Weekend Tangent: Fun and Games at MOFA Passport Renewal — almost denied a passport because of one letter

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Hi Blog. This will no doubt be put into the “shake your head in disbelief at Debito’s stubbornness” file by some, but here goes:

Last Tuesday my Japanese passport expired. Yes, it’s been more than ten years since I became a Japanese citizen. What that means to me is a topic for another blog entry someday. But what happens every time I go in to the Foreign Ministry’s Passport Renewal Office happened again like clockwork — it’s becoming a MOFA tradition.

So I went in on Tuesday and filled out my application as per normal (answer all the “you better say no” questions, mostly along the line of “are you a terrorist or criminal?”, correctly), and got all checked as normal: current passport (MOFA will later give it back cancelled, unlike, for example, international driver licenses issued in Japan), juuminhyou, koseki touhon (these were actually not necessary if the passport is still valid, which it was, darn it), and mug shot.

But as is traditional, we got into a dispute about how to spell my name.

Clerk: “You have to spell it in Hepburn Style. That means ARUDO or ARUDOH, not ARUDOU.”

I pointed to the passport and said that ARUDOU is how it has always been spelled. “And if you check your records, you will see we have had this discussion before, both in 2000 when you first issued me a passport, and in 2007 when my name was changed legally to ARUDOU DEBITO after my divorce.”

She flipped over the application to the back where I had filled out a new special section (once a separate sheet, now as of June 2009 part of the application form) for irregular and foreign spellings/renderings. “Here it is spelled as you want it. ARUDOU DEBITO. But on the obverse of this application you must spell it ARUDO. That’s Hepburn Style. For our records. That is how we officially convert Japanese script into Romaji.” She pointed to the list of complete official transliterations for every set of kana possible in Japanese.

Me:  “I don’t think you know just how flawed the Hepburn System can be, ma’am.  You still have old spellings like Honma rendered as HOMMA. That will not be read “hon-ma” by anyone who does not understand Japanese. I had a friend by the name of Monma who was constantly annoyed because Customs read her name MOMMA. I think you ought to consider allowing more flexibility in Romajinization. That would include me.”

She reiterated that these were the rules and would I not just cross out the U on my last name for the MOFA’s recordkeeping purposes?

“That’s fine,” I said, “but I don’t care about your records. My name is spelled ARUDOU.  Always has been.  I will determine my own identity, thank you very much.”

She called over someone more senior who handled me for the rest of the day, a very friendly but persistent old man who reiterated the drill about how names were supposed to be spelled.

I told him I wasn’t going to be told how to spell my own name. Especially when it’s in my own native language. “I’ve had bureaucrats try to correct me on the stroke order of how I write a number 5.  That’s pretty arrogant.  I know how to write a number 5. I learned it as a native in my schooldays. If you want to correct my stroke order of a 五 in kanji, then fine. But I will not allow bureaucratic cultural insensitivity and arrogance to dictate how I should use the Roman alphabet to alphabetize my own name.”

Mr. Senior said, “But you see, it will come out as you want on the passport thanks to the way you wrote it on the back. ARUDOU. Is there any possible damage that could be done just by deleting that U at the end having it entered in our records properly as ARUDO?”

“Yes. ARUDO is not me. ARUDOU is. I have had many years of dealing with alternate katakanizations of my original names ARUDOUINKURU DEBITTO — so much so that it was difficult to track my nenkin records down. No thanks. It is ARUDOU on my passport now, and I will always have it rendered as ARUDOU in any records of me as such.

“I don’t think you understand just how critical this is to my identity.   Unlike most people, I chose my name.  It is me.  My choice was after a lot of time spent living in Japan, qualifying to be a citizen, and going through a rigorous test to become Japanese.   A name is the most important possession a person can have. I will not bend on this. I didn’t in 2000 or 2007. I won’t now.”

Mr. Senior went back behind the counter and shortly thereafter came out with a frown. He said:

“If you don’t cross this U off your name, I regret to inform you that we will not be able to accept or process your application.”

I gave him the stare I gave the camera for my passport picture (which does not allow smiles).

