Taro Kono, the foreign minister of Japan is making headlines by urging Western news media to portary Japanese names with the family name first and the first name second, as is done in the Japanese language. As an example, he said that Shinzo Abe’s name should be written as “Abe Shinzo”, even adding that now was the best best time to start practicing this change. Currently, Japan is at the start of the new “Reiwa” era, and will be hosting the G20 Summit as well as the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
While it may seem like a minor issue, Kono’s comments about changing the practice were quite serious. He cites the ongoing practice of news organizations that already place the family name first with regards to figures from China and Korea such as South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Therefore he says it’s only logical that Japan’s Prime Minister should be treated in the same fashion. Yoichi Masuzoe, the former Governor of Tokyo, stated that the practice of changing naming order could be a prohibitively expensive affair.
Currently, a Japanese name consists of the Family name (surname), followed by the given name (first name). Surnames are almost always written in Kanji while the given names can be shown in different scripts such as Hiragana or Katakana. However, the majority of Japanese surnames do not have a long history. Most surnames were chose in the 19th century as part of Japan modernizing its culture during the Meiji Restoration. From the Meiji Era onward, sons adopted the family name from their father and daughters adopted the family name of their husband after marrying. While there is no historical origin for the Japanese naming order, some say the style of Japanese name ordering is similar to those historically practiced in Korea and China.
One result of the modernizing practices of the Meiji Restoration was the influx of foreign language publications into Japan which used the Western name ordering. As Japanese started traveling abroad, they presented their names in the Western style. Some would even begin shortening their names or using nicknames in order to ease the burden on Westerners.
A colleague of mine will soon be graduating in International Relations from a Japanese university. They explained that these statements were a way of presenting Japanese patriotism by being more assertive about being respectful to the Japanese way of naming order. To which I replied with a quote from Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”