panel about 20 years ago recommended a return to the Japanese style but was largely ignored. Those pushing for it in Mr Abe's government apparently hope to see the change spread but it is unknown how the private sector will respond to the move.

The reaction has been mixed even within the government. So far, only the Education Ministry has made the change to ministry officials' names on its website, while those in the Cabinet line-up on the Prime Minister's Office website were unchanged.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2019, with the headline Japan to put surnames first for documents in English. Subscribe