Further mystification of the Japanese writing system

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"Baby Pikachu? Japan panel weighs accepting unconventional readings of kanji for names"

The Japan Times (May 19, 2022)

What’s in a name? In Japanese, that’s complicated.  [VHM:  You can say that again!  One of the hardest tasks in my graduate training as a Sinologist was learning how to pronounce Japanese proper nouns correctly.  This is one of the reasons I wrote the dictionary described in this post.]

An advisory body to the justice minister has compiled a draft proposal on whether and how to accept — and record on the family register — unconventional kanji readings of names for newborns and naturalized citizens. In one cited example of so-called kirakira (sparkly) names, it would be acceptable for the kanji characters 光宙 read as pikachū, which could be a hit for fans of the Pokemon universe.

The proposal is part of the ministry’s push for digitalization of the family register, an effort that would be better facilitated by adding hiragana and katakana readings to kanji names.

At present, birth certificates have a column to add the readings of names, while the family register does not. But since it’s easier to digitally search for names using hiragana and katakana, the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council has been asked to propose new options for adding readings to the family register and to consider the extent to which such readings should be acceptable.

On Tuesday, the Legislative Council came up with three options:

* Refrain from legally stipulating the need to add readings, with the Justice Ministry and local municipalities judging whether to allow readings based on general legal principles, such as not infringing on the rights of others or offending public order and morals.
* Allow a character’s Chinese-derived readings, Japanese readings and readings from popular usage. In addition, allow readings that correspond with a character’s actual meaning.
* In addition to the second option, allow readings stipulated by Justice Ministry ordinances related to the family register.

The second option would be the strictest among the three, according to the Justice Ministry.

As an example, a Justice Ministry official said 大空 — usually read as о̄zora (sky) — could also be read as sukai (sky). Another acceptable example was to read 光宙 as pikachū. Together, this particular pair of characters doesn’t have a conventional reading. However the character 光 (light [VHM:  hikari]) is associated with the Japanese onomatopoeia pikapika, which refers to something bright and shiny. Together with the character 宙 [VHM:  means "in midair; space"], which can be phonetically read as chū, a creative interpretation of kanji combo can be read as pikachū.

The key is for the meaning of the characters to match the reading, the official said.  [VHM:  That's one way of looking at it.]

On the other hand, the provided example of an unacceptable reading was 山田太郎 — normally read as Yamada Taro — being interpreted as tetsuwan atomu, the name of the main character in “Astro Boy” anime series. The characters have has [recte has] nothing to do with the meaning of the kanji, nor is there a historical or modern reading close to tetsuwan atomu, and so therefore this interpretation would be rejected.  [VHM:  I think this would only be for legal purposes; my impression is that this sort of thing is done in literature and private writing all the time.]

If the government proceeds with adding phonetic readings to the family register, the exact process would present a challenge. In the proposal, local governments would ask citizens to provide a reading of names using hiragana or katakana during a designated time period. But for those who do not provide their reading, the municipality would be expected to decide on one.  [VHM:  Sounds like this could potentially be a colossal mess.]

A Justice Ministry official said the registration could also potentially be done when a person visits a local government office to obtain a resident card or to register their personal identification number.

The ministry will seek public comments on the proposal later in May, and the results will be considered in further discussions to finalize any changes. The government plans to submit a package of revised bills to the ordinary parliament session next year.

It's interesting that these changes are being taken under consideration by the Justice Ministry (Hōmu shō 法務省).  If you asked my opinion, I might have thought it more appropriate to have the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Monbu kagaku shō 文部科学省) address them.  I recognize, however, that names in Japan have a powerfully legalistic status, even more so than their cultural significance.  One of the reasons I say this is my memories from the time I lived in Japan of how important it was to have my personal seal (inkan 印鑑 or hanko 判子) at hand whenever I wanted to take care of any matter having legal bearing.  That seal represented me as an individual, and my name was right there on it, ready to be imprinted on any document requiring my agreement or formal acknowlegement.  Then there's the whole question of how to record names in the family registry, which is, of course, a highly legal matter.


