What’s your name?

There is an interesting post over on Japan Probe from a couple of days ago talking about a TV report on how textbooks used in jr. high schools are now teaching students to introduce themselves putting their family name first followed by their given name. For example, the current prime minister should introduce himself as Kan Naoto not Naoto Kan.  (On a side note, if you look at the prime minister’s English website, they put his name as given then family.)

I saw that TV show and at the time I didn’t really think much of it. I personally think that it doesn’t really matter. Japan Probe quotes a secondary school teacher posting on BigDiakon as Lifer saying, “People are free to introduce themselves any way they like, but are also responsible for any confusion that results.” I completely agree with that, but again I don’t think it really matters because any resulting confusion will be minor.

He goes on to say, “so, if a Japanese person rocks up to a hotel in gaijinland and says, ‘hi, I have a reservation, my name is Tanaka Hiroshi’, he shouldn’t be surprised if the clerk comes back with “sorry, we don’t have a reservation for you, Mr. Hiroshi’.”

I understand the point he is trying to make, but the world doesn’t really work like this anymore. I’ve stayed at a half a dozen hotels already this year and every single time I’ve checked in with a reservation/confirmation number, not my name. I doubt that someone will be turned away from a hotel because the clerk confused their first and last names. Something similar with airlines, they don’t ask for your name, they ask to see your ID. Thinking about it, I can’t think of a single ‘mission-critical’ situation where someone will ask for your name without requiring some sort of secondary proof/confirmation/evidence, etc. Only in social situations do people ask for names without also asking for proof.

What concerns me about this issue, is not the order of names, but the inability of many Japanese to introduce themselves at all. I teach at a mid to low-level private university and I have tons of students who can’t tell me their name. A very typical conversation that I have had time and time again during the first week of the semester goes something like this:

Me:   Can I have your name please?
Student:   Eh? [huh?]
Me:   (speaking even more slowly) What’s your name?
Student:   Eh? [huh?]
Me:   Name. What – is – your – name?
Student:   (turning to the student sitting next to them) Wakarahen. [I don’t understand.]
Student 2:   Ore mo. [me neither.]

This sounds ridiculous, but I would guess that it happens about a third of the time. I have university students with six years of secondary English education who can’t tell me their name. I think that is more of a problem than western vs. eastern name order.

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  1. #1 by Evan Frendo on August 4, 2011 - 2:26 pm

    Nice post. Just wanted to add that it is often quite hard to understand someone’s name, especially if they come from a different culture or have a different accent. But this sort of thing is easily resolved with the ubiquitous business card anyway. If someone gives you their card you know that they want yours in exchange.

    • #2 by cromney on August 4, 2011 - 7:42 pm

      Thanks for the comment Evan! I totally agree with you about that. The order someone uses to say their name is far less of a problem than the pronunciation of their name. I have this issue in Japanese. If I say my name with typical English pronunciation, very few people can understand me. I often find that I have to say my name with Japanese pronunciation before people can understand me. As you said, business cards help a lot.

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