Friday, February 21, 2014

Decrypting Japanese Names

It's test time again here at Nikaho JHS and we all know what that means: hours of empty time at the office. Finally got my culture board about the polar plunge done yesterday and today I want to write about something that's been bugging me (and probably many other ALTs) since I started teaching here. Remembering names has never been my strong suit in the first place and now I'm trying to memorize the names of 300+ junior high students who all wear the same uniform and 100+ elementary school students whom I see only once a week.

The main culprit here is kanji- the fancy Japanese symbols derived from Chinese. They aren't a general problem for me and it's actually one of my favorite aspects of the Japanese language. In fact, last names are pretty simple since there are so many common ones out there that I don't come across too many that stump me. For example, if you take the kanji "kawa" (川) and "moto" (本), and squish them together, you get "Kawamoto" (川本). As any student of Japanese knows, however, kanji can have many different ways to read them. When written by itself, the kanji 本 reads "hon" which means "book". Thankfully, when it comes to last names, readings of individual kanji don't change much since these have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years.

The problems started when I realized that these rules are thrown out the window when it comes to first names. I should've remembered this from a story a friend from Seijo University told me. She said she knew someone who registered her child's names with the kanji "hikari" (光)- the kanji for light and "nezumi" (鼠)- the kanji for mouse. Her phonetic name? "Pikachu"...

Weep for her childhood.
The last kanji at least makes sense even if it is a bit strange- "chu" is actually a way to read 鼠 (Zelda fans, ever notice how the cute little "Bombchu"s in Majora's Mask look like mice?). The problem is with the first one. There are a few ways to read 光, but "pika" isn't one of them. In fact, "pika" doesn't have a kanji at all since it's technically an onomatopeia. It's usually spelled phonetically with katakana as ピカピカ ("pikapika" since onomatopeia are usually said at least twice in a row). As many otaku around the world know, it means to sparkle or flash.
And at last we get to the crux of the problem: first names in Japan can be whatever the imagination conjures up. Technically the same is true for non-Japanese names, but they don't have the visual aspect muddling things up and there is no official phonetic spelling. When a Japanese name is registered, you write down both the kanji and how to read them. Interestingly, kanji isn't required- you can have a name spelled with phonetic hiragana (for native Japanese words) or katakana (for foreign words and names). If you're wearing a nametag with the phonetic name はるか ("Haruka") written in hiragana, and go up to someone and say your name is "Mary", not only would they be extremely confused, but you'd also be lying outside the context of a nickname- your name is offically pronounced Haruka and forever will be until you change it.
English-speaking countries have the opposite problem since you can basically tell people to call you anything you want, but it's not offically recorded anywhere (unless you bother with "aliases", but again, you can have people pronounce these however you want). This can cause a problem when foreign people have to register their names in Japan since they have to pin down a pronounciation which will then be official and written in stone. What's more, you have to choose katakana that most closely reflect your name even if it contains sounds that aren't originally part of the Japanese language (such as the "ti" in my name). When I registered my name, this gave me pause since my family tends to call me "ti-AH-rah", but prefer to be called "ti-EH-rah" to reflect my Latino heritage. In katakana, the former would be spelled ティアラ("ti-a-ra") and latter would be spelled ティエラ ("ti-e-ra"). Finally, I decided to go with my preference since I told it so closely to my read identity. From then I wrote "Tierra" in English in the space for names and wrote ティエラ in the space for the phonetic spelling above it.
The result of having a language that separates the visual and phonetic component is that you have over 400 kids who can have names with identical kanji but different readings, or identical names with different kanji. For example, I'd say that the most popular name at my junior high school is Miyu, but each one has different kanji. There are about as many ways to spell the name "Miyu" as there are stars in the sky. Even more confusing, there's a girl named "Miu" and is hard to pronounce separately from "Mi-yu" or "Mi-yuu" (with an elongated "u" sound at the end).
Let's take the kanji 翔 as an example of the opposite issue. I have three boys in one class who's names consist only of this kanji. One boy's name: "Kakeru" and another one's "Takeru". The third one? "Sho".
That's it, you're all Bob. Nice to meet you.

Thankfully, I seem to have picked up a pattern of what's more likely than other's. For example, when paired with another kanji, the reading tends to be "Sho" as in 翔太(Shota) or 翔也(Shoya), but there seems to be an exception when it comes to the name 大翔(Taiga). I know a few students with that name, so I'm going to assume from now on that every time I see 大翔 it's probably going to be "Taiga" (until I run into the one that isn't...). When it comes to 翔 being used alone, however, all bets are off. I have several students who's readings are "Takeru", "Kakeru", or "Sho" by itself (I also have a male student called "Takeru" who's kanji are 岳瑠). Sometimes there's nothing to be done but shamefully consult the seating chart like the non-native-speaking gaijin I am...
Finally, we have gender-neutral names. Of course this happens in many cultures, but it's a bit daunting when you have to deal with a bunch of students with names you've never encountered before. This is especially true when you're trying to figure out which stickers to put on which child's feedback card. I made a huge newbie mistake in thinking that just because I'd heard a name in an anime/game that it must be strictly that gender. Since the character "Shion" in the video game Xenosaga was a girl, I assumed that "Shion" is a girl's name. And so a poor boy in one of my elementary school classes ended up with a big, sparkly flower on his feedback card and when I saw him again the next week and read his nametag, I felt like a terrible person. The kicker is that I do actually have a female Shion in a different class. I also got a couple "Kaede"s mixed up thanks to a little anime called Inuyasha. In fact, I have two "Kaede's" in the same Junior High class of opposite genders.
And so my adventure with Japanese names continues. I'm getting better at names and picking more and more patterns to go by and assigning actual faces to them. To all other ALTs out there, I would say it may be intimidating at first, but 我慢 ("gaman"- perservere) your way through and don't be embarassed of a few slip-ups. You're not the first ALT to be stumped by names and you certainly won't be the last. You could probably call it even since they probably still call you by your predecessor's name (I still get the occasional "Stephanie" even now). Incorporate names into your Japanese studies and have fun getting to know your students!

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