Why Are Japanese Names Backwards?

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Traditions are laced throughout every culture in the world, but the Japanese are famously proud of theirs.

From bowing when you meet someone for the first time, to the removal of your shoes in the home, Japanese culture is pervaded with good manners and honorable behaviour.

All about Japanese names
Japanese names rules

The reversal of names is no exception to this and can be traced back centuries.

It is a tradition which the Japanese people clearly wish to protect from fading away, in an age of globalisation.

What to Expect? Here, we will explain exactly why Japanese names are ordered differently. Going back to the roots of this tradition, we will explore a little bit of Japanese history and also look at both why and when they decided to conform to western ways.

Are Japanese Names Really ‘Backwards’?

Arguably, ‘backwards’ is a little ambiguous.

Japanese names are not literally spelled backwards, written with reversed letters, or even spun on a vertical axis.

Have Japanese Names Always Been Surname First?
Japanese Surname First

In Japanese, it is traditional to write your given name (our first name) last.

In 2020, the media reported that a lexical shift was taking place.

Apparently – For the ease of western understanding, Japanese names have been written in English documents as if they were English names.

When, in fact, Japanese names are traditionally written in the opposite order: surname first.

A lot of Japanese people disagreed with this and now, the order has been corrected.

Have Japanese Names Always Been Surname First?

As with a number of Japanese traditions, even the introduction of their written language (Kanji 漢), this one also began in ancient China and is traditional to the Chinese as well.

In either of these countries, it is considered to be quite rude to refer to someone by their given name and not their family name.

What we would call a surname, with all its familial significance, is given the prominence it most certainly deserves in much of the Asian continent.

Family Japanese names tradition
Japanese names tradition

Not unlike American and British names, the family name is the most important, the one which your wife will traditionally take and the one which will be passed down to your children and through generations to come.

Mind Your Manners!

There are a number of traditions which are littered throughout Japanese culture.

One such tradition is general politeness. Using someone’s name, is no exception to this.

So, to refer to someone that you do not know very well you would politely use the surname.

Japanese names & manners tips
Japanese names & manners

Knowing and using someone’s given name is considered a very private and intimate concept.

The Japanese only speak or write on a first name basis with their nearest and dearest.

Even family friends and acquaintances are kept ahead of this social boundary.

It is about demonstrating closeness and saving your given name for those whom are very close to you.  

Do the Japanese Use Family Names in Everyday Speech?

They do. The significance of a family name pervades the entire culture.

From use in everyday speech, with friends and family – to the beloved anime characters who state their names in a traditional fashion.

Japanese girls smiling
Happy Japanese girls

People are referred to by their family name and the universally attributed ‘san’ (used similar to Mr and/or Ms) is added to it, as a mark of respect.

They even Call Santa Clause ‘Santa-san’. Someone for example with the name Suzuki Tai would be referred to as Suzuki-san.

In Formal Business Settings – It would be incredibly rare for you to even learn someone’s given name without directly asking them because they just are not used. Even in documents, the family name will be either capitalised or underlined to further highlight just how much it is of import.

Why Did the Japanese Change Their Tradition?

Simply believed to have been a courtesy, by many, both the Japanese and Chinese have used their family names last in English for over a century and a half.

Until 2019, it was the done thing but now times are changing. It is naïve to believe that it was solely a courtesy.

In business, it can be viewed as a strategy and not just to conform but to identify Japan as an internationally connected economy.

It was once seen as an advantageous move to make.

This, it is reasonable to assume is why anime stars like Pokemon’s Ash Ketchum, was not referred to as Ketchum Ash…

When Did the Japanese Change Their Tradition?

The History of Christmas in Japan

It was decided during the reign of Emperor Meiji, in the time of the great imperial restoration of Japan, that when writing in English to conduct international affairs the Japanese would adopt the traditions of the west.

This was obviously a move to make it easier to fit in to global activity and, although many believed it compromised tradition, it was conducted that way until very recent times.

It Is Now Decreed – With the full support of the longest serving Japanese prime minister in History: Abe Shinzo, that Japan will no longer adhere to this western method.

Do the Japanese Use an International Name?

It is not so uncommon for international businesspeople to adopt a completely different name altogether.

Dress code for men in Japan guide

In a world of increasing migration and globalisation, people from eastern cultures will often either migrate west or travel west for business.

In doing so, they take on a westernised name. Yao Ling, for example might become Jane Smith.

People migrating from Africa also do this, as a way of assimilating part of the culture; to help them to fit in and make it easier for themselves not having to explain the pronunciation of their own name to every individual that they come into contact with.

Final Thoughts

So, asking why Japanese names are backwards often produces search results for the recent reversion back to their own traditions.

This pivotal moment is not, however, where the story began.

Roots can be traced back to ancient China and like many Japanese traditions, is steeped in the value of honor.

It is not surprising then, that they should return to this after so many years of following the western way.         

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