April 04, 2020

Last name first

On March 30, NHK World's foreign-language services and websites reverted to the traditional format for Japanese names. This follows a policy adopted six months ago by the Japanese government to prefer the surname-first style in Latin script documents.

The surname-last name order for Japanese names in Latin script came into fashion during the Meiji era, when Japan aligned itself with the West. After 150 years, the Japanese government decided it wasn't its job to do the orthographic flip-flopping anymore.

Japan is actually catching up to the rest of Asia in this regard, as surname-first in Latin script publications has long been standard practice for Chinese and Korean names. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example. And South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But not Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo would like that to change. This update to the NHK World style guide is one small step.

Incidentally, when names originally written in Latin script are transliterated into katakana, the surname order is preserved. So "Brad Pitt" is still "Buraddo Pitto" (ブラッド・ピット). Following the cultural conventions of the source material is a good rule. Though this rule can cause confusion.

Hosts and anchors with Japanese names who were not born in Japan or are not Japanese citizens may stick with the surname-last format. On domestic NHK broadcasts, such names would be written in katakana, not kanji, making the distinction clear. But that clue gets lost on NHK World.

So some Japanese names on NHK World are surname-first while others are surname-last, leaving it up to the viewer to guess why.

In my own writing, I'm all over the map. Accustomed to rendering historical names surname-first, that's what I did in Serpent of Time. In the contemporary Fox & Wolf, I reverted to surname-last, as I do in the Boy Detectives Club novels.

It comes down to trying to anticipate what the reader expects, and western readers generally expect surname-last. Then again, it might not be a bad idea to start changing those expectations.

A related style conundrum are long and double vowels. In Serpent of Time and Fox & Wolf, I used Hepburn romanization. In the Boy Detectives Club novels, I don't bother. In the Twelve Kingdoms, I transliterate the vowels as they would be written in hiragana, which is my linguistic preference.

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