Foreign Minister Kouno Taro asks world media to use Japanese ordering of names (Abe Shinzo, not Shinzo Abe) in overseas reportage. Actually, I agree.


Books, eBooks, and more from Dr. Debito Arudou (click on icon):
Guidebookcover.jpgjapaneseonlyebookcovertextHandbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)sourstrawberriesavatardebitopodcastthumbFodorsJapan2014cover
UPDATES ON TWITTER: arudoudebito
DEBITO.ORG PODCASTS on iTunes, subscribe free
“LIKE” US on Facebook at

Hi Blog. Foreign Minister Kouno Taro (whom I have met, for the record, and can attest is one of the more liberal, open-minded people I’ve ever negotiated with in the LDP) came out last week to say that Japanese names should be rendered in Japanese order (last name, then first) in overseas media. This debate has gained significant traction in the past couple of weeks (not to mention quite a few scoffs). But I will defy the scoffs, make the case for why it matters, and why I agree with Kouno (after the WaPo article below):


Japan to the world: Call him Abe Shinzo, not Shinzo Abe
By Adam Taylor, The Washington Post, May 21, 2019

Ahead of a series of important international events in Japan, including a visit from President Trump this weekend, Japan’s foreign minister has said he will issued a request to foreign media: Call our prime minister Abe Shinzo, not Shinzo Abe.

“The new Reiwa era was ushered in, and we are hosting the Group of 20 summit. As many news organizations write Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it is desirable for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name to be written in a similar manner,” said foreign minister Taro Kono at a news conference Tuesday, according to the Mainichi Shimbun.

Or perhaps we should say, Kono Taro said that? Kono is the foreign minister’s family name, just as Abe is the Japanese prime minister’s family name. The Japanese diplomat says the family name should be first when referred to in English, as it is when it is written or spoken in Japanese.

Chinese and Korean names have their family names first in English — for example, in the cases of Xi and Moon, as Kono noted.

The convention for English-language transliterations of Japanese names, however, has long put the family name second. The custom is believed to date back to the 19th century, during a period when the Meiji dynasty reformed Japan’s complicated naming culture — and encouraged both foreigners and Japanese people themselves to write their family name second when writing in English, part of a broader attempt to conform to international standards.

But this system has long been used inconsistently. As far back as 1986, the government-funded Japan Foundation had decided to use the family-name-first format in its English-language publications and historical works or academic papers often did too.

In his remarks Tuesday, Kono referred to a 2000 report by the education ministry’s National Language Council that had recommended the use of the Japanese format. That report did not change things at the time, but as the foreign minister noted, it is now a new era.

The arrival of a new emperor has resulted in a new era, named “Reiwa” for two characters that symbolize auspiciousness and harmony. Japan is hosting a number of major events at the start of this period, including the G-20 summit of world leaders next month and the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Trump is arriving in Japan on Saturday for a state visit, where he will be the first foreign leader to meet with Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito. The U.S. leader has formed an unusually close bond to Abe — even referring to him as “Prime Minister Shinzo” in 2017.

It is unclear whether the U.S. government will conform to Kono’s request. It also remains unclear whether the entire Japanese government is behind the idea.

Last month, Kono told a parliamentary committee on diplomacy and defense that he writes his name in the Japanese order on his English-language business card, and that this issue should be discussed by the government as a whole.

But Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Daichi Suzuki has said the public should be consulted before the move.

“We should be deciding after spending some more time examining how discussions among the public are,” Suzuki said, according to the Mainichi Shimbun.

Japan Times article covering similar content (including some silly comments) at



  • Why does this debate matter?

Let’s start off by articulating the obvious: Names matter. And the public depiction of names is fundamental to any sense of identity.

There is no greater instant essence to a person’s public identity than a name. Both as a gift from others (e.g., “family name”) and as a name you can select for yourself (e.g., if you don’t like the first name you were given, you can even choose your own nickname and insist it catch on).

I know this personally because I have had several name changes in my life, both through adoption as child and naturalization into another society.  And through those experiences I’ve realized that names are something you should be allowed to control.

