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I recall that, as a graduate student in Sinology, one of the most troublesome tasks was figuring out how to romanize the names of Japanese authors, the titles of their works, place names, technical terms, and so forth. Overall, Japanese Sinological (not to mention Indological and other fields) scholarship is outstanding, so we have to consult it, and when we cite Japanese works, we need to be able to romanize names, titles, and so forth to reflect their Japanese pronunciations.

Many (if not most) essential Japanese reference works, indices, and so on are arranged by their sounds, not by the radicals and strokes of the characters with which the entries in them are written.  A single character almost always has at least two readings, a Chinese style reading and a native Japanese style reading, and usually it has multiple Chinese style readings and often several Japanese style readings.  What is even more agonizing is the fact that many kanji have special readings reserved only for names, and it's devilishly difficult to determine which of those special readings to apply in a particular instance.

Here's an example:  麻生 is the surname of a former prime minister, Tarō Asō 麻生 太郎, and of a "Japanese adult video actress and gravure model" (Nozomi Aso; Asō Nozomi 麻生希).  In Mandarin, 麻生 would be pronounced máshēng (lit., "hemp-born").  The Sinitic style pronunciations of are MA, BA, and ME, the Japanese style reading is asa, and the special readings for names are o and nusa.  The Sinitic style pronunciations of are SEI and SHOKU, the Japanese style readings are i-kiru, i-kasu, i-keru, u-mareru, u-mu, o-u, ha-eru, ha-yasu, ki, and nama, and the special readings for names are ari, i, iki, iku, ikeru, u, ubu, umaru, o, oki, ki, saku, shou, susumu, sei, taka, nari, nou, hisamu, fu, bu, fumi, mi, yuki, and yo.  Somehow, out of that monumental jumble of sounds emerges Asō!  Don't ask me, a lowly Sinologist, how or why that happens.  It's enough to reduce a grown man to tears.  It's almost as torturesome as trying to find an expression in thousands of pages of a Chinese cóngshū 叢書 / 丛书 ("series of books") before the advent of searchable data bases.  You're pretty sure it's in there somewhere, but it may take you weeks to find it!

I don't know if it's apocryphal or not, but I have heard many times that the first act of a new session of the Japanese diet is for each member to tell everyone else how to pronounce their name.  That's one reason why Japanese hand out name cards with furigana or rōmaji phonetic annotation — so that the person who receives a card will know how to read the name written on it.

If someone were to ask me what my main goal in life has been, it is to help the generations after me avoid the suffering and grief that I experienced as a graduate student in Sinology. From the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary to the alphabetical index to the Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), I've been trying to make it easier for specialists in Chinese studies to look things up in reference works and publications of all sorts and to as painlessly as possible determine the meaning of the items in which one is interested.

Here's the latest offering from the ABC Chinese dictionary series at Hawaii:

The purpose of this volume is to enable Sinologists and others involved in Chinese studies to access entries in Japanese reference works dealing with China without going through the time-consuming process of looking up characters by radical and stroke. For users of this dictionary, it is a simple matter to find a character by looking it up by its alphabetical pinyin pronunciation. Having located it here, the user can go directly to the item in Japanese reference works.

The Dictionary includes in its more than 8,500 entries not only Chinese characters and their Sino-Japanese (ondoku/onyomi) readings, but also the Japanese (kundoku/kunyomi) readings. The addition of the romanized Japanese readings will assist in correctly transcribing proper Japanese names, such as the names of Japanese publishers and authors, and the technical terms often employed in their writings on China. This feature will also give those familiar with pinyin access to material on Japanese history and culture.

Onward and upward, Sinologists!


N.B.:  The two paragraph description above is for an earlier version of the dictionary that was originally scheduled to appear in 2010, but never came out.  The dictionary now has more than 13,000 entries, making it ample for even advanced Sinological research.  The front matter explains the reasons for the delay.

[UPDATE July 2, 2016:  Note from University of Hawaii Press — "The book will ship out next week to all accounts.  It arrived earlier when we were closed for end of fiscal year inventory and reporting."]


