Making Japanese Names Easier to Pronounce for North Americans
“Hi, Mas,” the mayor of San Jose was nice enough to greet me casually as he extended his hand with those words. It was in the early 1970s in San Francisco during a conference of US and Japanese mayors, in which I was working as an interpreter. The man was none other than Norman Mineta, the first Asian American, not just Nikkei American, to be elected mayor of a major US city, who went on to serve as Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush. We sort of came face-to-face during a busy reception and he quickly spotted my name tag. But it was that familiar abbreviation “Mas,” implying we were both Nihonjin, that won me over right away, as I can still recall.
Abbreviations of Japanese first names like “Mas” for Masao, Masayoshi and other Masa-something, along with “Tad (Tadao, Tadashi, etc),” “Tak (Takashi, Takeshi), Takumi, etc),” “Mickey (Miki-something) and “Mits (Mitsuo, Mitsu-something)” and so on are widely used among Nikkei and ijusha folks in North America. Ever since the first Japanese immigrants began arriving on these shores around the turn of the 20th century, they have been seeking out abbreviated names as well as a few Japanese names that would be easier for Caucasians (and other non-Japanese in more recent decades) to pronounce. George and Ken have been the perennial favorites as there are Japanese names that sound about the same, but because of that, they have the disadvantage of being too common..
So the simple solution has been to use just one syllable like Tad or Mits, or use the first two syllables to make it relatively easier to say, like Kiyo for Kiyoshi, Fumi for Fumitoshi, Hiro for Hiroshi or Hiroki and so on, I surmise.One way some of those abbreviated names spread must be through popular figures like baseball players and movie stars who appear frequently in the media. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are 5th generation (Gosei) Nikkei kids who first or middle name is Ichiro. In pre-World War II Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, the big stars of the Nikkei community whose names regularly made the mainstream English language press were, of course, popular players like Kazuo “Kaz” Suga and Nagayoshi “Naggy” Nishihara of the legendary all-Nikkei Asahi baseball club, the source of pride as well as the main entertainment for the community. The Asahis had many Caucasian fans too, one might add.
What’s interesting is the nicknames that Japanese players good enough to be imported into Major League Baseball sooner or later acquire. The nick-names are often invented naturally by the team mates and picked up by the fans and the media. When Kyuji Fujikawa joined the Chicago Cubs this season, his team mates were calling him “Q-Jay” – like a rapper – before the front office PR could think of a good name. Pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, now doing well in his second season with the Seattle Mariners, is called “Kuma” – just as he was in Japan – by his US manager and the media both. And several years ago, when infielder Tadahito Iguchi was playing for the Chicago Whitesox, players and fans naturally called him “Gooch.” Dice-K for pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka of erstwhile Boston Redsox fame (now with the Cleveland Indians) was a creation of the PR department, but stuck as it sounds just like his original Japanese media name. Pitcher Darvish, emerging in his second year with the Texas Rangers as one of the major’s best hurlers, was given by his parents a perfect name for the age of global culture – simply Yu. Monosyllabic and homophonous with English word “you,” it’s instantly unforgettable.
Other names Nikkei folks might choose for their offspring include those chosen for religious reasons like those from the Old Testament that are common to both Christianity and Judaism as well as saints (the former only). Some children may also be named after the parents’ favourite scholars, artists, composers , authors and such. From time to time, I would come across Nikkei and also Chinese folks with rather distinguished-sounding names like, say, Lawrence, Phillip, Reginald and Rupert, and might wonder if their parents had ever studied in Britain. Of course it’s not just Nikkei and Chinese English-speakers who give their kids grandiose sounding names.
When I was in Italy, I would witness parents somewhat comically calling out loudly to their tiny tots of children, named after Julius Caesar no less, “Cesare, Cesare!” English-speaking Chinese folks also seem to have their preferred first names too, like Winston, Anson, Jason, Jackson etc. which are all two syllables. But Chinese friends I’ve asked have told me they don’t know the reason why, apart from these names rolling off their tongues pleasantly.
In conclusion, allow me to express one strictly personal view concerning names. I’m not sure about the Nikkei folks but many of us Japanese still observe the custom of exchanging name cards, or meishi. When Japanese people migrate overseas, they as often as not start using meishi with their names printed only in Roman alphabet, perhaps partly, and I’m guessing here, as a reflection of their determination to stick it out in the “realm of horizontal writing (i.e.English and other Western languages).” For example, if your name is Ichiro Suzuki, you would as likely as not have just ICHIRO SUZUKI printed on your card. For those, including some Nikkei folks, who have Japanese names in kanji, wouldn’t it be better to also have the kanji on it as well?
It is the name your parents gave you in its original form so as such it should be treated with respect.
It would also be an affirmation of your pride in the culture of the old country your folks came from. If the people you give your name-card to happen to be Japanese or Chinese, they’d appreciate the true meaning of your given name. In this day and age when multi-culturalism is the norm of major metropolises in most leading industrialized nations, notions like “kanji is only understood in Japan” seem frightfully out-dated and out of touch. You can even see it in the tattoos on the muscular bodies of some NBA stars. Kanji has been “cool” for some time.
Last, but not least, a word of apology to our female readers for leaving them out. At the time of the first national census conducted by the Meiji government, I believe, female given names that had been typically two-syllable up till then, like Suzu, Tome, Iku, Yoshi, Kumi etc. etc. all had “…ko” attached to them so that they became Suzuko, Tomeko, Ikuko, Yoshiko, Kumiko and so on (ignoring their myriad kanji variants for the time being). So the situation concerning female names was complicated enough even before Japanese migration to North America began. As to what kind of English or English-sounding female names were preferred when they got here, therefore, I have to yield to the experts. For now I can only invite readers who may have views on this to share them with us.