Selected readings


  1. Christian Horn said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 5:02 pm

    The idea or reading 大空 (о̄zora) as sukai ("sky") really blew me away. It never occurred to me one could add English translations directly as readings for Kanji.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 6:29 pm

    It has been noted in previous threads that the oft-deprecated Western/Orientalist notion of kanji/hanzi as "ideograms" is a rather more empirically plausible account of their use in written Japanese than it is of their use in writing any Sinitic language. And using 大空 as the appropriate glyphs to write down "sky/sukai" is certainly consistent with that point of view. Of course, the usual approach of transliterating foreign words into katakana usually allows one to sidestep the lurking issue, i.e. if representing foreign (non-Sinitic) words by kanji rather than kana, should one use the kanji that kinda/sorta "sound like" the foreign word or should one instead use the kanji that "mean" what the foreign word means?

  3. Neil Kubler said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 6:52 pm

    Regarding J.W. Brewer's comment about the notion of kanji as "ideograms" being more plausible in Japanese than in Sinitic languages, yes, there is certainly a degree of truth in that. However, once the pronunciation in Japan of 大空 as sukai stabilizes (if it does) and is regularly accepted by readers of Japanese, then it's really no longer a question of two "ideograms" but rather of the two kanji 大空 being pronounced as sukai, and the SOUNDS sukai (whether vocalized or heard slowly or quickly in the brain) interpreted as "sky." So it's still a question of the sounds "sukai" meaning "sky" (not of the kanji 大空 directly indicating meaning) .

  4. Josh R. said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 7:48 pm

    The reason this is being considered by the Ministry of Justice, rather than MEXT, or even more appropriately, the Ministry of the Interior, which heretofore had jurisdiction over family registers, is because the digitalization of registers was done using the MOJ's network. Family registers were historically handled by the local (prefectural) governments, which meant that if you were born in, say, Shizuoka Prefecture, and now lived in Aichi Prefecture, and needed a copy of your family register (a common occurrence), you would need to go back to the city of your birth to get the copy. Now you can get a copy from any local government, but only the MOJ had a nationwide network to make this possible. So the MOJ's involvement in family registers and the names thereon goes all the way back to 2019.

    It should be noted also that this is not a question of current policy, but what the MOJ wants to send to the Diet when it requests revisions of the Family Register Act to allow them to add a line for readings of names. As it stands now, there are no legal restrictions on how names can be read. It's up to the local governments whether they will accept birth certificates with unusual readings, with some guidance based on past court decisions.

  5. Jim Unger said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 9:35 am

    Leaving aside ideogram ideology, which, as a (psycho)linguistic matter, is demonstrably false, the legal issue here is interesting. In France, it is (or at least used to be) illegal to give a child names that are not classical (derived from Latin or Greek) or biblical. Japan seems to be in need of such a law.

    From personal experience, I know that some expectant parents consult books explaining superstitious nonsense about the number of strokes in name kanji. 山田太郎 would be 3-5-4-9. Presumably, that combination is auspicious. The idea is to make sure not to use an unlucky combination. It's similar to astrology: small wonder naming practices are a legal nightmare!

    Interestingly, the idea that a child might be given a name in kana isn't discussed. In the Meiji period, a two-mora name that wasn't a Japanese word at all was a popular choice for girls. Also not mentioned are cases in which people change the reading of their surnames to suit circumstances. For instance, the linguist Ueda Kazutoshi gave his name in romanization as Mannen (some people mistakenly say "Bannen," but the documentary evidence is there). Ueda evidently felt that a Sino-J reading was more appropriate for formal, international use. Literary types are particularly prone to this sort of thing: Abe Kimifusa is known the world over as Abe Ko^bo^ except to cognoscenti.

