The nightmare of Japanese names


What’s in a name? Or, in the case of Japan, what on earth is the name in the first place? I found out the hard way just how tricky a Japanese name can be.

Names are important. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have never forgotten a person’s name, even of those who he only ever met once. I assume the reporters meant twice, as with those he met only once, there’s no way to tell.  I can tell two things for certain from this: Lincoln understood the power of names, and Lincoln never had to learn the names of Japanese school children.

In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie argues that  there is no sweeter sound to a person’s ear than their own name, and that someone who makes the effort to remember names will consistently make a positive impression on new acquaintances. With that in mind I set out on a task I neglected upon arrival in Japan due to just how challenging a task it is; I set out to learn all the names of my 400 middle school students.

At first I struggled to remember Japanese names because I couldn’t actually hear them clearly. Even now, if I ask a student what their name is, I hear this.

“Hello, my name is mffrruf *indecipherable mumbling*-mura. I am mfffirrlkkl years old.”

I get adult names now, but kids mumble to oblivion. The problem is, as a teacher, it’s the kids that matter. 400 names were going to be an uphill struggle, and we haven’t even touched why Japanese names in particular are such a pain to the British brain.

Remembering the sound of names that you have never heard before is half the battle. If you have ever lived somewhere with many names you are unfamiliar with, you will know how hard it is to get those names to stay in your head. They have a tendency to sit in a dark, rarely used, and slightly slippery corner of the brain for about a minute, before sliding stealthily right back out.

I had the same problem when learning Chinese. At first Chinese names don’t seem very memorable to a non-Chinese person.  Back when I was teaching in China, after much thought on how to learn the names of my 1200 students (I failed), I slyly decided to ask all my students to write their names in my notebook so I could go home and learn them. Surely then would I solve this utter…

Chinese school kids write in Chinese. Damn.

See, now this would not be a problem. I can read Chinese now and Chinese does this clever thing where the sounds of the characters don’t really change much from word to word. There are of course minor exceptions, like my good friend whose Chinese name is 柏嘉丽. Some end up calling her bai jiali rather than bo jiali, but generally those Chinese characters behave themselves.

…And that is precisely why Japanese names are a nightmare. Japanese kanji do not behave themselves. They may look nice, but Kanji have an identity crisis. Though most uses of Kanji maintain fairly consistent pronunciation, this all goes haywire when it comes to naming people. Most kanji do indeed have multiple readings, but context makes their sound clear. 新 in 新聞 is read as shin because of the compound it is part of and because it is a word with Chinese origin, but 新 in 新しい has the Japanese reading atara, made clear by the しい on the end. [1] Names however are different. Though commonly used readings of Kanji can be understood contextually, Japanese names don’t always settle for the commonly used readings. In fact, I imagine that the average Japanese family expecting a new member pulls out their dusty tome of Japanese names, and with gleeful and slightly sadistic grins announces:

“Let’s make this name so horrifically obscure that even we forget how to say it.”

How is this possible? Let me give you an example. If I put the name 陽菜 into an online Japanese name dictionary (yes, these exist with good reason), I can find out, with much relief to my prior confusion, that 陽菜 can be read as Akina. Unfortunately, 陽菜 may also be Hana. Or maybe Haruna. Sometimes, it’s Hinata. Or Hina. Or Yona. Or Youna. Or yuuna.

Heeeeelllllpppp. Calm down Japan, you need sleep. Come back to me after another 1000 years of Kanji development, and streamline this time.

Of course, any speakers of Japanese will have picked up immediately on my big mistake. I’ve been learning first names. This is problematic on two levels. Firstly, Japanese people tend to use surnames much more than we do in the English speaking world. Teachers generally call students by their surname for example. Us English assistants however seem to have a different expectation. If I ask a teacher for a student’s name, they always go by first names, and some students put their first name in English letters on their table. It is more personable and in principle I like it this way, but the fact is, Japanese surnames are much more predictable than first names. The 100 most common surnames cover the majority of the population and most are covered by a relatively small number of Kanji.

I was kindly given a name lists for each of my classes to learn names from. The example above, 陽菜, is one of my students, and I have absolutely no idea whether she is called Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna, Yuuna, or something completely different. Now I’m too embarrassed to ask. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve forgotten. Are you Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna or Yuuna?  Luckily most of the names are considerably easier to work out, but that doesn’t detract from the mammoth task of working out 400 of these puzzles.

I don’t know whether I should feel distraught or relieved that the name deciphering game is difficult for Japanese people too. I have shown the most difficult names on my name lists to Japanese people, only to be met with a blank stare and with luck some possible suggestions of how a certain name might be read. For the trickiest names, I blame the parents.