Only without the Mona Lisa upturned corners of the mouth. And held it.  For quite some time.  And said, “You would deny me my right to travel overseas just because of a letter U? Who do you think you are?

“You accepted my spelling as ARUDOU twice before. Now you will again. Check your records. Back in 2000, I went into the back room with one of your supervisors and handwrote a moushitatesho, which said that if there were any problems arising from the extra U on my name, that I would take full responsibility. Go on. Check.

“If you can find any document where I wrote my name as ARUDO in the past, then I will oblige. Otherwise you will. Because you did before. Now check.”

He did.

About a half hour later (I played a lot of Bejewelled on my iPod), he came back and offered me a deep bow.

“We found your moushitatesho in our records.  It is as you say.  We will accept your application as is. And we apologize for the delay and hassle.”

“I understand.  But don’t you think it’s time for you to relax your rules now that there are more international and multicultural Japanese citizens with more individual name spellings?  Would it really break your computer to render us as we would like to be rendered, within reason?”

Mr. Senior:  “I will pass your case onto the relevant authorities for consideration.”

“Thanks very much.  But will I have to go through this every ten years?”

“Hopefully not.  But in a decade I’m not sure I’ll still be here.  I’m getting grey, as you can see.”

“I’m sure customers like me aren’t helping with the grey hairs.”

We shared a laugh and eventually parted on very good terms.  Me especially, because I like being listened to (and I like winning arguments, of course).  But I really feel as though he finally came round to understanding why I was being so goddamn stubborn.  It only took about two hours.

I still think it’s about time for the GOJ to loosen its top button a bit and allow for some flexibility in names.  We’ve finally gotten some degree of breathing space in what constitutes a “Japanese name” after naturalization.  We’ve even gotten some flexibility in how a name is rendered on a passport.  Now let’s hope that we can at least have some wriggle room regarding the almighty Hepburn System.  The Monmas of the world who don’t like to be made into mothers (not to mention the 大岡s, who have to live with OOKA (ooka ooka ooka shaka, hooked on a feeling!) or OHOKA (おまえ、アホか?)) I think would sincerely appreciate that.  What’s the point of forcing people to render their names into a system that people can’t read properly?  ArudoU Debito


23 comments on “Weekend Tangent: Fun and Games at MOFA Passport Renewal — almost denied a passport because of one letter

  • > ARUDO

    Whatever it is, it is most certainly not Hepburn style.
    Hepburn consistently marks marks long vowels.
    Yes, I am aware that they are not allowed to use diacritics on names, but then they should not call it Hepburn.

    This is an issue that I feel extremely strong about, having spent decades getting various spellings fixed all over Japan.

  • All power and respect to you Debito for standing up for yourself against the almighty powers that be! What an inflexible system.

  • Firstly I think you well within your rights to push something like this if it means something significant to you, no one else has the right to decide if it is worth taking issue with for you. Secondly thanks to people such as yourself, capable of making the argument eloquently and perhaps more importantly willing to take the time and make the effort to do so, you push and extend the envelope of tolerance which means when the rest of us find ourselves in a similar situation, perhaps over a more minor issue we should therefore sail through where otherwise we might have struggled. Thirdly, it does no harm to Japanese culture to get the odd injection of outside, alternative thinking. And fourthly, Japanese bureaucrats love the odd incident like this in their careers, you probably made his year, such an exciting, dramatic and unscripted encounter will no doubt be passed onto his kids and grand-kids!

    It has always been the few willing to take a stand that have won the rest of us the freedoms we have today and who keep that fire burning, if no one stood up, it would not take long till the bureaucrats had us all living like robots (if indeed we were allowed to live at all!).

  • What crazy bureacracy!
    When my son was little I was asked to sign his Japanese passport for him. After we got home we got a telephone call from the passport office telling us that the “i” had not been dotted in his name. They wanted me to come in to dot the “i”. I asked what would happen if I didn’t. They told me that his name would officially be undotted. They also said they wouldn’t dot the “i” for me. I wasn’t going to drive two hours to dot an “i” so until he got his next passport his name was minus a dot.