  1. wren romano said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    In addition to the sinitic and native pronunciations, kanji also have ateji pronunciations: irregular pronunciations for a collection of kanji read as a single word. The use of kanji for names also has such irregular clumpings, above and beyond the name-specific pronunciations. For names a lot of it comes from people being creative, so they tend to be less solidified than true ateji.

    As far as Asō goes, it's not irregular (strictly speaking) it's the result of onbin: euphonic sound change during LMJ. We have `asa` for 麻, together with `(f/b)u` for 生, thus producing `asa(f)u` for 麻生. However, both historic `a+u` and historic `a+fu` go to modern `ō` (via a standard assimilation process which preserves vowel length).

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 10:44 am

    To what degree is it possible / permissible / accepted in Japan to have a non standard pronunciation of your name? An American can easily get away with saying, "Yes, my name is spelled Jane but I pronounce it Juh-nay." Can a Japanese scholar say such a thing?

  3. Travis said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

    Jenny – absolutely they can. This is perhaps most boldly seen in the trend in recent decades of "kirakira names" – names, usually derived from English, that share a concept with the characters being used, but not anything of the standard East Asian pronunciations.

    These include things like naming your child 七音 and having it be pronounced "Doremi," or naming them 皇帝 and having their name be pronounced "Shiizaa" (Caesar).

    Some other examples I've heard of include:
    Adam (adamu) 男
    Angel (anjeru) 天使

    But these are quite rare, I think…

    A better example would be a relatively standard Japanese name that's pronounced differently than expected… The only example that comes immediately to mind is a professor at Waseda University who I often cite in my work, Kamiya Nobuyuki 紙屋敦之. Kamiya is the normal reading for 紙屋, and "yuki" one of the most standard readings (in names) for 之, but 敦 is most often read "Atsu," as in Taira no Atsumori 平敦盛, a late 12th century samurai warrior, and major figure in the Tale of the Heike, in Noh & Kabuki theatre, etc. As far as I know, "Nobu" is not a common or standard reading for this character 敦 (mostly commonly read "Atsu"), and indeed, every time I try to type in his name, I have to type "atsu" and not "nobu" or "nobuyuki" to get it to come up properly.

    Beyond that, I don't know of specific precise examples off the top of my head, of specific people I know, but I would not be surprised at all if there are plenty of people out there whose names look like they'd be read Kimiko but it's actually Yuuko, or things like that.

  4. Travis said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

    I should add, I believe I remember reading that some very small number of people have had their children's names rejected by the authorities – such as couples who wanted to name their child, literally, Devil (deebiru) 悪魔 – but I don't know the precise details of how that happened, legally or procedurally.

    But I do get the impression that the vast majority of names are allowed. If you want to name your kid Caesar 皇帝, I don't think anyone is going to stop you.

  5. Sean M said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

    In Europe we also have this problem working with different systems of Anglicizing and Latinizing. Letters don't mean exactly the same thing in Turkish, in German transliterations of Semitic languages, and in French … and when you see an isolated word and don't know what the original language was, what language the transliterator was thinking in, and how that system of transliteration works, you can get into a real mess. Add that to things like the old and new systems of transliteration (is the genitive suffix in Farsi -e or -i in Latin letters?) and my head hurts.

    In the first millennium BCE, Akkadian names tended to be written as logograms, and since Akkadian names can be phrases of three or four inflected words, and some of the logograms have several common meanings, transliterating them is also fun.

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

    This discussion reminds me of the problem I had in the bibliography for my Chinese English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes, (which I am currently updating for Univ of Hawaii press). One of my citations was:
    川瀨正二。歇後語匯編。東京:明善堂,1969。I had relatively little trouble
    with the author and publisher's names (pls correct me if I was wrong!), but there remained the problem of how to romanize the Chinese term
    歇後語in the book's title. W/the assistance of my Japanese colleagues, here is what I came up with: Kawase Shozo. Ketsugogo 1 Hen
    [A Collection of Enigmatic Folk Similes]. Tokyo: Meizendo, 1969. (Again,any corrections/ comments for my revision welcome.)
    But the point is, of course, that the Japanese can cite Chinese terms in
    their bibliographies w/o they or their readers necessarily knowing how
    to pronounce them in Japanese.
    (PS: After much thought, I made up the term "enigmatic folk simile" myself.)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

    For xiēhòuyǔ 歇後語 (lit., "rest/stop-rear/after/behind/later/back-speech/expression"), which John Rohsenow translates as "enigmatic folk simile", I came up with "truncated witticism".