There is of course also the good old fashioned way of learning names – talking to people. Human interaction is nice, in moderation. It’s just that there are only so many times you can ask someone their name before they either hate you or decide to write it on your face in permanent ink. I don’t particularly want either of those fates, so I have retreated to my name lists, even if I do end up calling Akina Hinata by mistake. With a bit of luck there might be someone else in the class actually called Hinata, but written with even more obscure and flamboyant kanji, and the real Hinata will unwittingly save the day by thinking I was talking to her.

So, to those venturing into the brave territories of knowing the names of hundreds of Japanese school children, my advice is this. Either make use of the ingenious ‘(insert characteristic here)-lad’ and ‘(insert characteristic here)-girl’ system used by two good friends of mine (Clever girl, can you help dangerously sarcastic lad with this question?) , or give up. I’m too stubborn to take my own advice.

 

 

[1] しい is not some marker of words with Japanese origin exactly, but adjectives in the い form, as this word is, mostly are of Japanese origin.

INDUSTRIE 4.0 AND SOCIETY 5.0 – COMPARING SOCIO-POLITICAL INITIATIVES IN GERMANY AND JAPAN


First published in Politik : Perpektive, The student-run German politics journal based at Leeds University. 

At this year’s CeBIT expo, Japan presented its Society 5.0 initiative to the land of Industrie 4.0. CeBIT is the largest expo for data and communication technology in Europe, taking place annually in Hannover. As strikingly similar initiatives, it is noteworthy to compare each of them in light of Japan’s visit to CeBIT. Why are political initiatives being promoted at a German technology expo and what do these initiatives say about their country’s socio-political challenges?

The name Industrie 4.0 refers to an initiative which aims to maintain and develop Germany’s position as a manufacturer. It is seen as the next stage of economic progression which began with the process of industrialisation in the 18th century up to now – a fourth industrial revolution through the development consisting of ‘cyber-physical’ systems. Germany’s current industrial development signposts the combination of physical industry with the possibilities of advances in data technology advances such as big data and the ‘Internet of things’.

Japan’s Society 5.0 is in principle very similar. It is an initiative working towards effectively combining the possibilities of information technology with the ‘real’ world. Like Industrie 4.0, this initiative is described as the next stage of a historical progression. But where the German initiative is at the end of industrial progression, Society 5.0 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the next societal advancement. It is promoted as a “super smart society”, following on from the hunting, agrarian, industrial and information societies.

Society 5.0 focusses on society as a whole, not only industry and manufacturing. At least within government rhetoric, Society 5.0 is committed to raising the standard of life, whereas Industrie 4.0 strives only for a more effective economy. This is however not the whole story. Industrie 4.0 is one of the ten ‘future projects’ set out by the German government in 2006. These, as a whole, address industrial, environmental, and health issues, but do not extend to the breadth of Society 5.0.

The difference in focus between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 is significant, regardless of the initiatives’ shared goal of developing data technologies. Their respective names highlight the problems each initiative is attempting to resolve. Industrie 4.0 is an attempt by the German government to maintain the country’s position as a global leader in industrial manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Japanese government wants first and foremost to tackle issues such as Japan’s rapidly ageing population through Society 5.0.

These initiatives are predominantly political, not business projects. It was after all Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who was present at CeBIT to make a speech endorsing Society 5.0. It is a form of political rallying behind emerging technological trends. The different names and approaches simply represent a national interpretation of those trends. Each initiative reflects each country’s own challenges and tries to push that agenda internationally. These initiatives promote patterns that would eventually develop independently. Just as ‘Industrie 1.0’ or ‘Society 1.0’ were not political decisions, neither will their contemporary counterparts be. The politicisation of an existing progression is simply a declaration of interests and an attempt to steer a boat that already has its course.

As nationally focussed projects they will not necessarily translate well onto the international stage. There are a number of potential conflicting interests between Germany and Japan alone. For a bureaucracy-loving country such as Japan, AI maintenance might be great news, since the current human-run administration may finally be streamlined. Expanding AI possibilities do not enthuse Germans nearly as much, however. Germany is already suspicious of Google and its ever-growing digital capabilities. AI maintenance isn’t too far off becoming AI surveillance – a sensitive topic for a nation that suffered at the hands of surveillance in both the National Socialist period and the Communist period in the east.

We have to consider what triggered a need for the countries’ respective projects. In regards to Japan, it is clear from their publications on Society 5.0 how important the challenge of a rapidly increasing population is to the initiative’s development.

Germany’s aims are a little harder to pinpoint. Germany is already one of the world’s great manufacturing nations and one could easily jump to the conclusion that tinkering with Germany’s successful manufacturing sector is a mix-up of priorities. The urgency for Industrie 4.0, however,may have its roots abroad. China is an established manufacturing powerhouse. China’s business culture, that of inviting foreign investment and business into China for formative purposes, has gradually allowed it to compete aggressively with its ‘teachers’. Germany remains one of its most prominent teachers. Yet, China does not play by the usual rules, so a rule-abiding nation like Germany may have to work doubly as hard to maintain its leading manufacturing position.

