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Dear Japanese Government: fuck off

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan aims to change the way Japanese names are written in English by putting the family name first, the same way they are written in Japanese, in a triumph for conservatives keen to preserve traditional ways in a fast-changing world. Education Minister Masahiko Shibayama proposed the change to Cabinet ministers on Friday and the government will now study how to implement it, the top government spokesman said […] Foreign Minister Taro Kono raised the suggestion in May saying foreign media should write the prime minister’s name in the traditional way – Abe Shinzo.

Shinzo Abe can fuck right off, because that is not correct when using English. Follow your own heathen customs when using Japanese, old chap, but no government gets to decide how English is used, that sort of bullshit only happens in France and Japan 😛

41 comments to Dear Japanese Government: fuck off

  • Fraser Orr

    I have noticed a trend in business emails (usually from hotbeds of liberalism like education) where in the email signature to include a list of “pronouns which I prefer”. I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand I think it is only polite to address people in the manner in which they wish to be addressed (within limits — if you want me to call you the queen of Sheba, I am unlikely to comply.) On the other hand it seems to be deliberately introducing a hot political topic into business in which it does not apply.

    But regarding Abe, I think the same rule applies. It is perfectly polite to address people in the manner in which they want to be addressed assuming they don’t have some hidden agenda. After all we call him Kim Jong Un not Jong Un Kim, and surely our Japanese trading partners deserve at least as much respect as that little shit.

    BTW, I made a discovery recently about one of my “bees in my bonnet”. I hate the way that job titles are used in the government as if they were titles of nobility. You know like that senator who got her knickers in a twist when someone didn’t address her as Senator, or the ridiculous practice of addressing people who used to work in the government with the highest job title they ever received (such as Secretary Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden or Ambassador Haley.) I don’t consider this the same, this is not just politeness, it is a power play.

    I was reading original sources on the “wall of separation issue”, which came about as an exchange between Jefferson and a church group in Connecticut in 1801 when Jefferson was President. The letter to the President that provoked this started:

    “To Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the United States of America”

    Of course nobody would ever write that today. But I find a certain sense of satisfaction that back then he was addressed properly, as an Esq. who just happened to have a job as President.

    So in regards to calling someone President or Secretary because that used to be their job, in the regards I agree, they can fuck off.

  • I still hear people using ‘Bombay’ and ‘Peking’ and ‘The’ Ukraine 😛

  • English is inconsistent wrt Japan and other East Asian nations.

    English language media do put the Chinese family name (Wang, Ji ..) first. They do the same with Korean ones (Kim, Park, Lee …). It seems logical to me that English should do the same with Japanese ones.

  • Andy Ex-Japan

    To be fair a lot of English languages websites on Japanese pop culture I visit will use the surname-given name order, e.g the virtual idol is nearly always called Hatsune Miku, not Miku Hatsune.

  • Barry Sheridan

    Good grief Perry, agreed we should stick to our conventions, but F— off, is that really necessary!

  • It seems logical to me that English should do the same with Japanese ones.

    Why? Seems quite illogical actually. In English, we put the personal name then the family name. Putting it the other way around means when read in English, an English reader will assume Shinzo Abe’s family name is Shinzo, and his personal name is Abe, which is incorrect.

    Not following the usual convention for everyone in all cases means you can no longer make that assumption for people from non-English speaking countries, because while Shinzo might be self-evident as a first name to a Japanese speaker, it is far from obvious for someone who is not familiar with Japanese names (i.e. the vast majority of English speakers worldwide).

    The whole point of language is to facilitate effective communication. I do not give a damn how Shinzo Abe is rendered in Japanese unless I am speaking Japanese. In English however, it is useful to know which is the family name and which is the personal name. And we do that by putting the personal name first.

  • Sigivald

    Well, if they want every foreigner to think his family name is “Shinzo”, sure?

  • ap

    Simply ask the Japanese to submit their proposal to the Académie anglaise.