  8. Stephen said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:08 pm

    As far as difficult names go, Asõ at least forms part of a pattern of other names that end with the character 生 and a long vowel (since it comes from a regular sound change). 羽生 (Hanyū), 荻生 (Ogyū) and 柳生 (Yagyū) come to mind as well. Of course, the only reason I even recognize that is that I memorized readings on about 3000 common Japanese names, which in and of itself says something about how difficult reading them can be. I'm still often stumped on how to pronounce personal names, even if I know how to pronounce the component characters within words.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:09 pm

    "But the point is, of course, that the Japanese can cite Chinese terms in their bibliographies w/o they or their readers necessarily knowing how to pronounce them in Japanese."

    That's an absolutely key, vital point that few people ever think about. Not only do the Japanese who write 歇後語 not have to know how to pronounce this term in Japanese, all the more they don't have to know how to pronounce it in Chinese. One of the things that makes Western Sinology so much harder is that we have to know how to pronounce 歇後語 both in Japanese (if we're citing Japanese scholarship about it as John Rohsenow did) and in Chinese.

  10. Michael Rank said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

    Somewhat relevantly is the Japanese girl’s name Naomi, written with a wide range of kanji 直美, 尚美, 直己 etc, a native Japanese name or is it based on the western name Naomi?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    From Bill Nienhauser:

    I heartily agree. Our senior Japanese scholar claims the only way to be sure of someone's name is to ask them. But I'll order this and hope it will propel me further towards not needing to fly back and forth to Japan to check on the names.

    My reply to Bill:

    It may not be available for a few weeks yet. || See update at end of the original post.

  12. Chris C. said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    This is a frequent issue in non-Japanese sumo fandom. When a promising new rikishi appears on the banzuke, one of the first problems is trying to figure out how to read his name. The Nihon Sumo Kyokai website usually includes pronunciations, but that doesn't help much if the rikishi in question doesn't have a page yet.

  13. Jean-Michel said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

    @Travis: A better example would be a relatively standard Japanese name that's pronounced differently than expected…

    The great filmmaker Yoshida Yoshishige (吉田 喜重) is commonly referred to, both inside and outside Japan, as Yoshida Kijū–Yoshishige is a perfectly valid kun reading of 喜重, but it's pretty much always pronounced with the on reading Kijū, and even Yoshida himself tells people to just go with the more common form.

  14. Jean-Michel said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    Minor correction to my above post: the shige in Yoshishige is actually a nanori reading, the category described by Mair as special readings for names. In this case the nanori reading is also, technically speaking, a kun reading, but I don't think nanori readings are exclusively kun readings.

  15. liuyao said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

    It's not unlike the many Chinese topolectal readings of the same character, on top of which there often is (or was) a literary reading. For good or bad, the standard Mandarin reading (as promoted by the PRC) has largely displaced all other readings, which is especially anachronistic (though hugely convenient) for transliteration of historical names.

    There are quite a number of historical figures who are recorded to have special reading of their name, and if they are famous enough they'd enter modern Chinese dictionaries and be given a special pronunciation of the character. One 酈食基 of Han dynasty was recorded to sound like 歷異幾 in a commentary to the Shiji, and in MSM that becomes Lì Yìjī. This of course is an entirely different matter from the Old Sinitic reconstructions.

    Surnames especially tend to have special readings, such as 万俟 Mòqí, 單 Shàn, 解 Xiè, 區 Ōu, 仇 Qiú.