What name I had at whatever stage in my life profoundly shaped how I was treated by others — from being respected as a distinct human being (e.g., I get significantly more respect and cooperation from bureaucrats for having a kanji name than a katakana name), to being an object of mockery and even racialized scorn. (Enough online trolls had virtual hernias for my audacity to insist I be rendered as ARUDOU, Debito — because, how dare I?  What do I think I am, Japanese?!?)

Because you can’t please everybody (and when it’s a matter of your own name, you’re the only person you should have to please), choose the outcome you’re more comfortable with.  Which means:  if you don’t like to be called something, then demand something different. And hold fast to what you want, no matter what people say.

Case in point:  North Korea (for want of a better example) has done this successfully.  In contrast to how Japan renders Chinese leaders’ names (Deng Xiaoping is “Tou Shouhei” due to Japanized “Chinese readings” (on-yomi) of the Chinese kanji), Japan’s media and government officially calls Kim Il-Sung et al. “Kimu Iru-Son” in katakana as per Korean readings, not “Kin Nissei” as per on-yomi.  Because that is the rendering the DPRK demanded until it stuck.  Similarly, as Foreign Minister representing Japan, Kouno Taro is within his mandate to demand a Japanized rendering.

  • Now, does this order of names matter?

Yes. It goes beyond the confusion of not being to tell “Which name is the surname?” when names don’t match what other societies are accustomed to.

It’s a matter of being consistent.

Western media already renders Chinese and Korean names in the native order (Last name, then first, as in Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un). Eventually overseas readers adjusted.  They’ve even cottoned on to changes in rendering, regardless of order: Mao Zedong has also been called Mao Tse-tung, and the sky hasn’t fallen.

Moreover, there’s some responsibility on the part of the reader in the foreign language to adjust.  For example, when Westerners make gaffes (such as hayseed US Senator Jesse Helms repeatedly referring to Kim Jong-il as “Kim Jong The Second”), the fault generally falls on the uninformed commentator, not on the fact it was rendered in “East-Asian-style”.  It’s called becoming more informed about the outside world.

There’s another reason I’ve long supported the Japanese rendering of surname first in overseas media, and not only because it’s accurate.  (After all, Western academia has already long rendered Japanese names as surname first, because international studies by definition requires study.)  It’s also because the present system of surname last in overseas media is in fact built upon a flawed, racialized premise.

Think about it.  Why does Japan get different treatment from other Asian countries with the same system?

Because, as the WaPo article above alludes, the names were switched to “Western order” because of an artificial push (demanded, again, until it stuck) to make Japan appear more “Western”, an “Honorary White” status in Asia.  This was part of a larger historical pattern of Japan trying to present itself as non-Asian, pro-Western, and “modern”.  Even if subconsciously, Kouno Taro is trying to redress this misleading 19th-Century concept of “modernism by pandering to Western styles”.

Conversely, it’s also annoying to have to deal with the phenomenon of assuming “Western order” for “Western contexts”:  people in Japan assuming that “foreign names must also go in Western order in Japanese”, not to mention the “we must deal with foreigners on a first-hame basis” (calling somebody Jon-san instead of Sumisu-san — if you’re lucky enough to get even the damned –san attached).  Having this mixed-up system just encourages people to further alienate each other.

This brings me to something that further thickens the debate:

  • Caveats

The primary assumption behind all of this is mutual respect and reciprocity, i.e., “We’ll respect your styles if you respect ours.  However, as pointed out on for many years, Japan has not been respectful of the rendering of foreign names within its own registry systems.

As long-time resident Kirk Masden in Kumamoto pointed out on Facebook:


Hi! Masden Kirk Steward here with some thoughts on the cultural integrity of names.

As you can see from the images of my Japanese IDs, the Japanese government has determined that the correct, official way to write our names is in Japanese order (family name followed by given names), without a comma to show a change in order. I have been told that I must “sign” my name in this order, in English, in order to complete a cell phone agreement. I protested but ultimately complied because I wanted the phone.

