Thursday, September 01, 2005

Baby-Naming in Japan

Choosing a name is one task that parents-to-be seem to both look forward to and dread. The first step is usually to check some classic resources that list baby names, such as books and websites. Then the future parents migh come up with a short list of, for example, five names that they both like. From this short list, the parents might then start bouncing the names off friends and family for feedback. This is where things can become a bit complicated, as you start to find out other people's preferences. Your mother-in-law doesn't like any of the names you are thinking about because she was really hoping that you would name your future son after her dearly departed cousin Rufus or whatever. The ensuing arguments would be enough to drive anyone over the edge!

At least that's how things seem to work in the United States. In Japan, baby-naming is a bit different. First of all, it is extremely rare for children to be named after relatives (even their fathers). So you will hardly ever come across someone with the suffix of Junior attached to their names. Instead, a lot of babies are named simply for the way the name will look in written form. Let me explain.

In Japan, part of the writing system is made up of kanji characters, which were originally borrowed from China. When used alone, kanji characters usually represent single ideas; for example, water, mountain, river, etc. When used in combination with other kanji characters, they usually mean something a bit more complex. Most Japanese names are made up of 2 or 3 combined kanji characters.

Another thing that's important about kanji characters is that they are written a certain way. So while to the untrained eye a character might just look like a jumble of lines, there's definitely order to it. Each character is comprised of a certain number of pen strokes (or lines). Traditionally speaking, there was a great emphasis placed on numbers as being lucky or unlucky. Thus, one way that parents choose a baby's name is by counting the total number of strokes that would be in the first and last name. If the number is considered lucky, then that would be a good name to choose. If the number ended up being unlucky, then it might be better to steer clear of that name. Just as we have books and websites listing the most popular baby names for each year, the Japanese have books and websites devoted to the analysis of different kanji characters to let future parents know which names would be lucky or not.

Of course not everyone in Japan follows this system, just as not everyone in the U.S. follows conventional naming patterns. However, I am speaking from experience: this is exactly how my husband and I chose our son's name. It was an interesting exercise to say the least, and so far it has worked out well. At least it's better than arguing over whether or not we should have named him Rufus!

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