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  • Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column 34, Dec 7, 2010: “MOFA gets E for effort in ‘with or without U’ farce”

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on December 8th, 2010

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    The Japan Times: Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
    MOFA gets E for effort in ‘with or without U’ farce [not my title]
    Column 34 for Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE


    My Japanese passport expired last month, meaning I’ve been a citizen here for a full decade now. Hooray.

    This should have occasioned thoughts on what’s changed in Japan for the better. Instead I got to see how inflexible Japan’s bureaucracy remains. Consider what happened when I visited Sapporo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs branch to get that passport renewed.

    I walked in with all the necessary documentation and filled out the forms. The friendly clerk gave everything a once-over (very professionally; no double-takes at a Caucasian applicant), and all was going smoothly . . . until he got to the rendering of my name in Japanese.

    Clerk: “Er, about your last name. You wrote ‘Arudou’ on the form. Officially we only accept Hepburn-style Romanization, so you have to write it as ‘Arudo’ or ‘Arudoh.’ “

    I sighed, and said, ” ‘Arudou’ is how it is spelled. My expiring Japanese passport also had it rendered as ‘Arudou.’ Clearly that was acceptable then and should be acceptable now.”

    Clerk: “Yes, you can write ‘Arudou’ on the back of your application to indicate how you would like your name rendered on the passport itself. But for our bookkeeping purposes, you must render it as ‘Arudo’ on the front. We can only take Hepburn. Please remove that superfluous ‘U.’ “

    I said I could do that, but then that person would not be me.

    “The name is ‘Arudou.’ That is how I render it in my native language.”

    We went back and forth for quite some time. Clerk cited precedent, I cited individual choice. By naturalizing, I had been given a rare opportunity to choose my own name and identity, and no damned “bookkeeping purposes” were going to change that.

    Finally, Clerk patiently asked, “Why is this so important to you?”

    “Well, um . . . it is my name, the most important thing a person can have. But I can think of three more reasons.

    “First, my experience with a foreign name here before naturalization. Bureaucrats converted my former surname, Aldwinckle, from Roman letters to katakana at their whim. My name wound up in so many different versions that we had trouble tracking down my nenkin pension contributions from different jobs. This time, I want control over my public identity, including spelling.

    “Second, the latent arrogance. On other official forms, I’ve even been admonished by bureaucrats how to write an Arabic number 5 ‘properly.’ ” (Straight line first, then cedilla as second stroke — as opposed to my education of writing it all as one stroke.)

    “You want to tell me the stroke order of go (five) in kanji, fine. But you will not tell me how to write letters and numbers in my native language.

    “The worst thing is your flawed version of Hepburn, without diacritics, which means — for your sacred ‘bookkeeping purposes’ — you are forcing Japanese names through a system that can make things less comprehensible to native readers.

    “For example, names like Honma and Monma become the inaccurate ‘Homma’ and ‘Momma.’ What about a name like ‘Big Hill’ (ō-oka), which becomes ‘Ooka’ or ‘Ohoka’? Let’s have some sensitivity here, if not accuracy.”

    Clerk nodded, and went to a back room for a long powwow with his bosses. He came back with a longer face.

    “I regret to inform you that unless you cross that ‘U,’ I will have no choice but to refuse your passport application.”

    I gave him an icy stare. “You would deny me my right to travel abroad because of a single letter? Who do you think you are?

    “Look, how do you think I got ‘Arudou’ rendered as such on my expiring passport? Because I had this discussion with you in 2000 when I first applied, and again in 2006 when my name changed after a divorce. When your bosses realized I was not going to budge on this, they had me write out and sign a moshitatesho (a kind of affidavit) stating that if anything were to go wrong due to the spelling of my name, the responsibility would be mine alone.

    “So check your records. If you find one document where I rendered my name as ‘Arudo’ before, then I will do it again. But you won’t. You accepted my application before — twice. Find that moshitatesho and abide by it.”

    Some time later, Clerk came back, offered a deep bow, said he had found my moshitatesho, and that forthwith my application would be accepted with the “U” intact. It only took two hours in total this time.

    “Thanks,” I said. “Now, will I have to go through this every 10 years?” Clerk said he didn’t know. “I’d put in a good word for you, but I think I’ll be retired by then. As you can see, my hair’s pretty gray.”

    “Yes, and I’m sure people like me only make it grayer.”