As you can imagine, I felt a bit irritated but had forgotten about the issue until I saw today’s news:

Kono to ask foreign media to switch order of Japanese names

“As an example, Kono said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name should be written as ‘Abe Shinzo,’ in line with other Asian leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae In.”

As one who would like have the cultural integrity of my own name respected, I’m sympathetic to this position. OK, Mr. Kono, have it your way. But first, please do the following:

* Formally sign your request 太郎河野 in Japanese — the cultural equivalent of what Japanese policy has forced me to do
* Apologize, on behalf of the Japanese government, for not respecting the cultural integrity of non-Japanese names
* Make an adjustment to current practice

If for example, individuals could choose to place a comma after a family name on an ID, that would be an improvement in my view. Or, IDs could have separate boxes for “Family name” and “Given names”. It would also be nice to publish something on an official Japanese website about not forcing people to sign names in the order they appear on a Japanese ID.

Yours truly, Masden Kirk Steward — NOT!!!

P.S. One more point: The Japanese government forces us to opt in if we want our names written In Japanese. That may be OK but after going to the trouble of opting in once, I forgot to opt in again when I got my next card — even though the new card was a new version of the old card and I was required to submit the old one at the same time I submitted the new one. So, now I have no official indication of how to write my name in Japanese — which I had specifically requested earlier. 🙁 End of rant

P.P.S. I would just like cultural and linguistic integrity of non-Japanese names to get a little more respect and understanding. Pretty much the same thing that Kono is asking for. The gap between “This is Japan and we will mangle your names as we see fit” on the one hand and “Respect Japanese culture and present our names in the correct order” on the other bugs me.


DEBITO:  This is before, of course, we get to how names of children of international marriages get rendered, where the koseki has no extra slot for a middle name, meaning the first and last names can get mashed together into an unwieldy polyglot. As Facebook commenter ID pointed out:

ID: I’m with Kirk. When I went to register my daughter at the city office, they tried to tell me that her name couldn’t be Christine. She could be “Kurisuten” or “Kurisucheen”. He didn’t get long shrift… A friend of mine has a son whom they insisted was called “Ando-ryu”.


To which Kirk answered:

Masden Kirk Steward:  In my case, the disagreement was with the people who had the power to approve or disapprove how their names would be listed on their Japanese passports. With our son, whose name in English is Leon and 理恩 in Japanese, the spelling “Leon” was approved. Reason: They determine from looking at the names that “Leon” had come first and that “理恩” was ateji. With our daughter whose name in English is Mia and 美弥 in Japanese, the spelling “Mia” was not approved — it had to be Miya. Reason: They determined (in their infinite wisdom) that we had started 美弥 (a “real” Japanese name) and therefore a “deviant” spelling could not be approved — even though her U.S. passport is “Mia.” The best we could do was to get them to add “(Mia)” in parentheses.


DEBITO:  Ditto on my account.  I’ve had two passport renewals (and a Japan Times column) haggling over whether I could spell my own name Arudou or ArudoH (Hepburn Style, which MOFA, in their infinite wisdom, requires, even if that means names like Honma and Monma being spelled misleadingly as “Homma”and “Momma”).

So point taken.  Let’s have rendering conventions respect the original renderings of names as accurately as possible in the target language.  And let’s have some reciprocity when it comes to allowing individuals to control their identities through their names.

Opening the floor now to discussion…

David Christopher Schofill / Aldwinckle / Sugawara Arudoudebito / ARUDOU, Debito / Debito Arudou Ph.D.

17 comments on “Foreign Minister Kouno Taro asks world media to use Japanese ordering of names (Abe Shinzo, not Shinzo Abe) in overseas reportage. Actually, I agree.

  • Thanks for including my comments, too, Debito!

