Japan eyes change to surname position

A move to follow the surname-first order has spread in English textbooks for junior high school students. (The Japan News/ANN)

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) – Let’s go with “Abe Shinzo,” not “Shinzo Abe.”

Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Masahiko Shibayama, among others, have proposed a revision of the way the names of Japanese people are presented when written in Roman letters. Instead of the Western “given-name-first” order, they suggest following the Japanese “surname-first” order.

They hope to spread the style to the public and then set it in place on the occasion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Revision of a tradition that has become rooted both inside and outside Japan, however, may cause controversy.

Shibayama said at a press conference Tuesday that the Cultural Affairs Agency was planning to give a second notice in the near future recommending the use of the surname-first order by those in public administrative bodies, educational institutions, the media and other fields.

The agency already gave such a notice that “the surname-first order is desirable” in December 2000 in response to a recommendation from its National Language Council. To avoid confusion, the council also recommended writing a surname in all uppercase letters (e.g. YAMADA Haruo) or putting a comma between a given name and a surname (e.g. Yamada, Haruo).

Shibayama explained the council’s point of “respecting the cultural diversity of each country” and said: “I assume this point has not fully been shared. We should inform the general public of it.”

Kono, meanwhile, said during a press conference on Tuesday: “We are in the new era of Reiwa and will also have the Tokyo Games. We would like to propose a request to major international media in each country to present Japanese names [in surname-first order] such as Abe Shinzo.”

Kono’s idea comes from the examples of Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in being presented in surname-first order. The minister’s own name cards introduce him as “KONO Taro,” and he has raised the question at such occasions as press conferences since the end of March of whether it is acceptable to present names in the style of “Shinzo Abe” only in the case of Japan.

According to Wakayama University Prof. Haruo Erikawa, who chairs the Society for Historical Studies of English Learning and Teaching in Japan, the given-name-first style began gaining a foothold in response to the nation’s Europeanist policy in the mid-Meiji era (1868-1912) and then penetrated into the public mind-set through English education.

However, along with the cultural agency’s notice in 2000, a move to follow the surname-first order has spread in English textbooks for junior high school students.

Six of the seven textbook publishers existing in fiscal 2002, and all of six companies that published textbooks in fiscal 2006, came to use the order.

Japanese passports have followed surname-first order since 1992, although the given-name-first order remains in popular use.

Under the circumstances, Kono and the other advocates focused on the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. They aim to change the presentation of Japanese athletes’ names into the surname-first order when they appear in footage provided via the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) to gain a large amount of recognition all at once.

Addressing the new order via OBS will be possible if Japan requests that the International Olympic Committee change its guidelines and treats Japan as it does China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and North Korea, whose athletes are already introduced in surname-first order.

However, there are cautious views about the idea within the government as it may cause confusion due to the use of given-name-first order already being widely known in international society.

Shunichi Suzuki, minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, told media at a press conference on Tuesday, “We need to gauge public debate a little more before deciding on the matter.”

Common in business

Many Japanese companies running globally take the given-name-first approach, following the Western style.

Rakuten Inc., which has adopted English as a common language spoken in the office since 2012, is one company that has adopted the given-name-first order such as in its list of executive names. Fast Retailing Co., which runs the Uniqlo clothing business, and leading automaker Honda Motor Co. also follow the given-name-first order.

Names appearing on scientific theses published in English, as well as those of notable people, follow the same order.