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Shinzo Abe Or Abe Shinzo? Japan's Foreign Minister Tells Media To Change The Order

May 22, 2019

Japan's foreign minister is making headlines — by pushing back on the headlines themselves.

At issue: the order in which foreign media write and say Japanese names.

In a news conference Tuesday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said he plans to ask overseas news outlets to write Japanese names with the family name first and given name second — as is the convention in Japan.

"I plan to ask international media organizations to do this. Domestic media outlets that have English services should consider it, too," he said, according to Kyodo News.

Kono noted that news organizations generally give Chinese and Korean names with the family name first, as in Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

His efforts to get the world to say Japanese names in the Japanese style seems in part to be a matter of timing. A new era, the Reiwa, began on May 1 as Emperor Akihito abdicated and his son, Naruhito, ascended to the throne. And Japan will soon play host to a number of major international events: the G-20 summit next month, the Rugby World Cup in the fall, and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo next summer.

This isn't the first time that Kono has brought up the matter. "It's natural to discuss whether (such a change) should be made, including whether it should be in time for the emperor's accession ceremony (in October) or the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics (in 2020)," The Mainichi reports he said in March.

The practice of putting the family name second when transliterating Japanese names is believed to date to the 19th century, when reformers of the Meiji dynasty sought to adapt to international standards, The Washington Post reports.

It's not clear what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — or Abe Shinzo — makes of the suggestion to change.

"There are a lot of factors we have to consider, including convention," Yoshihide Suga, the government's chief spokesman, told a news conference.

On his own English-language Twitter page, the foreign minister writes his name as "KONO Taro." He speaks fluent English and has tweeted a photo of himself as a senior at Georgetown University, interning on Capitol Hill.

Many news outlets (including NPR, for the most part) follow The Associated Press on matters such as how to handle foreign names. The AP Stylebook has a section on Chinese names, which says: "In personal names, Chinese generally place surnames first and then given names, Deng Xiaoping. Second reference should be the family name, Deng in this case." In general, it says, "follow an individual's preferred spelling."

The AP Stylebook's section on Korean names notes, "In both Koreas, the family name comes first." It has no entry on Japanese names.

Some observers see Kono's request to change the name order as a signal of Japanese nationalism that has been part of the conservative administration of Abe.

Sachiko Ishikawa, a translator in Tokyo whose mother is German and father is Japanese, told The New York Times that such a change would mark a step backward.

"[T]o be honest, I think this is a small symptom of a much bigger problem," she said. "The world is shifting toward right-wing ideologies, so it's obvious that this isn't so much about how to write about P.M. Abe, but rather a sloppy way to establish their nationalistic sentiments and demands overseas."

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