Sunday, 7 March 2004

What's in a name?

Quite a lot really, if you are Japanese....actually quite a lot for anyone really, but as this blog is all about Japan we're going to go with this theme.

I saw an article in a magazine this week that was all about naming children and the fun you have to go through in Japanese. I had never really thought about it before, but as this is something I will be doing for real (hopefully) soon, I read the article with gusto, and it turns out that it is not simply about choosing a name you like for your offspring. Oh no, that would be far too easy. There is a lot more to it than that. A lot. But before we begin this I think I should give you all a brief guide to the complexities of the Japanese language (for those of you in Japan and who know all this, you may want to wander further ahead. Or you may not, up to you really).

Kanji and all that

So Japanese, in a nutshell, is this - why use one alphabet when you can use four? That's what someone over here said a few centuries ago and everyone thought it to be a jolly wizard idea. So for starters there is kanji which a lot of can be seen at the Kanji Site link on the right. Kanji is the writing that came over from China a few millenia ago and is the one with the pictographs (or maybe pictograms) and pretty much everything old or major has a kanji. Some of these are quite literal and you can see how they developed - for example Kawaguchi, where we live, is made up from a square (meaning guchi, or mouth as it is in the shape of an open mouth) and three vertical parallel lines (meaning kawa or river, from the banks of the river with water in between). Put them together and you have Rivermouth, and there is a river mouth here, so it all makes sense. Unfortunately this is an isolated case and most kanji bear no resemblance to the thing they are meant to repesent. Kanji are not phoenetic, so you can't really try to work out what they mean, especially as you can put two together and the sum of the parts bear no relation to the original bits.

Because Kanji came from China so long ago, they have also become Japanized, so each kanji will have at least two different ways of being read - two if you're lucky. So if you see a kanji you can never be sure how it is read and therefore what it means, which creates a lot of scope for confusion. This is especially true with names - if you find a random business card you won't know who it belongs to as you won't be able to read their name until they tell you. And place names, like nishi kasai, where I work, is made from 2 kanji, the first, 'nishi' and the last, '-sai' are the same kanji, but pronounced differently. Sound a bit silly? You bet.

Even the Japanese realised this, so about 500 years ago hiragana was developed (actually it was developed by a noblewoman at the Emperor's court to send secret messages to someone, somewhere - I forget). So anyway hiragana is phoenetic, unlike kanji, so it was jolly useful for writing under kanji to show what they meant. Now it is used for particles and articles, defining tenses and the like. So that is two alphabets.

The third is katakana, which was developed more recently, in the last hundred years or so when lots of new foreign words started appearing in the Japanese language. This was a problem because, unlike English, there are no spaces in between the words in written Japanese, so if there suddenly appeared a foreign word spelt out in hiragana, the reader would not know where the word started or what it meant. So katakana is essentially the same as hiragana, except that where hiragana is soft and curvy, katakana is angular and sharp, so when reading a sentence you can see where the words change. This is quite a sensible idea really, but confusing for the average foreigner as katakana takes no account of where the foreign word comes from - so lots of English speakers have been very confused by their studebts saying 'I have arlbeit' - they mean, of course, they have a part-time job, from the German, but no-one told the Japanese that, they just think of Japanese and 'foreign'.

So that's three. The last alphabet the Japanese use is this one, the roman alphabet, called romaji in Japan and not really used very much, except in train stations which is very useful if you are going somewhere new.

So back to names

So first you have to choose the name you want for your kid. This is the easy part as there are lots to choose from. So far so good.

But then you have to decide how you want to write it. Now we can assume that the surname is going to be the same as the rest of the family, but what of the first name? Well, you could write it in hiragana, the curvy phoenetic script above, but where is the fun in that? Now in English, if you want your kid to be called John, you have little choice but to choose one 'o', one 'n', one 'j' and one 'h', out them in the right order and hey presto, you have John. But with a name like Akira, for example, reasonably popular especially after the post-apocalyptic dude, you will have at least 25 different ways of writing it in Kanji. 25!

So just pick a nice looking kanji that means something nice like 'strong-warrior-salary-man', yes? No. You've forgotten the strokes! and we're not talking noveau rock pop here. All kanji have a set number of strokes and an order in which to write them, and woe betide you if you get either wrong. This is important because you have to add up the number of strokes and see if you get good numbers or bad numbers - but not just the total number of strokes, that would be too easy, you have to look at:
Jinkaku - the number of strokes in the last character of the last name and the first character of the frst name. This will tell you the child's talent or character.
Tenkaku - all the strokes in the last name. This will tell you about destiny and the influence from your ancestors (surely the same for everyone in the family?)
Chikaku - all the strokes in the first name. This will tell you about the kids life up to middle age, including marriage and health, but not after middle age, that is from...
Sokaku - which is all the strokes in both names.

With it so far, well then

Get your number of strokes in the sokaku and deduct the jinkaku, this will give you the gaikaku, which will tell you how society will perceive your child, his or her sincerity and self-confidence. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.

So what does it all mean. Well, if your sokaku (that's all the strokes in both names) adds up to 19, your kid will be artistic but rebellious and tempramental. In Japan this is not a good combination so it is to be avoided at all costs apparently. You can just see it...
Dad: what about Leonardo?
Mum: hmm, what does it say in the book?
Dad: Artistic but might get a bit angry.
Mum: Ooh I dont like that, how about Kevin?
Dad: happy go lucky, bit of a dreamer, steady.
Mum: that's nice, Kevin da Vinci, has a nice ring to it and none of that rebelliousness...

I digress. So you have to employ the services of a fortune teller to make sure that the name you have decided upon is going to be an auspicious one for your progeny. And you have to be careful as the number of strokes can change unexpectedly when you use a kanji for a name rather than its normal usage, for no good reason whatsoever, except, as with all of this, to confuse foreigners (although it is pretty good at confusing the Japanese as well. When the guru and I wed at the local ward office, the desk bound chappie admonished the Guru for spelling her name wrong, something she had been doing for thirty odd years as her father had chosen an alternative kanji that changed in name usage but then he had basically forgotten to tell her!).

And then, of course, there are the forbidden kanji. There are only 2230 kanji that can be used for naming your kids, out of a total of many tens of thousands that are out there, the 1945 Joyo kanji, which are the sort of everyday ones that everyone can read (yours truly excepted) plus 285 special kanji for names. That is it. Back in the nineties a rather deranged chap wanted to name his son Akuma, which means evil or devil (using the kanji he wanted to use). Now he was a silly chap, but his local authorities actually took him to court and won, meaning that he was legally not allowed to name his son what he wanted! Now although I think this chap was being a bit of a prat, I am shocked at the principle that you can't name you kids what you want to. And who chose the 2230 kanji? No one seems to know.

But there you have it. Seems to me that if you eant to do this sort of thing properly you need an advanced degree in calculus to work out the stroke permutations and then a direct line to Russel Grant to chack everything is sweet in the heavens.

Think I'll be giving my kids English names...

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