    The Japanese are good at following proper procedure.

  • Jack the dog

    No I think you are quite wrong. Any rendering of a Japanese name ino English is a transliteration not a translation and common politeness as well as common sense dictates we write it the way they do.

  • Paul

    English should continue to put Chinese family names first, eg Mao Tse-Tung, or Mao Zedong, or whatever, and Japanese family names last, as in Isoroku Yamamoto. It preserves the delightfully inconsistent nature of English, with which no foreign government may mess.

  • Any rendering of a Japanese name ino English is a transliteration not a translation

    So what? I am still speaking English. In English we call Roma Rome. We call Livorno Leghorn. We call Moskva Moscow. It doesn’t matter what the local word for these places happens to be when I am speaking English, because I am speaking English. When I speak Italian, I call it Livorno.

    Common politeness as well as common sense dictates we write it the way they do.

    No, common politeness and common sense dictates the Japanese government not try to dictate how foreign people speak their own language.

  • neonsnake

    Thing is, it’s already confusing.

    If you know just enough to know that Japanese use family-name given-name, but not enough to be able to recognise “that’s obviously a family-name”, then you’re left wondering what someone’s actual name is whenever you read an article, document, whatever, since some people use the Japanese convention and others don’t.

    No idea what’s to be done about it, until the next edition of the Newspeak Dictionary comes out and makes it clear.

    That said, I fall in line with Fraser et al. I’ll call people whatever they feel most comfortable with, within reason, on a one-to-one level, because that’s just polite. If they’re eg Japanese and I’m not sure, I’ll ask.

    Oh, and FYI (re. titles): PSA – should it ever become relevant to any readers, SIR Alan Sugar really, really doesn’t like people to forget that his name is SIR Alan…

  • Nullius in Verba

    “It doesn’t matter what the local word for these places happens to be when I am speaking English, because I am speaking English.”

    Right you are, Mr Pear-tree of Haverland… 🙂

  • Fraser Orr

    Perry de Havilland (London)
    I still hear people using ‘Bombay’ and ‘Peking’ and ‘The’ Ukraine 😛

    Sure, but your point here really rather undermines your case. It is extremely rare to hear Beijing called Peking (except, strangely, in respect to ducks and opera…) because it is considered kind of rude for English speakers to decide what Chinese place names are. (I think also because they are still pissed about that Opium War thing too.) And, as someone who has friends in Kiev, I can tell you that calling the place “The Ukraine” is not just considered rude but is considered a pretty oppressive political statement.

    The trend in English is to try to use the name of the place that the residents of the place prefer, insofar as it can fit into English phonology. However, I agree that European place names seem to be the exception.

    Having said that, what to call a person, their name, is a pretty personal thing, and I definitely think it is rude to go against someone’s wishes as to how they are to be called, assuming it is not a ridiculous request. I wonder, were you to meet a transgendered person, would you use the pronoun they prefer? To me it is only reasonable. (What is not reasonable if they expect you to use ridiculous constructions like zie and so forth.)

  • (What is not reasonable if they expect you to use ridiculous constructions like zie and so forth.)

    Why is that more unreasonable to you than an overtly political demand on how you use your language by a foreign government regarding names? Just curious.

    And do the same rules for apply your notions above apply to people you don’t know? If I find myself face to face with Shinzo Abe, I am prepared to accommodate his wishes if specifically asked to, but that would not be how I write the story of such an improbable encounter on Samizdata titled “Afternoon tea with Shinzo Abe.” 😆

    Frankly, I am willing to be somewhat indulgent face to face, but I’ll be damned if when I write about people that I allow them to dictate the form of words I will use, particularly if it is standard and widely used English (& I care very little about practice amongst the chattering classes, that does not constitute what is standard or widely used. I prefer ‘widely used’ to mean ‘what you overhear on a bus’).

  • And, as someone who has friends in Kiev, I can tell you that calling the place “The Ukraine” is not just considered rude but is considered a pretty oppressive political statement.