  16. JS said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 8:45 pm

    It seems that with Japanese even more than Chinese, if you approach characters as having "readings," rather than approach words/names as having (highly variable) written forms, you will quickly go mad.

    The Shiji example is great; I did not know this. But I would not say this is an "entirely different matter" than reconstruction, as at least here the suggested pronunciation is not idiosyncratic with respect to the written form, but is related to it in interesting ways.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 9:59 pm


    Indeed, many Sinologists and Japanologists have gone mad over these matters. It may also have something to do with the old saw that, in their dotage, Sinologists often end up having nothing better to do than invent a new romanization. I have also observed that many Chinese scholars end up with nothing better to do than invent a new computer input system or dictionary lookup system, etc., or create a completely different way to transcribe the sounds of Chinese, or even invent an entirely new script to replace the characters.

  18. Matt said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 1:53 am

    John Rohsenow: Offered in a spirit of cooperation since you specifically request for feedback… Unless you're imposing some kind of character unification, that should actually be "歇後語彙編". It's also interesting to note that probably because 歇後 (not 歇後語) is more common in Japanese, and 語彙 an unremarkable word meaning "vocabulary", many databases list this as "ketsugo goihen" (something like "enigmatic phrases: vocabulary", or perhaps pushing it a bit "a compilation of enigmatic-phrase vocabulary"). There are a few libraries that have "ketsugogo ihen" (I think your "1" might be a typo?), though, and on balance this seems more likely to me now that I know that 歇後語 is the standard terminology in Japanese.

    Incidentally, the author is actually 川瀨正三 — this I assume was also just a typo, since you do give a pronunciation consistent with 正三 and not 正二!

    Michael: That's actually an interesting question. The folk wisdom is that this name was invented by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro (for the heroine of his novel "Chijin no ai", made eponymous by the English translation "Naomi"), and of course a fascination with things from the West drives that whole book. However, as much as he admires the "haikara"-ness of her name, writes it in Roman characters and marvels at how Western it looks, it's never suggested that it was actually from a Western language, and names ending with -mi weren't unheard of even back then (although they didn't really become super-common until after WWII, I believe).

  19. Matt said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 1:53 am

    (er, "… now that I know that 歇後語 is the standard terminology in Chinese," of course.)

  20. JS said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 6:17 am

    Might I suggest "after-the-jump expressions" :/

  21. January First-of-May said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 7:35 am

    In the first millennium BCE, Akkadian names tended to be written as logograms, and since Akkadian names can be phrases of three or four inflected words, and some of the logograms have several common meanings, transliterating them is also fun.

    Supposedly, when some 19th century scholars decided to transliterate the recorded name of Nebuchadnezzar, they ended up with "Anakshadushish", and were very surprised because that didn't sound anything like "Nebuchadnezzar".
    Turned out they picked the wrong readings for pretty much everything, and it was actually "Nabu-kudurri-usur".

    I've long wondered whether Japanese-speaking scientists would have found it easier or harder (than the assorted Europeans who did it IOTL) to understand how Akkadian cuneiform works had they somehow discovered it independently. After all, the systems are, at their base, fairly similar.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 9:09 am



  23. Joseph said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 9:35 am

    This seems like a useful publication I look forward to having a look at.

    When I look up Japanese readings of kanji, I use an assortment of iphone dictionary applications where I can write the characters with my finger and bypass the need to initially know any pronunciations.

    To look up characters in Morohashi, one of the most important Japanese language reference works for Sinologists, I use the Unihan Database to look up the Morohashi number then use this number rather than pronunciation to find the page number of the character entry I'm looking for.

    Endymion Wilkinson's *Chinese History: A New Manual* has an entry on page 93 which lists a "Handbook of Chinese people of Kanji readings" published in 1997 which I have never seen but that is described as having 2,674 head characters in an ABC pinyin order followed by pronunciations of compound words. If I'm correct in assuming that the 18,000 entries are different characters, it seems like this new publication supersedes this earlier publication by far and that Wilkinson's book will have to be updated here in the next edition.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 11:08 am


    This new dictionary has over 13,000 different kanji / hanzi as head entries.

