From ‘Nike’ to ‘Pikachu’ and ‘Devil’: why Japanese parents shunning traditional baby names is a sign of societal change
- A study of naming trends revealed that Japanese parents are increasingly looking to give their children unique, individualistic names
- The shift from long-standing naming conventions may be one of a number of leading indicators of broader change in other areas of Japanese society
For past generations of Japanese parents contemplating a name for their newborn, the rule was largely to play it safe. This is, after all, the country where the proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is a truism in business, school, society and every other facet of life.
A study of trends in children’s names has revealed, however, that parents are increasingly looking to give their offspring unique, individualistic names. And that gradual shift from long-standing convention may be one of a number of leading indicators of broader change in other areas of Japanese society.
Written by Yuji Ogihara, an assistant professor at Tokyo University of Science, the study was published in a recent edition of the academic journal “Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology” and is based on research into naming trends across the country between 1979 and 2018.
In the first year of his research, the most popular name for a boy was Daisuke, while for girls it was Tomoko, according to an annual survey conducted by Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. By 2018, those traditional names faded and had been replaced with kanji characters most commonly read as Ren for a boy and Yuzuki for a girl.
“An analysis of baby names published in municipality newsletters between 1979 and 2018 revealed that the rates of unique names increased in Japan over 40 years, suggesting a rise in uniqueness-seeking and individualism,” Ogihara told This Week in Asia.
“This increase was observed from the 1980s, indicating that this phenomenon is not new, but it does show that Japanese culture has become more individualistic over time,” he added. “It now puts more emphasis on uniqueness and independence, rather than conformity and interdependence.”
It also tallies with Ogihara’s earlier research that Japan was more homogenous in the past, and is now seeing change. This is visible in the growing number of people who now live alone, the declining rate of nuclear households, in which three generations of the same family would often live together, and a rising divorce rate.
Those changes are being mirrored in employment in Japan. In the past, people sought the security of “a job for life” at one of the nation’s largest companies but, in return, devoted the rest of their working lives to their employer and promotion was based on seniority instead of ability. Today, Ogihara’s studies show companies in the last three decades have increasingly adopted performance-based pay, while the workforce has also become more mobile with people changing jobs and careers more frequently.
“Emerging evidence has suggested that Japanese culture has gradually become more individualistic over time. Thus, being unique and standing out has become more important than before in Japan,” said Ogihara. “Now ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ is changing into ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’.”
And that includes names that stand out from the crowd.
“There are many advantages of a unique name,” he said. “For example, a unique name will receive more attention from other people, which may increase the probability of that name being remembered. People with an unusual name are more likely to be regarded as a unique and independent person.”
Ogihara’s research indicates non-traditional names increased in the 1980s, and he singled out a number of reasons for that shift away from more “accepted” names, including growing economic wealth, urbanisation, an increase in social mobility and the public beginning to embrace individualistic concepts in educational and economic situations.
The issue came to a head in 1994 when Shigeru Sato and his wife, Ayako, registered their firstborn son with city authorities in Tokyo’s Akishima district as “Akuma.” The name translates as “Devil” and Sato told reporters he chose it because “There will only be one Japanese with this name. If you hear it once, you’ll never forget it. It’s the best possible name.”
The city initially accepted the name but senior officials later changed their minds out of concern that the child would subsequently be bullied, claiming the parents had “abused the right to name a child.” The case went to court and the family subsequently agreed to alter the boy’s name albeit subtly. He selected different kanji characters, but with the same phonetic reading, meaning that the child remained “Akuma.” Sato also insisted he planned to name any future son “Teio,” meaning emperor, and would choose “an ordinary, cute name” for a daughter.
“As you know, predicting a future in this complex world is really difficult, but I assume that Japanese parents will continue to give unique names to their babies,” he said. “This is because changes in economic and social environments in Japan continue to encourage Japanese and Japanese culture to become more individualistic.”