  • Not the passport office, but twice now my bank has refused to accept incoming payments from overseas because my name was not rendered in katakana in the payment, but in Romaji. This is racial harassment, pure and simple. We don’t tick the right boxes.

  • Nice to see that you can find a way around the system even if it does mean having to make a formal special request. I have always used my middle name since birth which has caused no end of troubles here but found some satisfaction at the bank when I learnt that you could record a ‘second’ name on your account. Any payments in or out of the account will be accepted with either name (passport or chosen) which helps a little. On bureaucrats and their ‘rules are rules’ incidents, I once filled in a DOB section with 44-nen etc and was told that only Japanese people could write that (i only have perm res) and I had to cross out the and hand write 1969 instead … fuming – i almost blew my top!!

    — “Only Japanese can write that”? You got a cracked clerk.

  • It always seems things are based on precedent. If it was allowed in 2000, then it will have to be allowed again. When I first opened a bank account years ago, I didn’t use an inkan. Because of that, whenever I had to do anything that would usually require one, I said “I didn’t have to use one at the bank” and it’s like a KO argument. (It was also a kick in the ass because I could rarely match the signature I made at the bank my first week in Japan, so I eventually used my inkan, which was really hard to do).

    The question is why were you allowed to have ARUDOU in 2000 in a system that’s so strict. Stubbornness? Luck?

    — Stubbornness. When it comes to basic issues of identity, I DO NOT compromise. And I think they could read in my eyes that I was not going to give on that.

  • I agree with Chris B. It seems like such a minor thing, but it makes a difference. The activists blazing the trail to change have more guts than I ever will, and thanks to our Debito and others like him, maybe my dream of creating a happy life for myself in Japan can actually come true. For that, I owe them everything.

    Also, I was glad to see that it ended rather amicably. Had it not, he probably would’ve ended up thinking the worst about gaijin and their “difficult” ways, but as it was, I’d like to think he walked away with a better understanding of NJ as fellow citizens. Maybe the nest time he comes across a “difficult gaijin”, he’ll have that much more sensitivity and open-mindedness. That’s the rarely-seen optimist in me talking, but I’d like to believe it could happen.

    — Well, Mr. Senior told me he is was a private-sector employee, hired as an extension of actual MOFA bureaucrats. As such, he has to do their bidding. He expressed a few times that he was sorry he had to put me through this, as he was only following orders. But eventually we found the power of precedent enabled both of us to do the right thing. I’m very grateful to Mr. Senior for hearing me out.

  • It strikes me as amazingly bizarre that they use Hepburn officially, when they teach or at least taught Kunrei in elementary schools (correct me if I’m wrong here). Also, shouldn’t consistency of name use be more important than the romanization scheme?

    — Nope.

  • Only proof I had to show for my kids passports of the spelling of the name, if they received an international letter with that spelling. Poof, no issue. Really strange that they put you through all that…

  • The summary of the rules for Japanese Passport names is here amongst other places:


    As other people have noted, it’s not pedantically ヘボン式 {hebon-shiki} (Hepburn style) but rather a variant with a lot of room for exceptions.

    There are specific rules that cover/allow for cases like Debito’s (see “ヘボン式によらないローマ字氏名表記”) and the 長音 {chōon} (long vowel) “o” vs “ō” vs “oh” vs “ou” case is specifically mentioned as an example. It even allows for the case of a naturalized Japanese citizen that has a “Japanese” (katakanized on the family register) but wants to use the birth certificate (ie. original English) spelling (eg. “John Smith” vs “Jon Sumisu”).

    It also warns you that if your passport name differs from your boarding pass name by even one letter, you can possibly be screwed and denied boarding by the airline. 🙂

  • I’ve always don my tinfoil hat when reading a certain type of bastardization of the language, as it always strikes me as something made to make non-Japanese look buffoon-like when reading.

    Take “Shinjuku” and how it becomes “Sinjuku”.
    Or “Tsu” becoming “Tu”. There’s just no way to help reinforcing that butt’ol notion of foreigners not being able to pronounce Japanese correctly (even less speak it) when this is how things are written.

