On Friday (Sep. 6), Japan’s education minister Masahiko Shibayama proposed to the cabinet that Japanese names be written in English in the same way they are in Japanese. Surname first; first name last.
Pay attention. What it means goes beyond the simple fact that Japan will start putting family surnames first on official documents, thereby switching from the westernized customs it adopted more than a century ago.
What’s manifest is a nationalism that no longer wants to provide cultural concessions to the West.
It’s worth remembering that even though the idea was around for years, it is prime minister Shinzo Abe’s (traditionally it would be written as Abe Shinzo) ultra-conservative cabinet that seriously pushed for it. Mr Abe wants to revive aspects of Japan’s traditional culture.
His foreign minister Taro Kono (or Kono Taro, going by the new guidelines) has asked that international news coverage of Mr Abe follow be like that of Chinese president Xi Jinping and South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Both are referred to with their surname first.
University of Hong Kong linguistics professor Stephen Matthews is quoted in the South China Morning Post to say the Japanese name change is “consistent with [Abe’s] relatively nationalist views. Japan’s 19th-century decision to reverse [surnames and given] names was like a concession to western Europe, and I think he’s saying that we don’t need to make such concessions any more – ‘here’s our culture, we should be proud of it, we don’t need to adjust it so much for Western consumption’.”
Add to that the Japan’s growing militaristic self-confidence. Mr Abe’s government passed a law allowing Japan to defend allies, approved a new muscular defense plan, and wants to amend its war-renouncing constitution to formalize the nation’s armed forces’ existence. There’s really no reason why not considering Article 9 of the Japanese constitution is already out of step with reality. Japan has the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) and to recognise their existence makes sense.
But the SDF and how to write Japanese names say something deeper about Japan’s struggle to unambiguously stress its own unique identity—without interpretation of, by, and for others.