Unfortunately for Japan, putting its initiative alongside Industrie 4.0 has highlighted just how uninspiring the Japanese vision of Society 5.0 could be to an international audience. It has unwittingly shown the world how a nation famed for its technology is actually very behind in the places it matters most. Included amongst Society 5.0’s suggestions for dealing with Japan’s ageing population is the digitalisation of medical records – something much of the world did a long time ago. Likewise, cashless payment technology is promoted, which – though a worthy advance for Japan – is hardly ground-breaking on a global level. And, although Japan may be a technology giant, Society 5.0 may represent a realisation that it needs to focus more on practical than fun technology.

The differences in aims and approach between the two projects highlight their political natures. Each initiative represents a political steering of a progression that will happen regardless of politics. However, the convergence of interests between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 does point towards developing international recognition that new data and communication technologies can benefit the world. Though Germany’s focus on manufacturing is unequivocally beneficial in the short term as a means of maintaining competitive advantage, improvements in data and communication technology will be better implemented through closer international cooperation. The benefits of new technology developing interconnectivity will only be fully realised through simultaneously improving interconnectivity between the national initiatives that attempt to drive the development. With this in mind, both Japan and Germany are missing the point by attempting to become world leaders in the implementation of these new technologies.

The unheard plight of Xinjiang (original published in The Gryphon, 2014)


Seeing as Xinjiang’s re-education camps have brought the region and its controversies finally into wide public view, I have decided to post my old article published in The Gryphon in 2014 to my blog. It is out of date, but my reasoning for putting it here is to highlight that what is happening now is not something new, but an escalation. I understand many of the claims in the article may seem unjustifiable, but much of what I wrote stemmed from either personal experience or from the direct experience of people I met in Xinjiang.  My question, for which I have no answer yet, is why did it take so many years and the possible imprisonment of 1 million innocent people to make the news?

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The unheard plight of Xinjiang

The question of Tibetan independence from Mainland China is relatively well known to the west, and there has been a large amount of campaigning from within and abroad the region to declare it its own country. The culture and way of life of native Tibetans has been slowly chipped away at –arguably with the intention of being wiped out completely – and amongst other equally as important contributors such as limitations of Religious and political freedom, this has led naturally to heavy unrest.

What makes its way into the public eye much less often, are the similar problems that are taking place in the North-western Xinjiang autonomous region right now. Clashes between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority of China’s largest region have been common for a number of years in recent times, caused by strikingly similar reasons to Tibet and resulting in strikingly similar problems.

The official line on relations between the ethnic groups of Xinjiang is that each lives in perfect harmony, all striving together for a better China. Considering some of the blatant discrimination towards Uighurs, this claim is more than questionable. In some towns, Uighurs are attacked simply for being Uighur. As a Muslim minority, the rules imposed by the city of Karamay to ban Muslim dress were most likely aimed at Uighurs.  In other towns, only the top Uighur students are allowed to study alongside Han students.

This discrimination, alongside the gradual disappearance of the native culture, has resulted in extreme unrest and violence. In 2009, Riots broke out in the regions capital, Urumqi. Official numbers claim 200 deaths and nearly 2000 injured in the violence. Just this year, 3 train stations across China were bombed, allegedly by a Uighur terrorist group. Even this week, a bomb killed 50 (recently marked up from 2 from the authority’s sources) in Luntai county.

Whether this violence is justified is a difficult question. Although peaceful protest should be the answer to solving the misunderstandings, this isn’t much of an option in China. Illham Tohti, a leading Uighur scholar from Beijing’s Minzu University has been sentenced this week to life imprisonment for voicing the plight of the Uighurs. He has been labelled a separatist by the authorities and accused of being involved with underground activist groups. If a respected, leading scholar in Beijing has no voice, then the people of Xinjiang have even less chance.

Many Uighur people want independence from China and wish for the region to be declared ‘East Turkistan’.  In the current world political climate, this nationalism could easily be misinterpreted. The Uighurs have no country of their own, so if their culture is wiped out in Xinjiang, it will be gone completely. The government dismisses the violence as ‘Muslim extremism’, when the desperate unrest is entirely a helpless, hopeless attempted defence of the Uighur way of life.

. The authority’s response to current violence has been to increase the military presence in Xinjiang (Urumqi is now dotted with soldiers and tanks, many of which point permanently towards Uighur public buildings). Anti-terror propaganda is being placed around cities and over Chinese social media. A year -long crackdown on ‘terrorism’ is now in effect across Xinjiang.

The problems in Xinjiang do appear to unfortunately be escalating currently, with many more major incidents being reported this year. Now that some of the alleged terrorism has spread to other provinces, an already uncertain ordeal has become even more so. As the problems escalate, tensions between the regions ethnic groups also are becoming more electrified. It is difficult to predict what will happen in Xinjiang’s foreseeable future, but one thing which is certain is that its current road is not a comfortable one.