Why Japanese names have flipped

Jan 02, 2020

ON JANUARY 1ST a minor lexical revolution rolled through Japan. A new decree ordained that official documents should reverse the order of Japanese people’s names when they are rendered in the Latin alphabet. Hitherto in, say, English documents, Japanese names have been written with the given name first, using the Western practice. Henceforth the family name will come first and, to banish any ambiguity, may be entirely capitalised. One backer of the change is the prime minister. From now on The Economist will refer to him as Abe Shinzo rather than Shinzo Abe.

Like other newspapers, we have long followed the convention of writing Japanese names in the Western order (while scholarly publications have tended to use the Japanese order). If Japan wants to change, why should anyone object? As is common in East Asian cultures, in Japanese the family name always comes first.

National pride motivates many advocates of the change. From a Japanese perspective, writes Peter Tasker, a Tokyo-based commentator, in the Nikkei Asian Review, it represents “authenticity and normalisation”. The fact that Asian powers are on the rise, both geopolitically and culturally, is part of the point, Mr Tasker argues.

Japanese conservatives do not see why they should say their names backwards...


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