    By the way, this problem is not just a quibble over kanji. Back in 2012-2013, the Japanese government digitized all social security records but failed to record name-readings along with kanji, which made it impossible for thousands of people to prove their identities. I never found out whether or how they fixed the problem.

  6. Elizabeth said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 9:57 am

    My husband's uncle's name was 昌三 , and there was never any consensus about whether it was pronounced Masami or Shozo. He seemed to use both interchangeably. I wonder what this proposal would do for such a case.

  7. Lucino said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 10:06 am

    Regarding Christian's surprise, these kinds of names are indeed a phenomenon in Japan. Often referred to as DQN (dokyun) Names — or as mentioned here, kirakira names — they are typically seen as a bit trashy from what I've read, and usually offer uncommon readings that just refer to another Japanese word (ex. 耳長 read as "usagi" (meaning rabbit)). However, DQN names having readings based on English words is not uncommon, such as 可愛 being read as "pinku" (meaning pink). Searching DQN name in Japanese reveals many examples, and they're often quite fun to read through, although I wouldn't want to be the one to give another person this kind of name.
    Both examples I provided are from a list on akanbo-media.jp, but dqname.jp offers many more an allows for user-submitted rankings and comments (both sites are in Japanese, more limited articles can be found on English-language websites as well).

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 10:07 am

    Ah yes, the notion that the written form IS the name while a spoken name is but a "reading" or "pronunciation" thereof; quintessentially Sinospheric 本末倒置 thinking

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 1:00 pm

    I agree with Jonathan Smith that the conventional "Sinospheric" analysis is arguably backwards. It's not (if one accepts the standard Ling 101 oversimplified premise that writing represents speech rather than vice versa) that kanji have multiple "readings," it's that multiple separate Japanese words with no phonological or etymological connection with each other are nonetheless represented in writing by the same kanji, often (although not exclusively) when the etymologically/phonologically-unrelated words have similar semantics. That's pretty weird cross-linguistically.

    But it's further complicated in the 大空 example by the fact that that's a two-kanji sequence. How unusual is it in Japanese for a given two-kanji sequence to have, let's say "sukai" as one possible "reading" without "su" being a possible reading for the first character standing alone and "kai" being a possible reading for the second character standing alone?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 1:05 pm

    One of my favorites:

    kā カー for kuruma 車 ("car")

  11. Vampyricon said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 1:13 pm

    @J.W. Brewer,

    As far as I can tell, it's not uncommon at all, but my exposure to such constructions is mainly via manga, which I assume play faster and looser with the rules.

  12. Philip Anderson said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 2:30 pm

    @Jim Unger
    The 1803 French law was amended in 1993 to allow any name not “contrary to the interests of the child.” But it had allowed (Catholic) saints’s names, whether or not in the Bible, and had already been expanded to include ancient names and traditional regional names, including Breton.

  13. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 2:58 pm

    @J.W. Brewer
    see so-called jukujikun 熟字訓, JDIC definition "reading of a kanji compound by meaning" — a definition which chooses to adapt the "Sinospheric" ("Hanzispheric"?) mentality that one is dealing with readings ("kun") of characters.
    Japanese 101 examples (my level) are like kyo^ 今日, hitori 一人… many many more here though no English page apparently…

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 4:08 pm

    @Jonathan Smith: I would say "Kanjispheric," which I suppose might make the CCP mad, which wouldn't make me feel particularly bad about it. That's just because I tend to use "kanji" in my particular ideolect of English as the generic/default English word for the characters whether in a Japanese or non-Japanese context. That I was first exposed to them as a boy in a Japanese context is probably the primary reason for that, but I also think that "kanji" is a more cromulent loanword in some sort of aesthetics-of-English sense than "hanzi." FWIW I asked my (Taiwanese-American) wife what she calls the characters when referring to them in English, and she said she just calls them "characters" (i.e. she doesn't call them kanji or hanzi or han-tzu or some Taiwanese Hokkien word), with context making clear what sort of characters she means.