    Your way of looking things up in Morohashi seems painfully circuitous. There is a complete phonetic index to all the more than half a million word / expression entries in the dictionary:


    The handy 1990 Goi sakuin (語彙索引?, "Vocabulary Index") allows searching for words in Morohashi by their pronunciation in modern kana spelling, instead of the historical system used in Volumes 1-13. This index comprehensively lists every compound word listed in the main dictionary, including terms, phrases, four-character idioms, etc. Vocabulary is arranged in the standard gojūon (五十音?, "fifty sound") ordering of kana, and is cited by volume and page numbers.



    This kana index is a godsend for people who want to look up specific terms in Morohashi. I once had a dream to convert this kana index into a Pinyin index. I actually have a piece of paper inside the cover of my copy of this index that reads: Mair's Morohashi Index: Easy Alphabetical Access to Daikanwa Jiten and Other Japanese Sinological Reference Works. It is dated to around the mid-90s, and includes a description of what I had in mind. (The paper also lists other "easy alphabetical indices" to important Sinological reference works that I was planning, but a person only has one life, so….) Unfortunately, I was working on my alphabetical index to the 370,000 entries in the Hanyu Da Cidian at that time, and it took ten years to complete. Now I spend most of my "free" time writing posts and comments on Language Log, so I don't think I'll ever get around to making a Pinyin index to Morohashi. Maybe someone else will do it. Hint, hint!

    Note from Endymion Wilkinson:


    Thanks yr heads up. Just in time for the revised printing of New Manual 4th edition.


  25. julie lee said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 1:49 pm


    Yes, the different topolectal readings of Chinese names can be confusing. Example:
    The characters for Ng Yu-Kwan (in Cantonese) is read Wu Ru-jun in Mandarin; Ng is a scholar in Buddhism.
    I've mentioned this experience on another post: My brother, after someone stole his identity, changed his e-mail name from the Mandarin pronunciation to the Cantonese pronunciation. Example: 謙 “qian" in Mandarin is "heem" in Cantonese. All three characters in his name sounded totally different in Cantonese. I didn't recognize his name in Cantonese so refused to open his e-mail messages. The messages kept coming, I kept refusing to open them. (He forgot to tell me he had switched to Cantonese.) After they kept coming day after day, I said to myself: "Contest of wills, eh? Well, you'll see if you can wear me down!" After this went on for some time, I looked at the name again and thought, "Oh, it may be some distant relative in China who wants my help," so I opened it with trepidation and was astonished to find it was none other than my brother in Taiwan.

  26. Brendan said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

    This book will be a godsend. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked, after years of dealing with Mandarin and its relatively predictable one-character-usually-not-much-more-than-one-reading writing system, to learn that "headache" (頭痛) in Japanese was read "zutsū“ (a nice, sensical Sino-Japanese reading), but "head aches" ( 頭が痛い) using the same characters in the same order, was "atama ga itai." Talk about headaches.

    "Enigmatic folk simile" and "truncated witticism" both seem adequate as glosses for 歇後語 xiēhòuyǔ. "After the jump" is cute — I remember once being tempted to render the term as "waitabits," but reconsidering after realizing that it sounded too much like the name of a breakfast cereal.
    When explaining xiēhòuyǔ to fellow Americans, I usually describe them as being "like Chinese Fat Albert jokes," with "You're like a school on Saturday — no class" and "You're like an elevator operator — bringing everybody down" being rough examples in English of how the expressions work. (Though of course xiēhòuyǔ needn't be humorous.) Cockney rhyming slang might also work as an illustration, especially since people using xiēhòuyǔ often give the "setup" ("have a butcher's") without the "punchline" ("…hook -> 'look'").

  27. AK said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 11:44 pm


    Another example is the current governor of Mie, 鈴木英敬. Although the birth and legal reading of his given name 英敬 is Hidetaka, as a politician he uses the reading Eikei. I've heard that he chose to do this since it was easier to remember, but don't completely understand that reasoning.

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