The Debate | Opinion

Abe Shinzo or Shinzo Abe: What’s in a Name?

Japan changed the order of officials’ English language names a year ago – but the world has been slow to adapt.

Shannon Tiezzi
Abe Shinzo or Shinzo Abe: What’s in a Name?
Credit: Facebook/ Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

The recent resignation of Japan’s prime minister had an odd side effect: The raft of media coverage apparently triggered a pet peeve of Defense Minister Kono Taro. Why? Because many media outlets – including The Diplomat – refer to “Shinzo Abe” rather than “Abe Shinzo,” placing the family name second instead of first.

“If you can write Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping in correct order, you can surely write Abe Shinzo the same way,” Kono complained on Twitter.

It’s a fair point. But Kono seems to suggest that the reason media houses around the world use “Shinzo Abe” is out of laziness or ignorance of Japanese cultural conventions. In truth, up until September 2019 – just a year ago – Japan itself officially used the “personal name first, family name second” configuration common in English.

A trip on the Wayback Machine (an archive of past versions of webpages) shows that as of August 27, 2019, the official English language webpage of Japan’s Kantei listed all the cabinet members – including Abe and Kono, who was then the minister of foreign affairs – with their family name second.

Then, by October 26, 2019 – the next time the the page was archived in the Wayback Machine – the names were in the current format: family name first.

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What changed?

As Reuters reported, in September 2019 Japan’s education minister formally proposed that Japan change its formatting for English names, putting the family name first (as it has always been in Japanese). Reuters explained:

Traditionally, family names come first in Japanese, as they do in China and Korea. But beginning in the late 19th century, Japanese began adopting the Western custom of putting the given name first and family name second, at least when writing their names in English.

The Economist noted that the change was made official in a new decree, effective January 1, 2020. The magazine itself immediately adopted the shift (something Kono made sure to point out as part of his Twitter crusade).

Meanwhile, both China and South Korea (and North Korea, for that matter) have long kept names in the traditional format, even in English: Xi Jinping, Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong Un. This had its drawbacks – the occasional reference to “Jinping” in foreign media, or (more egregiously) to “Chairman Un” by the U.S. secretary of state. But overall, there was not much difficulty in adopting the convention of family name first.

That seemed to have sparked some soul-searching – and perhaps envy – in Japan. The official justification for the change, as summarized by Nikkei Asian Review, is that “Japan is merely aligning itself with other East Asian nations like China, Vietnam and South Korea, all of which put the family name first.”

That begs the question, of course, of why Japan changed the order of English names in the first place – thus necessitating the headache of switching back over 100 years later.

The name question dates to the Meiji period, when Japan was in a rush to “modernize” by adopting European conventions. “Increasing interaction with European people made Japanese realize Western culture is far ahead of theirs, putting psychological pressure on them to align themselves with what they considered a more developed culture,” Erikawa Haruo, a professor of English language education at Wakayama University, told The Japan Times. That included putting the family name second in English-language documents, from treaties to textbooks. The format stuck, despite periodic recommendations to return the family name to first place.

The most recent push for change started with – you guessed it – Kono, then the foreign affairs minister. In the lead-up to Japan’s hosting of the 2019 G-20 summit, Kono suggested that it was a good time to start listing the family name first in English language publications. “I plan to ask international media organizations to do this,” he told reporters in May 2019.

The problem, of course, is that such a change was always going to be rocky. Once it became official practice, publications adopted the shift at different rates. Even for those who did follow the new convention, that left a vast archive of materials referring to “Shinzo Abe” – not to mention the question of how to talk about individuals who may have their own naming preferences (such as novelist Haruki Murakami or animating legend Hayao Miyazaki, both of whom have become world famous with their family names listed second).

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Even Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide (the current front-runner to succeed Abe as prime minister) seemed reluctant about the change back in May 2019, telling reporters he identified himself as “Yoshihide Suga” in English. Suga noted that “there are multiple factors to consider, including long-held practice” when deciding to switch name order to the Japanese standard.

Suga was right — changing long-held practices is difficult, and takes time. A quick Google search confirms that The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post in the U.S., as well as BBC and The Guardian in the U.K., continue to use “Shinzo Abe.” So does the Associated Press, which exerts considerable sway through its style guidance. What’s more, Chinese and Korean publications (People’s Daily and Xinhua in China; Yonhap News Agency and the Korean Herald in South Korea) continue to use “Shinzo Abe” in their English language versions – showing that this is not a case of cultural arrogance on the part of Westerners, but merely the inertia of style guides everywhere.

Even in Japan, Kyodo News and The Japan Times continue to use “Shinzo Abe” rather than the now-preferred “Abe Shinzo.” Perhaps Kono should have a talk with them (on second thought, considering the rocky track record of press freedom in Japan, perhaps it’s best he doesn’t).

But with Abe’s name popping up everywhere now amid his surprising resignation, Kono is right about one thing: It’s time to follow the updated official guidance. We at The Diplomat will be using “Abe Shinzo” from now on – following the Japanese government’s official name list – but deferring to individual wishes for private citizens.