    We shared a laugh, and he said he would pass my case up through MOFA channels as feedback for reforms.

    I appreciate that. But even after 10 years as a Japanese and two Mexican standoffs, I still had to face the same old bureaucratic idiosyncrasies — those that arise when our government decides that things within the domain of the individual are instead privileges granted at the whim of The State. To name a few: middle names and different last names after marriage (forbidden by the family registry system), minority names with alternate spellings (e.g., Ainu and Ryukyuan names) — and, in more extreme examples, parental rights to child access during marital breakdowns (Zeit Gist, Feb. 2) and even to the contents of a mother’s uterus (as the old saying goes, “The womb is a borrowed thing” (hara wa karimono)).
    Source: Hara wa karimono is from Kittredge Cherry, WOMANSWORD, pg 87-8.

    No matter how complicated and diverse Japanese society becomes, bureaucrats will still assert old prerogatives. In my case, they even threatened to take away my fundamental rights just for refusing to abide by a system designed basically for bureaucrats’ convenience.

    Nertz to that. A name fundamentally defines a person’s identity. I will Romanize it as I please, thank you.

    Time for Japan’s bureaucrats to allow for more diversity and learn to have more respect for individual dignity. MOFA, this means U.

    Debito ArudoU coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to


    9 Responses to “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column 34, Dec 7, 2010: “MOFA gets E for effort in ‘with or without U’ farce””

    1. debito Says:

      Quick note from Debito:

      I forgot to switch off comments yesterday for my initial announcement of this article, and there are some good ones there already. Please have a read of those too. Sorry. Debito

    2. J.J. Says:

      I have to laugh a bit, Arudo san:

      Are you in the least bit surprised? Lol

      My respect to you for making that great step to changing your nationality; as you are Japanese, you should petition your government to get their act together!

      — An article in the Japan Times might help.

    3. futureal Says:

      Obviously, everyone besides Japanese word processor manufacturers prefers Hepburn to Kunrei.

      The question is, what is romaji even for? Is it to accurately represent the phonology of Japanese using the letters of a foreign language, necessitating a bit of learning on the part of the reader much like learning to pronounce any other language which uses the roman alphabet in different ways than English does; or to convey as accurately as possible how the words should sound, assuming the readers will try to interpret it according to the conventions of English phonology?

      My view is that it’s ok for Japan as a country to have its own conventions of spelling – just as a customs officer might look at an Italian-sounding name and say to himself, “Ok, this ‘cia’ should be read like ‘cha'”, it’s reasonable to expect them to also say, “a doubled consonant in this name, in a Japanese passport, should be read differently than it would be in English”. It’s fine, nay, natural for countries to have different conventions of spelling and phonology. Thus the burden is not on Japanese people with names like “Nitta” to find the romanization of that name that is least likely to be read incorrectly by non-Japanese readers. Customs agents who see a Japanese passport with the name “Homma” should know at least a bit about how it should be read.

      That said, I also agree that people who know Hepburn romanization of their name is likely to be misread should be able to choose a spelling that suits them. That may seem like it contradicts most of what I just said; but basically I just mean that those whose official duties include reading names transcribed into English from other languages should be familiar enough with their particular rules of transcription not to read, for example, “Ide” as “I’d”.

      I wonder if Chinese folks registering their names in other countries have similar problems.

      And food for thought, why is it so taboo for Japanese-Americans to try to use Kanji in their names?

    4. Joe Says:

      My wife and child are Japanese citizens, yet we’ve never had any trouble with their Japanese passports having my actual last name on it, rather the Hepburn Romanization of the katakana rendering of my name. I wonder what is the difference?

      I also wonder how Kimiko Date-Krumm was able to become クルム伊達公子 in Japan. I guess she must have done Debito’s old trick, taking her husband’s last name and legally changing her first name to “DateKimiko”?

    5. Andrew Smallacombe Says:

      I remember opening a postal savings account back in 1991. I filled out the form, writing my name in katakana (surname スモーラコーム).
      The clerk sent it back to me, telling me that I had to fill it out in English.
      I naively assumed that my name would be printed on the passbook in English lettering – why else would they ask me to do that?
      When I got the passbook, some one had decided that they would convert my name to katakana without having any idea how it is pronunced. For several years I had an inactive account under the name スマルラコンベ!!