    I go to Kyiv 😛 fairly regularly these days (two of my Ukrainian chums are in London at the moment) & I have yet to find anyone who genuinely cares what Brits call their country. Most are well aware the nuances are completely lost on the vast majority of people west of the Vistula 😉

  • Balspune Runcie

    I think the OP is quite correct, “de Havilland Perry” sounds like a WW2 bomber.

  • bobby b

    “Any rendering of a Japanese name ino English is a transliteration not a translation . . .”

    Agree. When I drive into Mexico, I don’t become Beto instead of bobby, even though that’s how my name is commonly rendered down there. Some people assume it does change – and I disagree. Slipping into another language doesn’t alter my lifelong label.

    I think there’s confusion here between “English” – the language itself – and the traditional English-speaking world and all of its social customs. It is our custom in the West to place family names last. It is the custom in Japan to do otherwise. But the language – English – can be used in both places without impinging on social custom.

    I can understand the pushback on this, as it treads very closely to the “you mis-pronouned me!”, but I think this one has more social-custom foundation to it.

  • Good grief Perry, agreed we should stick to our conventions, but F— off, is that really necessary!

    @Barry – Would you prefer “Off, fuck”?

    SIR Alan Sugar really, really doesn’t like people to forget that his name is SIR Alan

    I thought it was Sir Alan, Baron Sugar?

  • Sam Duncan

    “… because it is considered kind of rude for English speakers to decide what Chinese place names are.”

    I consider it extremely rude of the Chinese to attempt to decide what the English names for their cities are.

    “However, I agree that European place names seem to be the exception.”

    Oh, but they’re not. We’ve already lost Marseilles and Majorca. Although, oddly, not in their written form, which suggests to me that it’s more about ignorance and/or snobbery than politeness. People go there, hear people using the local name, and think it’s more “correct”, having no idea that it’s not just a matter of pronunciation; the English name is different. Imagine the French saying “London”, but still spelling it “Londres”.

    “I hate the way that job titles are used in the government as if they were titles of nobility.“

    Oh, yes. To be fair, it is something of a convention in the US, where they don’t have real titles of nobility, the poor things. But “Prime Minister Johnson” is just wrong. (And, while it’s on my mind, can we stop having him standing in front of flags? Get a photo of the Queen, dammit.)

  • Simon Jester

    Given that the Ukrainian language doesn’t even have a definite article, it seems utterly ridiculous that some people there should take offence at how we use it in English.

  • It is extremely rare to hear Beijing called Peking

    Actually, it is completely routine in normal English conversation (at least in people of my generation).

    Political correctness is a one-way street. Politeness is a two-way street: you request some and you offer some. I’m OK with it if Boris or Trump call a Japanese politician by the name they prefer – especially when negotiating with them. I insist on their right not to do so – but I also grant Abe’s right to say, “I will do the utmost possible” (or similar Japanese-style way of saying “F-off”) to the trade deal. if they don’t

    When I was in Switzerland, I signed my name on the sextuplicate forms to stay there because the strange phrasing seemed to say the bureaucrats demanded it so. I resist bureaucrats – but sometimes pick my battles. I fight PC – but have been known positively to encourage politeness. I suspect I’ll be a lot less concerned by how I pronounce a Japanese name than by stuff closer to home.

  • Freddo

    It is always handy when people include their preferred pronouns in their email. It makes them self-identify as morons, likely of the underhanded backstabbing weasel kind. Treat them accordingly.

  • Stonyground

    The email format at my workplace has everyone’s name reversed, presumably so that the alphabetical list appears in surname order. There is occasional confusion over the name of a colleague who has a surname that is a fairly common first name.

  • Umbriel

    I long ago found it irritating when I saw The-Country-Formerly-Known-As-Ivory-Coast start showing up on maps and official documents as “Cote D’Ivoire”. Sorry, Coasters. You don’t get to enforce French pronunciations on English, German, and other incompatible tongues. Or else you no longer get to say “États Unis”

  • Fraser Orr

    @Perry
    Why is that more unreasonable to you than an overtly political demand on how you use your language by a foreign government regarding names? Just curious.

