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Abe Shinzo, the Prime Minister of Japan. Photo: Bloomberg

What does Shinzo Abe’s name change have to do with colonialism and ‘unenlightened Westerners’?

  • Experts say the request is consistent with Abe’s nationalist views, while others point to Tokyo no longer wanting to provide cultural concessions to the West
  • But as people in North America and Europe are reclaiming how they want to be referenced, some see it as time for Asians to take ownership of their names
The Japanese government has a message for the English-speaking world – say our prime minister’s name correctly.
On Tuesday, Japan asked that the premier be referred to as Abe Shinzo – family name first, given name second – not Shinzo Abe, as he’s been known in international media since taking office in 2012.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono – or Kono Taro, going by the new guidelines – explained that the request was intended to bring international news coverage of Abe in line with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, both of whom are typically referred to in reports with their family name first.

Japanese place their surnames first when speaking or writing in their native language, although they often follow the Western style when using English under mores believed to date back to the country’s opening to the outside world during the Meiji era (1868–1912).

Japan to the English-speaking world: call him Abe Shinzo, not Shinzo Abe

But the country’s new Reiwa era, which began on May 1 with the coronation of Emperor Naruhito, may have heralded a change in approach.

“It seems to me consistent with [Abe’s] relatively nationalist views,” said University of Hong Kong linguistics professor Stephen Matthews. “Japan’s 19th-century decision to reverse [surnames and given] names was like a concession to western Europe, and I think he’s saying that we don’t need to make such concessions any more – ‘here’s our culture, we should be proud of it, we don’t need to adjust it so much for Western consumption’.”

David Li, linguistics professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said Abe was “basically being driven by concern for identity”.

“This is better aligned with Asian identity,” he said. “In other words, if the sequence looks Asian, and sounds Asian, then the Asian people being referred to would feel better.”

Japan’s request was intended to bring international news coverage of Abe’s name in line with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

Tokyo’s request also highlighted the pitfalls that can befall Westerners when approaching names in different Asian cultures, most of which follow distinctive naming conventions.

Vietnamese, Indonesians, South Koreans and Chinese, among others, diverge from Western practice when it comes to names. Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans all place the family name, typically passed from father to child, before the given name.

“I would say this is historically, traditionally culturally conditioned, which is different from the practice of Western naming,” Li said. “In the West, it’s the opposite direction – it’s almost like how the direction of driving [differs from country to country].”

Yeoh Seng Guan, associate professor of sociology at Monash University Malaysia, says the Southeast Asian nation made similar concessions to assimilate into Western culture.

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“As a British colony, there was a time when adopting an English personal name or English-sounding nickname – whether one converted to Christianity or not – was necessary and fashionable in Malaysia,” he said.

This has changed in the decades since Malaysia’s independence from British rule in 1957, Yeoh said. While he feels the practice of adopting a Western name these days is more due to the influence of “Hollywood and the global culture industry”, this also means there are still those who get his name wrong.

“Culturally unenlightened Westerners would call me ‘Mr Guan’ instead of ‘Mr Yeoh’, mistaking the last part of my name to be my surname,” Yeoh said. “‘Seng Guan’ would be my personal name while also indicating which generation I belong to, as traditionally there is a naming order for the middle name. All my brothers and male cousins of my generation would share the middle name ‘Seng’.”

He added that it was important to get names right: “In the contemporary world of social media and apps, there is less – or even no – excuse for cultural ignorance.”

Peter K.W. Tan, a professor at the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, said while names could be a sensitive subject, the potential for offence would likely depend on the situation and people involved.

“My wife also gets annoyed when her Chinese given name is not considered a single given name but a given name and a middle name,” Tan said. “It probably depends on who gets it wrong. If it is someone who should have done their homework, more offence is taken, whereas if it is someone who is not expected to know the finer points more leeway is given.”

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Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, sees the Japanese government’s request as indicative of a larger movement.

“I’m not sure if it’s just Asia, but a trend around the world – including minorities in North America and Europe – where people are claiming the way they would like to be referenced. This seems to be the case whether relating to names or pronouns,” he said.

“I say this because even when you look at Asia, people are claiming recognition in a variety of ways. Examples include the Ainu people getting official recognition in Japan, aborigines using their tribal rather than Sinofied names in Taiwan, and indigenous groups in Malaysia asserting themselves as Bumiputra in ways that are distinct from the Malay majority.”

Nazry Bahrawi, senior lecturer at Singapore University of Technology and Design, says the Abe request has broader ramifications.

“I find this a welcome move against colonial-inspired naming convention. It has implications beyond Japan,” he said. “For instance, Malay names are often cited in academic works in the same vein as Western names, but this is a discrepancy as Malays do not have family names.”