By Tim van Gardingen
What’s in a name? Or, in the case of Japan, what on earth is the name in the first place? I found out the hard way just how tricky a Japanese name can be.
Names are important. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have never forgotten a person’s name, even of those who he only ever met once. I assume the reporters meant twice, as with those he met only once, there’s no way to tell. I can tell two things for certain from this: Lincoln understood the power of names, and Lincoln never had to learn the names of Japanese school children.
In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie argues that there is no sweeter sound to a person’s ear than their own name, and that someone who makes the effort to remember names will consistently make a positive impression on new acquaintances. With that in mind I set out on a task I neglected upon arrival in Japan due to just how challenging a task it is; I set out to learn all the names of my 400 middle school students.
At first I struggled to remember Japanese names because I couldn’t actually hear them clearly. Even now, if I ask a student what their name is, I hear this.
“Hello, my name is mffrruf *indecipherable mumbling*-mura. I am mfffirrlkkl years old.”
I get adult names now, but kids mumble to oblivion. The problem is, as a teacher, it’s the kids that matter. 400 names were going to be an uphill struggle, and we haven’t even touched why Japanese names in particular are such a pain to the British brain.
Remembering the sound of names that you have never heard before is half the battle. If you have ever lived somewhere with many names you are unfamiliar with, you will know how hard it is to get those names to stay in your head. They have a tendency to sit in a dark, rarely used, and slightly slippery corner of the brain for about a minute, before sliding stealthily right back out.
I had the same problem when learning Chinese. At first Chinese names don’t seem very memorable to a non-Chinese person. Back when I was teaching in China, after much thought on how to learn the names of my 1200 students (I failed), I slyly decided to ask all my students to write their names in my notebook so I could go home and learn them. Surely then would I solve this utter…
Chinese school kids write in Chinese. Damn.
See, now this would not be a problem. I can read Chinese now and Chinese does this clever thing where the sounds of the characters don’t really change much from word to word. There are of course minor exceptions, like my good friend whose Chinese name is 柏嘉丽. Some end up calling her Bai Jiali rather than Bo Jiali, but generally those Chinese characters behave themselves.
…And that is precisely why Japanese names are a nightmare. Japanese kanji do not behave themselves. They may look nice, but Kanji have an identity crisis. Though most uses of Kanji maintain fairly consistent pronunciation, this all goes haywire when it comes to naming people. Most kanji do indeed have multiple readings, but context makes their sound clear. 新 in 新聞 is read as shin because of the compound it is part of and because it is a word with Chinese origin, but 新 in 新しい has the Japanese reading atara, made clear by the しい on the end.  Names however are different. Though commonly used readings of Kanji can be understood contextually, Japanese names don’t always settle for the commonly used readings. In fact, I imagine that the average Japanese family expecting a new member pulls out their dusty tome of Japanese names, and with gleeful and slightly sadistic grins announces:
“Let’s make this name so horrifically obscure that even we forget how to say it.”
How is this possible? Let me give you an example. If I put the name 陽菜 into an online Japanese name dictionary (yes, these exist with good reason), I can find out, with much relief to my prior confusion, that 陽菜 can be read as Akina. Unfortunately, 陽菜 may also be Hana. Or maybe Haruna. Sometimes, it’s Hinata. Or Hina. Or Yona. Or Youna. Or Yuuna.
Heeeeelllllpppp. Calm down Japan, you need sleep. Come back to me after another 1000 years of Kanji development, and streamline this time.
Of course, any speakers of Japanese will have picked up immediately on my big mistake. I’ve been learning first names. This is problematic on two levels. Firstly, Japanese people tend to use surnames much more than we do in the English speaking world. Teachers generally call students by their surname for example. Us English assistants however seem to have a different expectation. If I ask a teacher for a student’s name, they always go by first names, and some students put their first name in English letters on their table. It is more personable and in principle I like it this way, but the fact is, Japanese surnames are much more predictable than first names. The 100 most common surnames cover the majority of the population and most are covered by a relatively small number of Kanji.
I was kindly given a name lists for each of my classes to learn names from. The example above, 陽菜, is one of my students, and I have absolutely no idea whether she is called Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna, Yuuna, or something completely different. Now I’m too embarrassed to ask. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve forgotten. Are you Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna or Yuuna? Luckily most of the names are considerably easier to work out, but that doesn’t detract from the mammoth task of working out 400 of these puzzles.
I don’t know whether I should feel distraught or relieved that the name deciphering game is difficult for Japanese people too. I have shown the most difficult names on my name lists to Japanese people, only to be met with a blank stare and with luck some possible suggestions of how a certain name might be read. For the trickiest names, I blame the parents.
There is of course also the good old fashioned way of learning names – talking to people. Human interaction is nice, in moderation. It’s just that there are only so many times you can ask someone their name before they either hate you or decide to write it on your face in permanent ink. I don’t particularly want either of those fates, so I have retreated to my name lists, even if I do end up calling Akina Hinata by mistake. With a bit of luck there might be someone else in the class actually called Hinata, but written with even more obscure and flamboyant kanji, and the real Hinata will unwittingly save the day by thinking I was talking to her.
So, to those venturing into the brave territories of knowing the names of hundreds of Japanese school children, my advice is this. Either make use of the ingenious ‘(insert characteristic here)-lad’ and ‘(insert characteristic here)-girl’ system used by two good friends of mine (Clever girl, can you help dangerously sarcastic lad with this question?) , or give up. I’m too stubborn to take my own advice.
 しい is not some marker of words with Japanese origin exactly, but adjectives in the い form, as this word is, mostly are of Japanese origin.
Tim is a first year ALT living in Hojo. Before joining JET, Tim was a language student in the UK studying German and Chinese. When not teaching, he is generally writing or playing music.