    So I was curious what exactly you mean by “demand” here. What, is Japan going to go to war with us should we not rearrange their names appropriately. Your OP didn’t cite an source so I googled and came up with this

    It seems that what is happening here is not that the Japanese government is demanding that English speaking people such as yourself speak in this manner but rather Japanese people do, when speaking English. And that they think foreign media “should” follow this practice. “Foreign” media generally have style guides specifically for the purpose of describing how to do this, and surely it is prefectly reasonable for he Japanese government to recommend what they should put in there for Japanese names. They can, evidently, take it or leave it.

    And, as you point out this is more about an individual thing, but it cites a survey suggesting that the large majority of Japanese would prefer it this way.

    So it seems perfectly reasonable, given that we do show this deference to the preferences of other East Asian countries and languages that we should extend it to them.

    BTW, I found it interesting that you corrected me from Kiev to Kyiv for two reasons. First of all you are suggesting that Ukrainians have a right to demand their city be spelled in their preferred manner (perhaps jokingly), disregarding your original contention. But second this is actually more a matter of opinion. Here we are not changing the name (as we do, in for example, Rome -> Roma or Moskva -> Moscow) but simply choosing how to transliterate a specific pair of vowels from one alphabet to a different one. To me, there is practically no difference between the Ukrainian pronunciation of Київ and the natural way of saying Kiev (except that the last constant is extremely truncated.) So, FWIW, I don’t actually think this is an example of one language changing a name in another language. (OK massive aside on an extremely minor point….)

  • pete

    Be careful.

    If a Japanese person claims to be offended at how you say their name you could get a visit from the police’s hate crime officers.

  • …but rather Japanese people do, when speaking English.

    So, given the already astonishingly low standards of ‘English’ spoken by most Japanese educated people I have met (in my time in finance, I mostly dealt with Japanese banks in London), you are saying the Japanese government wants Japanese people to intentionally speak English even more incorrectly than they already do after ‘learning’ English in the Japanese educational system? 😆 😆

    but it cites a survey suggesting that the large majority of Japanese would prefer it this way.

    So what? I would prefer to know family name from personal name, and we have a very simple way of doing that in English. Face it, the only reason English speakers didn’t mind calling Mao Tse-tung Mao Tse-tung is nearly all of them assumed his personal name was Mao 🙂

    First of all you are suggesting that Ukrainians have a right to demand their city be spelled in their preferred manner (perhaps jokingly), disregarding your original contention

    Actually I was taking the piss out of you because you didn’t spell it Kyiv. Most English people actually don’t know that Kiev is also Kyiv (I have yet to see Chicken Kyiv on a menu). Also, even in Kiev, both spellings are used (my Ukrainian chums actually speak Russian rather than Ukrainian to each other at home, even though they ‘identify’ as Ukrainian). Kyiv (Київ) is the spelling in the Ukrainian language, Kiev (Киев) is the spelling in the Russian language. And my chum in the picture above doesn’t actually care which I use. And he was an anti-government Maidan Square protester, so you can guess where his political sympathies lie.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “I would prefer to know family name from personal name, and we have a very simple way of doing that in English.”

    Yes, we can apply a conditional rule depending on nationality. It’s not complicated. English can cope.

    English commonly adopts foreign phrases and inserts them freely in the middle of English sentences. Sometimes foreign just has the right bon mot for the occasion! On the same basis, you can insert a foreign proper name into a sentence ‘in foreign’, in which case you use the foreign vocabulary, grammar, accents, etc. If someone has a French name like ‘de Havilland’ we don’t “translate that into English” as ‘of Haverland’. The name is ‘de Havilland’, with a ‘de’.

