Passing names

A personal and family choice

By William Wetherall

First posted 28 March 2006
Last updated 28 March 2006

In all societies, people with unusual names get unusual attention. Some people change their name to get less attention. Other people change their name to get more.

Someone named Masami or Kaoru could be male or female -- and petition a Family Court to permit them to adopt a less ambiguous name. Having the same name as a notorious public figure might also be regarded as justifiable reason to grant permission to change one's legal name.

Half a century ago, many actors anglicized unusual names they thought had less Hollywood appeal. Today some actors adopt exotic names in order to enhance their image.

Name assimilation

Name assimilation, including the adoption of a passing name, is a universal phenomenon. Some generations back on my mother's side, a family of Yaegers became Hunters.

In Japan, an alien named Yaeger could remain a Yaeger and adopt Hunter as a legal alternative. Such names are called "tsushomei", which means "passing name". And every alien is free to register such a name or not, as they wish.

Almost since I have been in Japan, I have gone by a name which I write in katakana. The name is written on my alien registration card as my legal passing name. I use it, in lieu of my passport name, in virtually all formal transactions in Japan, from banking and taxes to national health insurance and social security, and of course on all manner of contracts and even immigration forms.

I also have a personal seal, which serves as my signature in all formal transactions. The seal consists of two Chinese characters which read "Yosha" -- the name of this website. The graphs mean "sheepshed", which everyone can plainly see. To anyone who wonders why I am using such an unusual word for a name on my seal, I explain that it reflects the meaning of Wetherall, apparently the name of someone who tended a stall for castrated sheep, otherwise known as wether, as in bellwether.

Practical assimilation

As my name stands out on any list in Japan, obviously it is not my intent to pass. I am merely assimilating to the point that my name can be more easily accommodated in Japanese society, where two-part names written in Japanese script, family name first, are standard. My "Japanese name" is merely a localization, as it were, of my passport name.

The line between assimilation and passing is not drawn by law but by people who need to change their names to accommodate social expectations or personal needs. How one approaches the line, and whether one crosses it, is a private and sometimes family matter.

Whether an alien registers a passing name on his or her record is an entirely personal choice. The purpose of allowing the registration of an alternative name is to facilitate the needs of aliens who wish to assimilate within Japan. Whether and how an alien assimilates, however, is entirely up to the alien.

Assimilation takes many forms. In my case, it is extremely convenient to have a name that is written in Japanese script, in two parts, consisting of a family name followed by a personal name. This makes it easier for all manner of businesses and other organizations in Japan to handle my name in their files and databases, which are set up for Japanese script and two-part names that begin with the family name.

"family" more than "ethnic" assimilation

Too much is made of the "ethnic" assimilation of Koreans in Japan through the use of Yamatoesque names. I have met many Koreans in Japan, and I have personally known several, who have used Yamato style family names.

All Koreans I personally know, who have used Yamato-style family names in the course of their life at school or at work, have used the name of a Japanese member of their family, most likely a parent or spouse. All such friends were born in Japan, and some, like many Japan-born Koreans, were given personal names that can be read in Sino-Korean, Sino-Japanese, or Japanese.

I have known people I assumed were Japanese, because they had Yamato names, who later disclosed that they were Koreans. A few of these people even "came out" and began using their Korean family name. Yet they continue to be members of families that include relatives with Yamato names. And the house they go home to most likely has a Yamato name on the mailbox or at the gate.

Practically all Koreans who naturalize are the spouse or child of a Japanese national. When naturalizing, they tend to adopt the family name that already exists on the register they will join and, upon joining, become Japanese. And the register will most likely be defined by a Yamato family name, which will be the legal name of everyone in the register.

For many Koreans, then, the adoption of a Yamato name is more a matter of "family" than of "ethnic" assimilation.

Data on passing names

While foreigners, like Japanese, are free to use any name they wish socially, aliens who wish to use an alternative name legally need to register the name. Obviously data based on registers will reflect only the extent which aliens have gone to the trouble to register alternative names. Still, such data is very hard to come by.

Click the + Japan 1959 and + Kawasaki 1971 links in the menu, under Passing names, for tables showing summaries of two very revealing sets of passing name data I have been able to find.

Some books and journal articles on the subject of passing names and name assimilation in Japan also contain statistics on the frequency of passing name use. All accounts I have seen support the observations I have made in my remarks to the 1959 and 1971 sets of data presented in the tables.