  • Thank God Debito,

    They did not ask you to write it as あるたふ the way it was being written some hundreds of years ago. Good to hear that they even have computers for Koseki 🙂 🙂

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Adam, Kunrei is taught in schools early on because it maps the rows and columns of hiragana to the alphabet without irregularity. The problem is that Japanese language (like all languages) is irregular; Hepburn fits it more accurately.

    Kunrei also doesn’t allow for syllables like ティ and ファ that the Japanese language didn’t use years ago, but now requires. Hepburn is “future-proof” in this regard.

    (A few years ago I got to meet an old woman named Mantu in Okinawa; when preparing the acknowledgements in an academic paper, she was very happy to see me spell “Mantu” correctly rather than her passport’s bastardized “MANTO”. It seems that when she was young, the Japanese language didn’t allow the syllable “tu” トゥ in personal names, and passport names are filtered through Japanese kana. Hepburn romanization has no problem with tu (and ti, fe, je, tso, etc.)

    I wonder what happens with Ainu names, which can end in consonants. Small-sized katakana are used for those. Do passports allow those, or are they like Mantu’s name was back in the 1930s?

    Debito, the line Eido mentions seems to be just what you want:


    (If you desire Romanization deviating from Hepburn, for cases other than those listed above (such as inserting H, O, or U for long vowels; using L for R, and the like), consult in advance with the telephone guidance center or passport window.)

    Could you have contacted them beforehand to make sure that the spelling you wanted could be used?

    Having heard so many manglings of personal names on airline intercoms, I often think that making everyone write their names in one diacritic-free 26-letter alphabet while people might pronounce those letters however they wish (or governments are free to set pronunciations however they wish) does more harm than good. Maybe passports should have people’s names listed using International Phonetic Alphabet symbols, which could then be pronounced by anyone with a little bit of training.

    (Either that or go with the post-Middle-Ages scholarly convention and have everyone adopt a Latinized name for international use. The names on the left here are much more well-known than those on the right: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Latinised_names )

    — Thanks for the research. As for contacting them in advance, technically, I did: in 2000 and 2007; proof was in writing both in the moushitatesho and on the frigging passport itself. The directive cited above also says I could go the passport window. I did. In sum, in light of this research, their threat to not issue me a passport entirely is completely out of order, and I’m gladder than ever I held my ground.

  • Similar story.Completed application at bank for an account completed name as per passport. Handed in form. Clerk didnt check it at the time it was handed in. Two weeks later bank called and said had to come in and re do form, (didnt want to send new form). No must be in person (drama), refused. Reason for having to re do form. Name was written in capitals and lower case, a mixture, must be the same. My question was which should it be: capitals or lower case. No Reply, but must be all the same, throughout the whole form, all lower case or all capitals.Feels like Tokugawa treatment

  • i had a similar surreal experience to A39 when i had a car crash (not my fault!)
    called by police to give a statement-could hardly walk due to punctured lung and 4 broken ribs,went in a taxi..
    they phoned me next day to come back in again -when i asked why they gave no reason..
    went back in,again taxi – policeman said previous days statement he had written up horizontally,and that it had to be submitted vertically so had to be redone with my hanko again..bizarre

    just to add i was told my local shiyakusho same thing as douglas,in that only japanese could use showa,heisei etc years-i also had to rewrite my birthdate in western calendar

  • I should also mention to others that unlike English-based countries, Japanese credit card applications let you choose the rōmaji to be printed on the card itself (in addition to getting your Japanese script name), and they’re pretty loose about differing philosophies regarding system (Hepburn, Kunrei, Baseball) you use, and even the name order (last first or first last).

    There’s usually a little fine print that says they reserve the right to reject the name if it looks like it will deliberately confuse or may be used to commit fraud (i.e. the name of an obviously completely different person).

    Anyway, one should remember to always get at least one card (used to purchase air tickets) with the same romanization / spelling as what’s on your passport (be it Japanese or foreign), as this will reduce the chance for problems when traveling internationally.

