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Opinion

Japan's reordering of name format highlights global power shift

Shinzo Abe will become ABE Shinzo in official English texts as of Jan 1 2020

No longer doing things just to be convenient to Westerners.   © Reuters

In Japan these days it seems that conservatives want to change things and progressives want to cling to the status quo. An apparently minor, but highly symbolic, example is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government's proposal to change the order of Japanese names when written in the Latin or Western alphabet.

From the early years of the Meiji period, in the 1870s, Japanese people have identified themselves to foreigners in the common Western style of given name followed by family name. In native Japanese, however, the order is always family name followed by given name.

On January 1, 2020 that Western format, as used in this column, will officially change. On governmental documents and websites Shinzo Abe will become known as ABE Shinzo -- capitalization of the family name is also recommended -- and others in public sector roles will be expected to do the same.

There is no obligation on ordinary citizens to follow suit, but the advantages of standardization suggest that over time the new format is likely to win out. Actor Ken Watanabe would become WATANABE Ken and SoftBank Group's Masayoshi Son would become SON Masayoshi.

To Westerners the upheaval may seem unnecessary and confusing, but from the Japanese perspective it represents authenticity and normalization. No longer doing things just to be convenient to Westerners, as Asia rises in geopolitical and cultural power, is part of the point.

The initiative originates in the early years of this century when the Cultural Affairs Agency issued an advisory notice on the use of the native name order in English contexts. Lacking heavyweight political backing, it was totally ignored.

This time, rising stars of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party such as Defense Minister Taro Kono have been vocal in support. It seems the public is on side too. A recent opinion poll showed 60% in favor of the change.

The justification, as set out on the CAA's website, is that Japan is merely aligning itself with other East Asian nations like China, Vietnam and South Korea, all of which put the family name first. East Asians put their family name first because family affiliation was traditionally the most important information about a person, the individual identity coming second.

In essence, the East Asian format signals a more communitarian society, the Western format a more individualistic one. Japan's use of both simultaneously -- on either side of the same name card -- is a characteristic strategy deriving from specific historical circumstances.

Yukichi Fukuzawa saw rapid Westernization as the only way to survive. (Photo of a painted portrait provided by Fukuzawa Memorial Center for Modern Japanese Studies, Keio University)

One hundred and fifty years ago, Japan was engaged in a program of headlong modernization neatly encapsulated by the phrase datsu-a, nyu-o, meaning leave Asia, join Europe. That slogan was associated with educator and writer Yukichi Fukuzawa, who saw rapid Westernization, cultural as well as technological, as the only way to survive.

In an age when Westerners ranked ethnic groups in terms of cultural advancement, i.e. similarity to them, use of the given-name-first format was a tiny but crucial element in the national endeavor to convince Westerners that the Japanese were peers and equals, rather than "backward" people ripe for invasion and colonization.

Is Japan's newfound desire to align itself with its neighbors a harbinger of a datsu-o, nyu-a -- leave Europe, join Asia -- process? Perhaps so. In today's world, East Asia connotes high-tech manufacturing and rapid growth, not the poverty and weakness of Fukuzawa's era. Furthermore, global norms themselves are becoming more varied and multicultural, and conforming to an exclusively Western template is starting to look dated.

But there is more to it than mere pragmatism. In her brilliant and provocative book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, novelist Minae Mizumura describes the extraordinary inferiority complex Japanese intellectuals have felt toward their own language and -- by extension, though she does not say so directly -- their culture.

Arinori Mori, appointed Japan's first education minister in 1885, wanted Japanese to be replaced by English as the national language. Yoichi Funabashi, Japan's most celebrated newspaper columnist, made a similar case in a book published in 2000.

Ikki Kita, an ultranationalist thinker, believed his own tongue was exceedingly inferior.

Even Ikki Kita, the ultranationalist thinker executed for inspiring the failed coup d'etat of 1936, believed that his own tongue was "exceedingly inferior" and should be replaced by Esperanto, a constructed international language.

There were also periodic attempts to have Japanese written in the Western alphabet, notably by the United States Education Mission to Japan in 1946. Western theorists of the time considered ideograms like Chinese kanji to be primitive and undemocratic, compared to the phonetic scripts of the West.

Language is political, as Mizumura demonstrates. By projecting their domestic identities to a global audience for the first time, the Japanese are engaging in a symbolic act of self-assertion and seeking to put such complexes behind them.

It could be considered a dry run for a much more contentious act of assertion and normalization which will soon be on the menu -- amendment of the Japanese constitution.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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