    Eventually, if used often enough, foreign words get incorporated into the English language as new English words, and then English grammar does take over. That’s most commonly noticed when it comes to plurals – the plural of ‘octopus’ is ‘octopuses’, not ‘octopodes’ – and then there is an argument for ‘translating’. However, I don’t think Japanese personal names have reached that point yet.

    It’s actually an instance of a general feature of English – that it can switch modes mid-sentence, dropping into completely different specialised rules and vocabularies for specialised purposes. Science and mathematics use this mechanism to the extreme, having a huge number of ‘everyday’ words in their vocabulary with very different meanings from basic English, and strict new rules on their usage. Jargon is very useful, English is wonderfully flexible in incorporating it transparently, and I’d think it a shame to try to get rid of it (not to mention, impossible). There isn’t just one set of rules for speaking English.

    And while I can certainly appreciate that it shouldn’t be a matter for law (I doubt the Japanese government will have any more success legislating the way people speak than the French government has), it’s a long way down my list of priorities. As a rule, it’s the speaker who gets to choose what conventions to use, and how far to go in making it easy for listeners to understand. And ‘correct’ is defined by common usage, not legislative committee. So if the Japanese always use it that way, it’s correct by definition. If the Japanese want to define their own convention, that’s fine by me.

    An entertainingly provocative post, though. 🙂

  • Mr Ed

    The de Havilland Perry, a WW2 bomber? It must have been ‘most secret’, but it surely had a pear of engines.

    We don’t call the capital of Portugal ‘Lisboa’, we don’t call Rome ‘Roma’, and the Portuguese can call Plymouth ‘Plimude’ for all I care, it is their name for it for those who know or care. Words and terms arise from individuals’ collaboration through language, over time working out what sounds ‘right’ in the language. And for the BBC’s benefit, there is no ‘r’ in ‘Pakistan” or ‘Afghanistan’.

    If the Chicoms want us to say ‘Beijing’, tough, it is ‘Peking’ in English.

    It’s ‘Chicken Kiev’, ‘Bombay Duck or Mix’, ‘Peking Duck’ and those cities’ names in English are as I have written them. Call them what you will, you may be laughed at, or hated, but it’s ‘The Ukraine’ in English and affecting or taking offence is just a legacy of Soviet mind-bending.

    PS Freddo wins the thread.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh, Mr Ed, yer bin doin’ it again!

    & fer yer information, when I were a lass ’twas Beiping. Before that it was Pekin, named no doubt for the proud little town downstate of me. (When it was Beiping, our 8th-grade reader had a piece in it about Mme. Chang. Before the ChiComs, acourse. And Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was still acknowledged as The Greatest Ev-ah! over here.) After Mr. Chang & his lovely wife went offshore, some other Communist upstart got the Sword, or perhaps the Barrel, of power on the mainland and it became Peking. I expect that in a few months it will change to Burping.

    Plizz not to inform Ms. Merkel Frau Sauer that I was poking fun at anything to do with the name of China’s official capital, or official Officials.

    NOTE. I’m glad we all recognize that the Great Foot is full of pea soup. This is easily seen when you compare its account of the dates of 20th-century names of Burping with my factual one above. Silly people oughta know to submit their wannabe-Font articles to me to edit for factual correctness before including them in The People’s Encyclopedia. 😈

  • Yes, we can apply a conditional rule depending on nationality. It’s not complicated. English can cope.

    Yes ‘we’ can cope. But most of us won’t because why? As I mentioned, most think Mao was the famous Chinese mass murder’s personal name, but all (and I do mean all) the Chinese people I know use personal name-family name when speaking English, because they know the overwhelming majority of foreigners cannot tell a Chinese personal name from a family name just by hearing it. The same is true of Japanese names.