  15. Jim Breen said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 9:30 pm

    Apropos of 熟字訓, the Kenkyusha JE 5th ed. glosses it as "an idiosyncratic reading of a kanji compound bearing no relation to the individual readings of the constituent kanji." They are also sometimes called 義訓 (gikun).

    There are currently 95 entries in the JMdict dictionary with one or more readings tagged as jukujikun/gikun. One of my favourites is 啄木鳥 (woodpecker), which has the highly irregular readings of けら (kera) and きつつき (kitsutsuki).

  16. Ethan said,

    May 24, 2022 @ 1:06 am

    @Jim Breen

    I am unclear on the difference between gikun and ateji in the dictionary labeling. The example that came first to my mind was 流石 = さすが = "sasuga" meaning "as expected from …". I have always wondered if there was a story behind the choice of those characters to represent the word. How many entries are there that are marked as ateji, and would they all be likely examples here?

  17. Jim Breen said,

    May 24, 2022 @ 2:30 am

    Strictly speaking, ateji are compounds with kanji chosen solely for their readings. About 550 JMdict entries have one or more of the kanji surface forms tagged as ateji. A good example is 出鱈目/でたらめ (nonsense; irresponsible remark; etc.) where the kanji are read de+tara+me. Many ateji are associated with early European loanwords, which originally were written using kanji, e.g. 亜米利加 (amerika) and the 護美 (gomi) of 護美箱 (gomibako). They are the opposite of gikun, which are readings quite independent of those of the kanji.

    Some people in Japan use 当て字 (ateji) for both types of formations, which can make it rather confusing.

    流石/さすが is a horror, as the kanji really have nothing to do with either the meaning or reading of the expression. It's usually tagged as ateji, but I don't think that fits too well.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    May 24, 2022 @ 9:40 am

    JWB — "I tend to use "kanji" in my particular ideolect of English as the generic/default English word for the characters whether in a Japanese or non-Japanese context" — oddly enouogh, I recently edited a Wikipedia entry to add "hanzi" to prose that had previously only mentioned "kanji" (https://en.wiktionary.org/w/index.php?title=binom&action=history).

  19. Rodger C said,

    May 24, 2022 @ 10:39 am

    expanded to include ancient names and traditional regional names, including Breton

    I'm old enough to remember a kerfuffle when parents tried to name their son Yann.

  20. Philip Anderson said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 4:06 pm

    I’ve been listening to a CD by the folk-rock group Tri Yann recently, but the three founder members were all Jean or Jean-X.

  21. Dara Connolly said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    Jim Breen said:
    One of my favourites is 啄木鳥 (woodpecker), which has the highly irregular readings of けら (kera) and きつつき (kitsutsuki).

    Another great example from the world of birds: 百舌鳥 pronounced もず mozu is a kind of blackbird. Three kanji to write a two-syllable word. The kanji means "hundred-tongue bird".

  22. Philip Anderson said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 3:21 pm

    @Dara Connolly
    That reminds me of www – nine syllables to abbreviate a three-syllable phrase.

  23. astrange said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 2:26 am

    My favorite kirakira name is 今鹿, read "Nausicaa".

    (今鹿 -> "ima shika" in Japanese -> "now deer" in English -> Nausicaa, the protagonist of an old Ghibli movie.)

  24. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 9:50 am

    hmm, comments suggest there are many more and more frightening "熟字訓" then those featured on say wikipedia lists… I suppose these generally reflect latter-day association of written Sino-Japanese compounds (whether or not 'made in Japan' 和製 to begin with) with colloquial words? in some cases the written forms are the same as representations of Chinese words, like zhuó​mù​niǎo 啄木鳥 'woodpecker'…

    re: what to call (Chinese) characters in English, yes I say "character" in the face of some newfangled alternatives… of course typically these are just zì in Mandarin… in light of closeness to Japanese, maybe Southern Min cognates like Taiwanese /(d)zi7/~/li7/ can be the basis for a new international term, who knows

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