Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tuesday he plans to ask overseas media outlets to write Japanese names with the family name first, as is customary in the country. For example, Kono said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's name should be written as "Abe Shinzo," in line with other Asian leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Japanese names are usually written with the given name coming first when using a foreign language, a practice that began in the 19th to early 20th centuries amid the growing influence of Western culture. Now is the right time to make the change, Kono told a news conference, given that the Reiwa Era has just begun and several major events, including next month's Group of 20 summit and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, are approaching. "I plan to ask international media organizations to do this. Domestic media outlets that have English services should consider it, too," he said, citing a 2000 report by the education ministry's National Language Council that said it was desirable to write Japanese names with the family name first in all instances.
But others say the topic touches upon issues of identity, sovereignty and press freedom. Foreign Minister Taro Kono recently stirred controversy by saying he wants to change the way Japanese names have long been rendered in English -- given names first, family names last. Kono said he intends to issue a "request" to foreign media that they hereafter refer to Japan's prime minister by the order used in Japanese -- "Abe Shinzo," instead of "Shinzo Abe" -- bringing him in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, leaders of countries where the family name is also traditionally written first. Why are Japanese names automatically inverted in English usage in the first place? Is changing such a long-held custom really doable?
In a break from the long tradition of adopting the Western name order in Roman script, the government Friday decided to put surnames first when writing Japanese names in official documents. "In a globalized world, it has become increasingly important to be aware of the diversity of languages that humans possess. It's better to follow the Japanese tradition when writing Japanese names in the Roman alphabet," education minister Masahiko Shibayama said at a news conference. Shibayama proposed the idea and won approval from his fellow Cabinet ministers at a meeting Friday. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said details still need to be worked out but the government will step up preparations for the change.
With around a year to go until the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the age-old question of whether to put family or given name first when writing Japanese names in English has started to garner attention. The issue was recently put into the spotlight by Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who suggested in May that major foreign media organizations should write the name of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as "Abe Shinzo," with the family name coming first. But the proposed change prompted strong push-back by those who claimed that the reversal of long-standing customs would cause confusion. Even Abe's own Cabinet members were divided over the proposal, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying that his given name should come first in English. When Japanese names are written in Japanese, the family name customarily comes first, followed by the given name.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono has indicated that his ministry would consider breaking with its tradition of reversing Japanese names in English and some other foreign languages. Kono, who is fluent in English, drew a contrast Friday with Chinese and Korean names that are used in the same order regardless of language, citing Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae In. "The prime minister is Shinzo Abe (not Abe Shinzo as in Japanese) and I'm Taro Kono (not Kono Taro). We need to think about whether Japan should follow the Japanese way of pronunciation," Kono told reporters. Kono, who often prefers communicating in English with his counterparts during official talks, did not give further details. It is customary for Japanese people to put their given names before surnames when they use foreign languages such as English.