Japan wants you to say its leader’s name correctly: Abe Shinzo


Japan wants you to say its leader's name correctly: Abe Shinzo
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seen during a speech on February 10, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.

In Summary

  • In Japanese, people are referred to by their family name first, followed by a given name, the same pattern as used by Chinese and Korean.
  • For almost a century and a half, however, Japanese names have been written in English the opposite way round, with the given name first.

Japan has a polite request for the world: Stop saying our names wrong.

In Japanese, people are referred to by their family name first, followed by a given name, the same pattern as used by Chinese and Korean.

For almost a century and a half, however, Japanese names have been written in English the opposite way round, with the given name first. This practice was adopted during the Meiji Era as a part of broader attempts at internationalization and has now become standard, though exceptions exist and many historical names are still written with the family name first.

As it enters the new Reiwa Era this month, the Japanese government would like to settle the matter once and for all.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said the government hoped going forward that the Prime Minister’s name “would be written Abe Shinzo, just like Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.”

“I am planning to issue a request to the international media,” Kono said, adding he hoped Japanese English-language media would follow suit.

He referred to a report issued almost 20 years ago by the National Language Council urging the adoption of the Japanese format in English. That didn’t take on at the time — both among the international community and Japanese people themselves, most of whom continued to write their names in English with family name last — but the hope is that with the new era will come a greater willingness for change.

Tokyo will have its work cut out for it, however, and even if most media organizations adopt the Japanese order, there is no guarantee everyone will get it right — as an internet search for “Mr Jinping” demonstrates.

At present, the Associated Press style guide does not include an entry for Japanese names, but AP writes the Japanese Prime Minister’s name as Shinzo Abe. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “if (a Japanese) name is westernized, as it often is by authors writing in English, the family name comes last.”

Wikipedia’s Manual of Style page for Japanese names states that articles should “use the form personally or professionally used by the person, if available in the English/Latin alphabet.”

Abe’s entry on the online encyclopedia is currently topped by the notification: “It has been requested that the title of this article be changed to Abe Shinzo.” On the discussion page, where volunteer editors debate proposed edits and additions to Wikipedia entries, the proposer of the change said it is in accordance with the government’s announcement.

“Wikipedia does not obey government requests. We have our own style guide … and we use English forms of names,” another user wrote. “All Japanese biographies place the given name before the family name, whereas Chinese ones place the family name first. If we change this for Abe-san, then we would have to change all other articles about Japanese people. This may happen, but should be debated elsewhere than on a single biography page.”

That user added, however, that “if most sources start referring to Abe-san as ‘Abe Shinzo,’ then Wikipedia will follow suit. For now, it’s too early to tell if this new directive will take hold.”

If Tokyo does turn out to be fighting a losing battle on this point, there will be plenty of opportunities for annoyance in the coming weeks and months.

United States President Donald Trump arrives in Japan for a state visit on Saturday, when he will become the first foreign leader to meet Emperor Naruhito since his coronation. Next month, Japan will host the G20 summit, followed by the Rugby World Cup in September, and the Summer Olympics next year.

At all those events will be Abe Shinzo. Or, depending on which publication you’re reading, Shinzo Abe.

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