What’s in a name? Everything.

Q. The Education, Science and Technology Ministry is suggesting that English teachers teach children to introduce themselves with their family name first. What do you think about this?

A. I think the Japanese should remain loyal to the dictates of their culture and customs and use their family name first when speaking and writing Japanese. I just as ardently believe that they should respect the customs and dictates of the English language by using their given names first when reading or writing English. They do not lose any of their Japanese identity by introducing or referring to themselves in the English name order. What they do is exhibit their commendable mastery of the language.

If a Japanese child with the name of Ayumi Kato, for example, learns to introduce herself in English using her family name first, the following linguistic errors and social gaffes will most certainly occur:

  • Ayumi, as a child and a beginning EFL (English as a foreign language) student, will not have the English skills to explain about the Japanese custom of placing the family name first.
  • The other children, and most likely adults, too, will not be aware of the reverse name order for Japanese and will unknowingly call her Kato, thinking Kato to be her given name.
  • When English speakers call her Kato, without the Japanese honorific “san” they will make Ayumi feel uncomfortable.
  • Most English speakers do not like being called by just their family name as it implies the speaker is being disrespectful. If and when English speakers discover they called Ayumi by her family name, they may feel bad that they were unknowingly rude to Ayumi.

In a nutshell, I think teaching Japanese children to introduce themselves in English with their family name first will only confuse them.

So the ministry, by suggesting Japanese children introduce themselves with their family name first, is giving our children two initial disadvantages: Their name will be misunderstood from the beginning, and they will most likely be put in a situation where they feel uncomfortable.

When I was teaching a class of future primary school teachers at Fukuoka University of Education, one of my students refused to use her given name first when she did a self-introduction in front of the class. I asked her why and she replied, “I am Japanese.” I told her she would not lose her Japanese identity by using her given name first. I just wanted to help her be able to conduct herself correctly in an English-speaking situation, and I wanted her to teach her future students so they would be able to do the same. It took me three weeks to make her understand I was not trying to take her passport away. I wish I could convince the ministry of the same thing.