      — Exactly as I said in my column. Idiots, who think that a person has no right to render his or her own name accurately!

    6. Mark in Yayoi Says:

      Futureal, I have to disagree with you. Japan already has its own conventions of spelling — in hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The prupose of romanization (and of transliteration into any other writing system) is to make something readable to people who don’t otherwise read the original language.

      Italian has its own spelling conventions in the Roman alphabet because it evolved from Latin. But when we write Italian words and names in katakana or Arabic or Cyrillic we don’t preserve any of the quirks of Italian spelling or phonology — we write words the way that the other alphabets would spell them.

      You wouldn’t look at the Italian word “focaccia” and tell Japanese people to write フォカッキア but actually pronounce those kana like フォカッチャ even though the katakana suggest otherwise. You’d be laughed right out of the room, as should anyone advocating any romanization that forces readers to adjust to spelling quirks or irregularities that only someone fluent in the original language would know about (such as Kunrei, in which the sound “tsu” is romanized “tu” because the kana つ happens to be in the T column and the U row of the kana chart and the genuine “tu” sound (とぅ) has no romanization at all).

      This is why diacritical marks are so important. The 26 Latin letters are being stretched to the breaking point to incorporate the dozens of other sounds that the Latin language never had. I mentioned it in an earlier post, but I’d really like to see the International Phonetic Alphabet become the standard for passports and other international records. The Latin alphbaet only really does the job if you’re limited to Latin phonemes.

    7. Futureal Says:

      The issue is that there are multiple standards of spelling and pronunciation which use the Latin alphabet, whereas there is only one recognized standard of pronunciation for katakana. That’s why we call it a syllabary. We can’t tell people to pronounce katakana differently for words from different languages, but we can for words written in the alphabet. Indeed, as you pointed out, the alphabet’s phonemic content has stretched to accommodate the variety of non-Latin languages which now use it. People expect different pronunciation standards for foreign words written in the alphabet.

      I also think we should avoid the assumption that romanization is only for the sake of English readers. The discussion started on passports, which are obviously read by people of a variety of linguistic backgrounds. Of course, I do agree that in coming up with a standard of romanization for Japanese, one should take care not to flagrantly defy what anyone who uses the alphabet to write has come to expect, as you said. That means not using “zya” for “ja”, unless I can be convinced that there is some language somewhere where “zya” is actually pronounced “ja”. But we must keep in mind that not everyone whose standards must be taken into consideration are native English speakers. Hungarian, for example, has a lone “s” pronounced “sh” and “sz” pronounced “s”. Japan would be far from the only country with its own standards. I still don’t know how to pronounce “Szechuan”, but I expect someone working as a customs officer should at least have a decent idea of how to.

      Where we can probably agree is that when romaji is taught in schools, teachers must make clear that it is not the same as spelling in English. I’ve heard of cases where teachers actually are introducing “romazi”, including alphabetic renderings of katakana words like “gorira”, in the class times designated for English. This is a terrible disservice to the students, who end up thinking that katakana and romaji are ok ways to pronounce and spell English. English and Japanese have different rules and different standards. I simply think those difference may also apply to alphabetic spelling.

    8. Justin Says:

      Admonished for your “5”s? That’s a new one. I remember when I went to report my bike stolen in Okazaki, at the koban they were incredibly upset with my 1s,4s,7s and 9s.

      1s could not simply be a vertical line. They must include the diagonal up top and and horizontal line down below.
      4s must not have an open top and the lines in the middle must intersect with portion of the horizontal protruding past the vertical.
      7s must be written with 3 strokes with small vertical line at the front of the horizontal. Crossing 7s is a no no.
      9s need a tail that curves up in the same manner as a lower case ‘g’

      I must have filled out that serial number 5 or 6 times before it was accepted.
      That’s when I started using the accounting kanji instead. 壹貳參肆伍陸漆捌玖拾

    9. Jonadab the Unsightly One Says:

      > Obviously, everyone besides Japanese word processor
      > manufacturers prefers Hepburn to Kunrei.

      I don’t. As a native English speaker trying to learn Japanese, I think Hepburn should be banned. It causes nothing but confusion. (Not that I particularly like Kunrei either. On the whole I think transliteration should be avoided, except when the words need to be assimilated into the local language for the benefit of people who have no intention of learning the source language — e.g., loan words and foreign place names.)

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