The Eastern versus the Western ordering of names

By Bai Shi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 1, 2019
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. [Photo/VCG]

Learning about a nation begins first with knowing its people and getting to know their names is always the first step in this process. The way of writing names is also a reflection of a nation's culture and language.

Many Japanese people, when writing their full names in English, now face the issue of whether to put their given name or their family name first. 

Like other East Asian cultures, such as the Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans, Japanese people write or say their family name before their given name. This is a common feature in many East Asian civilizations. But while most of these East Asian cultures still write their family names first when writing them in English, Japanese names are written with their given name first in English. What is the reason for this difference?

For almost one and a half centuries, Japan has been following the English format by putting the given name before the family name. That was part of Japan's national reform and westernization policies, which started in 1868 during the Meiji Era. 

In Japan, however, there have been calls to change the order of writing Japanese names in English. About 20 years ago, Japan's National Language Council issued a report to urge the adoption of the Japanese format when writing Japanese names in English. These voices have become louder and the Japanese government says it now wants to settle the matter once and for all as the country enters the new Reiwa Era in May. 

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on May 21 that the government hoped that the Prime Minister's name "would be written Abe Shinzo" in the same way that China and South Korea do when writing their names in English.

Kono also said that he hoped Japanese English-language media would follow suit.

At present, both the Japanese government and English-language media still write the Japanese Prime Minister's name as Shinzo Abe, with Abe being his family name.

It might not be easy to change the way of writing names since Japan adopted the English format some 150 years ago. But China and South Korea have set a good precedent in this respect. Both countries use their own traditional formats when writing names in English and have made them universally acknowledged around the world. 

Kicking off this process might be hard, but the eventual result is good. Over the long period of contact between China and Western nations, Chinese names were written in different ways in English, some used the family name first and others wrote the given name first. This often led to confusion. China finally settled the issue in the late 1950s by creating the standard Chinese phonetic alphabet and adopting the Chinese format in English, with the family name being written first. After years of promoting and using this method, the Chinese phonetic alphabet was finally adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the international community. Today, the Chinese standard has become the international standard.

The Chinese phonetic alphabet and adopting the Chinese format when writing names in English are a combination of distinctive Chinese culture and the English language, which is the most commonly used language in the world. For example, Li Lei and Han Meimei are two well-known characters featured in China's middle school English textbooks and Li and Han are the family names. This format is generally used by Chinese people and is helpful when identifying a Chinese person by their name in English. 

In addition to this standard format, there are special use cases too. If a Chinese person has a Western first name, it is natural to use the English format when referring to him or her, such as Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, one of China's most successful online business giants. And in Hong Kong, many people like to put their English given name first, followed by the family name and the Chinese given name last.

Both East Asians and Westerners value their family name although the order of writing names is opposite. Whether to put the family name first or last, mostly depends on grammar structure. In English, Black Smith, for example, means Black [of] Smith. In other Western languages such as French and Italian, this is even more apparent. In French, in the name Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), the first French President after World War II, "de" means "of." Looking at another example in Italian, in the name Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the famous Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect and engineer during the Renaissance, "da" is akin to "of" in English. 

So the difference between the East and the West in the format of writing names is an interesting contrast of language structure which distinguishes one civilization from the other. In this sense, Japan has good reason to restore the Japanese name structure format in English as it enters its new era.

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