Daily Archives: 20 December 2005

How Koreans Chose Japanese Names

During the Japanese colonial period, Koreans were heavily penalized if they did not change their family names to Japanese, as Hildi Kang explains in her book Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945:

Of our fifty informants, only four families refused to change their names. All others complied, for without a Japanese name citizens could not enter schools, get jobs, or obtain ration cards. The government stopped issuing permits and postmen stopped delivering packages to those with Korean names. However, many Koreans built into their new names ingenious reflection of their Korean name, hometown, or a significant family attribute.

Here are some of the examples Kang compiled.

1. Retain all or part of the Chinese character, but use its native Japanese reading

  • Kim 金 – Keep ‘gold’ but use its Japanese pronunciation, as in 金國 Kanekuni ‘gold country’, 金澤 Kanezawa ‘gold pond’, 金城 Kaneshiro ‘gold castle’, 金田 Kaneda ‘gold paddy’
  • Ch’oe 崔 – Keep the ‘mountain’ radical on top, as in 山本 Yamamoto ‘mountain base’
  • Pak 朴 – Keep the ‘tree’ radical, as in 木戸 Kido ‘wood door’, 正木 Masaki ‘upright tree’
  • Yi 李 – Keep the ‘tree’ radical, as in 木元 Kimoto ‘tree base’

2. Create a Japanese-style name based on geographical origins

  • Pak 朴 – The Japanese name 大竹 Ōtake might reflect the family’s Korean hometown, Taebyŏn (大 Tae), and the bamboo grove (竹) in back of the old homestead.
  • Kang 康 – The Japanese name 信川 Nobukawa might reflect the ancestral seat of the Kang clan, pronounced Sinch’ŏn in Korean.
  • Kang 姜 – The Japanese name 大山 Ōyama might reflect the mountain of the ancestral seat of the Kang clan, pronounced Taesan in Korean.

3. Choose a Korean homonym with an alternate native Japanese name reading

  • Song 宋 – 宋 has no Japanese counterpart, but the Korean homonym 松 ‘pine’ is very common in Japanese names, as in 松本 Matsumoto ‘pine base’.

4. Choose a symbolic name

  • Kim 金 – The Japanese name 岩本 Iwamoto ‘rock base’ might reflect the Korean family’s faith.

SOURCE: Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, by Hildi Kang (Cornell U. Press, 2001), pp. 117-122

UPDATE: Asiapundit notes that just three surnames, Kim (= Gim), Lee (= Yi, Ri, Rhee, etc.), and Park (= Pak, Bak, etc.) account for 45% of family surnames in South Korea. Sun Bin compares the distribution of surnames in Korea with that in China, where the top three Han Chinese surnames (Li 李, Wang 王, Zhang 张) account for only 23% of the total, but the top fifteen account for 51% of the total. The surnames Chen 陈 and Huang 黄 are much overrepresented in Guangdong.

UPDATE 2: On the Rectification of Names

Japanese public (at least journalistic and diplomatic) practice has changed over the past decade or two with regard to rendering Sinographic names in Japanese. It used to be that Chinese characters in foreign names were just pronounced in their Sino-Japanese readings, so that Mao Zedong was Mou Takutou, and Chiang Kaishek (= Jiang Jieshi) was Shou Kaiseki.

But the practice now is to render such names into katakana approximations of their sound values in standard Chinese or Korean. I believe this change was driven partly by some activist Korean Residents in Japan who wanted to de-Japanize their names, but probably also by both the DPRK and ROK governments, which are both generally anti-hanja, pro-hangul (although the ROK Ministry of Education seems to have reversed its hanja-teaching policies many times during the past three decades). So now Korean Kims who Japanized their names to Kane-something can revert to Kimu, and Kim Ilsong can be rendered in katakana as Kimu IrusoN instead of in Sino-Japanese as Kin Nichisei.

Of course, katakana sound values impose a phonological straitjacket not much more elastic than the Sino-Japanese readings of Sinographic names, but at least the new practice treats Chinese and Korean names like those of other foreigners–and, more important, not like members of a special Japanese-dominated kanjisphere (or, alternatively, a China-dominated 汉字球 ‘hanzisphere’).

In my recent visit to Japan I was struck by the similar treatment now accorded to the Japanese names of foreign citizens of Japanese ancestry, like Alberto Fujimori or Isamu Noguchi. They are written in katakana! The ideological reason may be recognition that Japanese emigrants need not remain Japanese, either in cultural practices or national loyalties. But there’s also a practical reason: the many-to-many relationship between the pronunciation and writing of Japanese names, especially given names. The kanji for Fujimori and Noguchi can be guessed with very little chance of error, but many other surnames are not, and many, many given names have huge potential for error. That’s what Japanese business people take special care to clear up when they exchange business cards. For instance, the common male name pronounced Hiroshi can be written in several dozen different ways. And each kanji can be read in so many different ways, especially in names, that Japanese formfill paperwork routinely asks for both written and pronounced (katakana/romaji) versions of each name. Place names can sometimes be just as bad as personal names in that regard.

One legacy of the Korean bitterness about and resistence to Japanese colonial renaming requirements still lingers in ESL classrooms today, where Korean students usually resist adopting English (or broadly Anglospheric) given names that might make life easier for their teachers. In sharp contrast, Chinese students often request English names, and Japanese students are often quite happy to answer to Anglicized nicknames (Mits, Kats, etc.), at least in my experience.

Language Hat‘s comment thread, as usual, has a wider-ranging discussion.

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