Japan expands list of kanji for names

In Japan, you can’t name your kid ‘mistress’ or ‘piles’
The Asahi Shimbun

But “strawberry’ is on the list of newly approved kanji for names.

What’s a child to do if his freaky parents decide to give him a name using a kanji character that means “dung,” “corpse,” “curse,” “cancer” or “hemorrhoid”?

Breathe easy, babies, it won’t happen.

While those examples were on a tentative list of 578 additional kanji to be approved for use as names, they didn’t make the final cut that took effect Monday.

But they did spark a big debate about “appropriate” kanji for names. Furthermore, they made the so-called experts take note that young Japanese think differently about kanji than previous generations did.

“There’s a trend to choose characters by the sound or number of strokes (for luck) and interpret the meaning to fit one’s needs. That is shocking,” said kanji expert Mutsuro Kai, executive director of the National Institute for Japanese Language.

The brouhaha erupted from challenges to the Family Registration Law. This law says parents in Japan may only register names using “common and simple” kanji characters that have been approved by the government. Before Monday, the list included 2,235 kanji (1,945 characters were “general use kanji” while an additional 290 were “name-use kanji” decreed by the Justice Ministry).

The revision of the law added 488 characters to choose from, making a total of 2,928.

So, how did the revision break out and why did such controversial characters as “dung” and “corpse” make their way to the list in the first place?

Kanji-Chinese ideographs or pictographs-have been part of the Japanese language and psyche for centuries.

The current government-approved kanji list for names dates back to 1948, when the Education Ministry established 1,850 “appropriate use characters” (called toyo kanji). The purpose of the list was to standardize kanji and make written Japanese more intelligible by using common and simple characters.

The list was replaced later by 1,945 “general use characters” (joyo kanji) with additional “name-use kanji” (jinmei-yo kanji) to be used for names.

The list has been revised periodically.

What prompted the additions this time was a TV program called “Jikadanpan” (Direct negotiations) that aired on TV Tokyo on Dec. 9, 2002. The program featured parents who had tried to register baby names using unlisted kanji characters only to have their applications denied at local government offices. The unhappy parents had requested characters such as “rudder,” “drop” (as in teardrop) and “strawberry.”

More than 20 such cases of this type have even been brought to court, sources estimate.

In response to the “Jikadanpan” expose, then Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama made an appearance on the same program on Jan. 13, 2003, promising a review of the name-kanji list.

The process was given a push by a Dec. 25, 2003, Supreme Court ruling that decided a kanji pronounced so and that means “repeated” “is obviously a common and simple letter, which should be allowed for use in a personal name,” in accordance with the Family Registration Law.

The ruling suggested the list of name-use kanji was thus obsolete.

Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa called for a ministry panel to conduct a review this February.

In conducting the review, the Justice Ministry panel gave top priority to popular kanji belonging to the JIS Kanji Code level one (2,965 characters) that are installed in personal computers and cellphones.

The question was where and how to draw the line. For example, the character for “strawberry” was a JIS level two kanji. But Moriyama is from Tochigi Prefecture, famous for its strawberries.

A source close to the ministry said: “Obviously ‘strawberry’ was going to make the list. It just made things trickier.”

The officials decided, after all, not to bother judging the meaning of each kanji character.

The officials also incorporated a survey on the frequency of kanji use compiled by the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 2000. And they reviewed the lists of kanji denied for use in names at birth-registration offices.

Perhaps erring on the cautious side, plenty of kanji that do not seem nameworthy-such as “revenge” and “fake” and “dung”-ended up on the initial list.

Finally, a Justice Ministry panel revealed the 578 possible additional name kanji characters on June 11.

About a month later, the ministry had received 1,308 responses from the general public.

Most were critical. There were 729 responses that called for “characters inappropriate as names” to be taken off the list. On the other hand, 51 responses called for a complete deregulation, “allowing parents to choose characters of their choice.”

At the top of the “inappropriate” list were: “dung,” “corpse,” “cancer,” “evil,” “piles,” and “mistress.”

Some responses said: “A child given such a name would likely be bullied or ostracized,” or “It would cause social problems.” Others wrote: “Why bother adding kanji with a negative image?”

After the feedback, ministry officials promised to drop some disputed kanji and add others.

The kanji expert Kai, who was a member of the ministry panel, was surprised to find a certain kanji pronounced sei or sho on the requested list:

“The original meaning of the letter is ‘fishy smelling.’ But young people look at the kanji, and see it is composed of two radicals, or sub-elements, sparkling stars on the right, with a moon on the left; enough to wrongly give off a romantic aura,” he said.

Also, Kai says, onomancy-reading divine meaning into the brush strokes of a name-is still valued.

Parents like to make minute adjustments, adding a stroke here and there, by choosing a similar-looking character with an extra radical added to the left hand-unconsciously changing the meaning of the whole character.

For example, the pretty character for “love” can turn into “dimwit” if an innocent-in-itself radical denoting a person is added to the left. So you get “dimwit” rather than the hoped-for meaning of “people loving.”

Specialists are alarmed that the younger generations don’t care much for the innate meanings carried by the kanji characters, placing more value on the audio and visual aspects.

As Tsutomu Sugimoto, professor emeritus at Waseda University, said: “The government can’t just make a fat list of kanji and announce ‘go choose your own.’ That is too irresponsible. It is time we cast our minds to what kanji mean to us, and on Japanese culture that has come this far carried by our double name system, the family name followed by the given name.”(IHT/Asahi: September 28,2004) (09/28)