    My post was made to Kumamoto International, a page for expats in the Kumamoto area and other interested persons. Most of the content isn’t political so we have quite a variety of perspectives among our readers. Some seem to be uncomfortable with or even slightly hostile toward any kind of complaint regarding the treatment of non-Japanese in Japan. So, perhaps not surprisingly, I got some pushback to my post. Here’s a mea culpa I posted in response to some criticism I got:

    “Postscript: I should have put this in my original post but I now, in retrospect, see that the way I put my original post together is probably what led to some of the pushback I got. If I had toned it down and just said “if think it would be nice if . . .” I think the reaction would have been different. And, of course, if I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d do. The part about asking Kono to apologize and sign his name in kanji in the English order, etc. was over-the-top hyperbole that I thought was humous when I was writing it but probably made me seem like more of a lunatic than I really am.”

    So, please understand that my calls for Kono to apologize are tongue-in-cheek. I do, however, think some sort of improvement in how non-Japanese names are rendered on Japanese IDs (indication of surname vs. given name distinctions, use of a comma to indicate different order in the original language, etc.) would be a significant improvement.

    You can find more thoughts of our discussion in Kumamoto here:

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Urgh, Japanese name insecurity/NJ name romanization fascism. Again.
    They’ll never convince the world to change the order of Japanese names; they’re fighting the weight of over a hundred years of practice they demanded in the first place, enshrined in mountains of academic documents and every newspaper story about the bubble-era, ‘cool Japan’ soft power cultural export, and samurai legend translated into English. Not. A. Hope.

    Mangled NJ names rendering dictated by myopic goldfish? Yeah, tell me again about Japan being a ‘top destination for international business elites’, LOLZ.

    • In light of the Ghosn case, Tamotsu Sugano case etc, any business executives braving Japan are likely to avoid any utterances at all about Japan less than glowing praise, so He Who Cannot be Named is more appropriate a name. Hardly a suitable topic for most situations except when safely outside Japan.

      Come to think of it, that goes for English teachers too. “Free conversation” has been an oxymoron for some decades now, as it opens an NJ up to a potential minefield of taboo topics, faux pas, and misunderstandings likely to offend. To live and teach in Japan is the art of obfuscation, the ability to stretch the Zen-like possibilities of “this is a pen/spoon, or is it?” into an hour of lesson/conversation time, moreover to sidestep any attempts by rightists to bait you into a “political” conversation.

      Ok, back to the structured textbook on non-Japan related topics! Or, the mental script you follow in your well practiced after work drinking schedule to ensure a pleasant, non confrontational evening.

  • On my Japanese government documents – i.e., Drivers license, Residence card, My Number card My name is Family name first, given name second. Why can’t they respect my real name order?

    Yes, I understand that these are cards used in Japan, but Taro is asking for overseas media to follow Japanese conventions. How about Japanese govenment following English conventions?

    Also, jeez, is the high level of international politics that our taxes are paying for?

    • IMO that problem would be solved by:
      * A. Putting a comma in the drivers’ license, residence card, number card, etc. so it is “Smith, John Henry” or “Gonzalez Sanchez, Maria Juana” – we write names with commas when ordering by family names.
      * B. Sending an e-mail instruction to relevant government offices telling them how the name is broken down.

      With cultures without a family name “Megawati Sukarnoputri” or “Batman bin Batman” or “Teowolde Gebremariam” or “Siggi Ingvarsdottir” no commas should be used and the e-mail should tell them about this as well.

  • I personally disagree. It’s not just about being another Asian country. The reason Korean and Chinese names are that order is due to their structure. They are 3 part names. A surname, then (most often) a 2 part given name. For example Moon Jae In, Kim Jong Un, Mao Ze Dong. It’s a very consistent pattern. Japanese names dont follow this. They are closer to western names (identical format except for middle names). So a single given name and single surname. Like Shinzo Abe, Taro Kono, Debito Arudou. Since virtually nobody in the west reads their middle name when introducing themselves, the structures here are the same. This is why the western order works for Japanese names but not other Asian countries.

    • Chinese-style names don’t have a 2-part given name. The middle name is a generation name. (I’m not sure if the same applies to Korean names.) Japanese names don’t have generation names, but neither do a lot of Chinese names these days: omitting the generation name is somewhat common.