    Unlike French, governments do not dictate how English gets used, well maybe Canada has linguistic police, but generally it is bottom up (hence the title of this article). And given reversing the name order is actively unhelpful, and being done as internal Japanese political pandering, I have my doubts it will catch on beyond the ‘Mao Tse-tung’ effect of being employed unknowingly. A distressing portion of Japanese English speakers are unintelligible already (I knew a very senior ‘English speaking’ Japanese bank manager who would speak to me in English and then patently wait for his assistant to translate his ‘English’ into English. Surreal), they should not be encouraged to become even less intelligible 😛

  • Fraser Orr

    @Perry de Havilland (London)
    As I mentioned, most think Mao was the famous Chinese mass murder’s personal name

    Sure, but most people probably think that the noun in “letters patent” is “patent”. I don’t think we should pander to a simplistic understanding of English grammar. It is, in fact, its extreme flexibility and willingness to adopt foreign linguistic mannerisms without choking on the apparent contradictions, that makes it should a powerful, rich and popular language. I’m sure you can readily think of many similar examples.

    Do you advocate changing common English practice to name that other oriental thug as Jong Un Kim also? (Or would you prefer we just call him “Evil Bastard”?)

    governments do not dictate how English gets used

    Sure, but they do dictate how English is taught in their schools, and they do offer recommendations to the press, which seems to be the only things that are actually going on here.

  • Do you advocate changing common English practice to name that other oriental thug as Jong Un Kim also?

    No, because this is a classic example of the ‘Mao Tse-tung effect’: almost no native English speaker has the slightest idea what that name means. Jong is his personal name and Kim is his family name as that’s how it is written 😛

    Sure, but they do dictate how English is taught in their schools, and they do offer recommendations to the press, which seems to be the only things that are actually going on here.

    And in this case, it is the extremely presumptuous Japanese government, an institution presiding over perhaps the worst system in the world teaching English-as-a-foreign-language (that I have encountered at least) telling people to use English in a way that makes it harder to correctly understand what a Japanese person’s name actually relate to.

    There is nothing bad in this world that government cannot contrive a way to make worse. 😆

  • I am pretty sure this a response to another Japanese politician who recently said Japanese should switch their name order to the Western way.

  • I am an American at a workplace who has a Japanese car company as a direct client. When in email correspondence with them, they will invariably refer to me as Darryl-san. As I find this rather charming, I would be willing to refer to them in any way they cared to, if it ever came up, which it has not; almost all communications are on a first name basis, for one thing. It is more a matter of politeness and mutual respect, and luckily politics has not intruded into this space. Perhaps there would be a different protocol if we were dealing with each other face to face… one of these days I will visit Nippon!

    I like to think of it like a Star Wars bar… one speaks one’s language with another, and the other speaks their own native tongue, everyone still understands each other, and drinks get consumed.

  • That being said, I have the firm policy that the pronoun-police can self-inseminate.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Shocking, Darryl! I feel the same way.

    Also, when you visit the Star Wars bar, please take me along. :>)

  • Fraser Orr

    Perry de Havilland (London)
    There is nothing bad in this world that government cannot contrive a way to make worse.

    Ah on that one I think we can agree.

    Darryl
    That being said, I have the firm policy that the pronoun-police can self-inseminate

    On this one I don’t agree. I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect to be called what you want to be called. If you find the name “D-man” offensive, then it behooves me not to call you that. If Julie doesn’t care to be called “Jules” or “Babe”, then it is kind of rude and destructive to my relationship with her to call her that.

    Of course there shouldn’t be a law about that (like the big Kerfuffle with Peterson in Canada), but law doesn’t dictate politeness.

  • Fraser Orr (September 11, 2019 at 2:10 am), notice that Darryl (September 10, 2019 at 2:12 am), wrote “the pronoun-police“. Had he written “the pronoun-polite-non-coercive-requester” then your comment would have been a reply to what he wrote.

    More generally, pronouns define group memberships. In English-speaking society, a person’s right to choose their own name has traditionally been very free, though rarely used. Whether someone is or is not a member of a given group inevitably cannot have the same degree of “they are whatever they say they are”. If Philip Hammond says he’s a tory, does politeness demand that Boris agree?

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