    — Odd. My J credit card company would only allow first, then last name (i.e., Western style) on my credit card. Says that’s how it goes for all subscribers. The spelling is the same, of course.

  • To Mark in Yayoi –

    I’m well aware of the deficiencies of the various romanization schemes, and their weakness in dealing with the Japonic languages outside of standard Japanese as well as the Ainu language. The issue with tu and ti versus tsu and chit has a lot to do with the various languages of the Ryukyu and Nansei islands actually being different languages rather than simply dialects of Japanese (of course, then you get into the dialect/language debate, of which the wisest thing ever said about it was “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”). Of course, even in speaking of dialects there are issues up the wazoo, such as some still differentiating between づ and ず, which also doesn’t show up in romaji, Kunrei or Hepburn.

    The main advantage to Hepburn is that it tacks closer to actual pronunciation in most cases, but the disadvantages are that certain aspects are glossed over, like the above mentioned “Monma” issue, the conjugation irregularity issue, and that it isn’t always correctly translatable back into written Japanese, like in Debito’s case or in cases like おおきい and とおる. To speak fairly, Kunrei shares the long vowel issue, but my larger point was that it seems strange to have such a strict adherence to a particular romanization scheme when you’re teaching a different one in schools anyways, and all of the romanization schemes are basically flawed. Now, if we went with IPA as you suggested, that would be a different matter…

    — The point of this blog entry is the GOJ forcing people to romanize in ways not just inaccurate, but also against their wishes. Let’s get back to that in our conclusions, if possible.

  • A most successful ending against standard bureaucratic rules, Debito. Well done.

    Incidently, Marius, your “Shinjuku” example is actually even crazier than you thought, when rendered in Nipponshiki (Sindyuku) or kunreishiki (Sinzyuku). 🙂

  • Funny, I had a letter last week from UPS in Osaka who refused to deliver a package to me, why..because the package didn’t have my first name on the label, just my family name and full address. I had to telephone them to inform them of my first name, otherwise they would send the package back to the UK.

    I asked him, how do you know you are talking with me…..’I don’t’ came the reply…..will the postman check my ID when the package is delivered…’no’…came the reply,….so again, I asked, how do you know you are talking with me….’ I don’t’…finally!….so why are you insisting upon my first name when you have no means of official verification anyway, I can call myself anything, since you don’t care what my name is so long as you have a “box” to fill in!

    He quoted article #59 of customs regulations. However this is related to companies etc whom are importing goods etc…..i was just being sent a 2011 diary, but it was being sent ‘formally’(to guarantee delivery and quickly) from an International Institution of which I am member of, as every member receives one.

  • What Ben in #11 and Eido in #12 say is true, but I think what Debito was talking about was something else. When I got my J passport, I wasn’t too worried about went on the application form, as long as the passport itself had my name spelled correctly, so I did what Debito says they asked him to do: I wrote “Kimbari” on the front of the application, and then “Kimberly” on the back in the special permission section. Only “Kimberly” was printed on the passport, so I have no idea why they wanted the other spelling on the front side. I wasn’t especially concerned with it, as long as the passport was correct and I could use it as a form of ID that would result in my name being pronounced correctly outside of Japan.

    They’re pretty willing to give you a different spelling on the passport itself, as long as you’ve got a driver’s license or a credit card or something to show that you actually use that spelling. But being allowed to NOT write the “Hepburn” spelling ANYWHERE on the application is a different matter.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Debito, one question that I didn’t really think about very much until now: why did you come to prefer the “Arudou” spelling to begin with?

    It’s what you picked, and people should respect your right to spell your name how you choose, but what made you pick “Arudou” and not “Arudō” or something else? Writing a long O sound with ou is basically an artifact of the post-word-processor, pre-Unicode era (in retrospect, quite a brief one) in which the “regular” ō was difficult to make use of; regular 8-bit ASCII not having vowels with macrons. Now letters with correct diacritical marks are here to stay; will you ever come over to the “macron” team?

    — My former name “Aldwinckle” transliterates into “Arudouinkuru” in katakana. Take off the “inkuru” and that’s what you get.

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