      Anyway, how does the issue of whether a name has 2 or 3 components make any difference at all to which order you read it in?

      • Yes, they do. It’s not technically a middle name, because it almost never is omitted like western middle names. So you would never call Xi Jinping “Jin” or “ping”. And you would never call Kim Jong Un “Jong”. The 2 part given name is almost always a set, expect for maybe parents calling their kids in a cute way or something like that.

  • Ryan Hagglund says:

    I have to disagree. As much as possible the standard name order of the language being used should be the basis. My name should have the family name first when rendered in Japanese and a Japanese national should have the given name first when rendered in English. To do otherwise is mixing nationality with linguistics and contributes to the narrative that Japanese and Westerners are somehow different on a basic level. It also leads to ridiculous situations such as my children would face, having both US and Japanese nationality. Confusing nationality with language increases the likelihood of discrimination rather than diffusing it.

    • I think I agree with you. But for politicians – eg Abe, he should be called Prime Minister Abe. Simple.

      But having different standards like they do in Japan – look at your national health card – it will have your name as John Henry Smith, but your other govt. cards like driving license have Smith John Henry. Which is annoying because it means every time I go to a health clinic I get called Mr. John.

      So Japan, clean up your act at home first, please.

      • “Prime Minister”, simply. Back in the day, the PM of Japan, like Italy, changed so often the Rest of the World never remembered their names.
        This practice should continue.

    • Jim Di Griz says:

      I disagree!
      The English language belongs to ‘us’ not ‘them’ and they’ve got no right to demand we change anything about the way we do anything in our language! It’s our ‘unique’ culture, just like research hunting whales (or whatever it’s called) is for Japan!*

      *Sarcasm mode off.

      Seriously though, Japan resists international law and international laws with every dirty trick in the book (Hague agreement on child abductions, anyone?), but throws a hissy fit about what we call their ‘leader’ because of collective racial inferiority complexes about how ‘the west’ treats Abe compared to Moon and Xi? Oh PUH-lease Japan, get over yourself!

    • Jim Di Griz says:

      And as if to prove my point, here’s something from right wing Sankei owned Japan Today, a needy, embarrassing ‘poll’ asking anglophone NJ if they think that Japan is a ‘western country’;

      Japanese rightwingers refuse to accept that are just as Asian as China, Korea, Vietnam etc, and go desperately begging for positive affirmation of their superiority from white people (and then get resentful that their insecurities drive them to do it in the first place).
      These Japanese nationalists haven’t made a shred of progress since 1868, but expect us to trust them not to repeat the mistakes they made before 1945.

  • If Japanese Govt/Admin dept etc stop insisting I use my complete FULL name as it appears on my birth certificate/passport, then i agree.
    Can’t have it both ways….

    Only in Japan must i write my full name – which I have never ever done previously before living in Japan.

    If Japanese wants the world to recognise the correct order of their names, then fine, the Japanese must recognise that middle names in Western cultures, no matter how many one has, are more about paying homage to ones ancestry/family than an actual name to be used as a form of legal recognition.

  • The Japanese government even insists on mis-spelling my family name! My wife took my name, but, of course, it was registered in katakana. When she renewed her passport, her name was rendered back into Latin characters, but spelt incorrectly. When we pointed this out, we were told too bad.

    The irony of a Japanese lawmaker lecturing us on respecting people’s names is rich indeed.

  • “Western media already renders Chinese and Korean names in the native order (Last name, then first, as in Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un). Eventually overseas readers adjusted.”

    Actually I think they’ve always done this.Sun Yat-sen’s signature is in Chinese order, and Marguerite Martyn’s comic of Wu Ting-fang called him as such.

  • “(After all, Western academia has already long rendered Japanese names as surname first, because international studies by definition requires study.) ”

    Specifically I believe western Academia in the Asian studies arena indeed does this, as they’re focusing on Japan and want the name to be right. But academia in regards to government, law, politics, economics etc. isn’t as interested, so papers in those fields will use Western order.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>