Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What's In a Name

Back when I was teaching up to 32 telephone English lessons per day, I'd occasionally get someone who would offer up his name "backwards". That is, he'd give his family name first and first name second as is the style in Japan. When I gently reminded him that when speaking English, we gave the family name last. Most students just accepted this and moved on but some insisted that they were Japanese and must give their names in the Japanese way. No amount of explaining that they would confuse business associates and friends alike if they followed Japanese convention while speaking English if they did this could convince them to give their name as first then last.

These guys (it was always men) viewed how they stated their name as a cultural turf war and they refused to give up the battle, even if the consequences could result in their confusing others or even screwing up a business deal. Keep in mind that I only taught business English back then. They wouldn't even go for the "when in Rome" argument. That is, when I speak Japanese, I follow the Japanese convention of last name, first name so as not to confuse the Japanese people and likewise they should follow their convention as long as they are speaking Japanese, but not when speaking English.

The only thing worse than a Japanese man who refuses to follow logic because he's so insecure that he feels he has to "win" a pointless cultural victory is a foreigner who when discussing some Japanese person with (only) English speakers feels the need to use Japanese naming conventions. Recently, in a discussion of a piece on Digg about Ken Shimura, one person used "Shimura Ken" in a sea of comments (and an article title) that said "Ken Shimura". These people (and it's almost always men) are all about showing you how they know something about Japanese culture that you don't and that they are either culturally acclimatized or demonstrating pointless and misguided cultural sensitivity by following the Japanese way when speaking a language and to an audience which is not Japanese. Never mind that doing so accomplishes nothing except make people think his family name is "Ken". Well, that and it shows that the speaker is, at least on some level, a douche bag.


Kelly said...

I so agree with you!

Just today, someone called me Azuma Kelly, and i was in the hospital (in Australia)! He wasn't Japanese but it seems he was a bit of a Japanophile...

I seem to bump heads with those type of people because they think they know everything about Japanese culture, and they never tire of telling you that you're wrong and they're right.

I don't know what inane pleasure they get out of it!

Emsk said...

Mindless one upmanship, with the emphasis on the man.

I have a book written by Julian Cope who was in a British band called the Teardrop Explodes in the early 80's. He's now, among other things, an afficionado on rock music world-wide and has a book out on Japanese rock. He mentions this naming convention before saying that he's not going to follow it, giving Yoko Ono as an example of someone who's simply too well known to start calling 'Ono Yoko' at this stage in the game. This is the right thing to do bearing in mind he's English, writes in English and the book is aimed at a western audience. I imagine this pacifies not only any Japanese readers who might be offended, but likewise any silly Japanophile anoraks.

Girl Japan said...

I second that "douche bag"..seriously. I run into these times OFTEN and it drives me bonkers, but I try to roll my eyes without them noticing... Yoko Ono is a great example..