Multilingual Name Changes in the Bonin Islands

From English on the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands, by Daniel Long (Duke U. Press, 2007; Publication of the American Dialect Society, no. 91; Supplement to American Speech, vol. 81), pp. 125-128

There is something of a misconception among Japanese—or at least among that minute percentage of the population that has any knowledge of the subject—that the Westerners of Ogasawara acquired Japanese family names when they were naturalized as Japanese citizens back in the early Meiji era. This is not true….

When the original inhabitants of the islands began to be naturalized in 1877, only a few took Japanified names. Among these was the almost legendary German figure Frederick Rohlfs (1823–98), who settled on Hahajima and aided subsequent Japanese arrivals when they were on the verge of starvation. He was commonly called “Rose,” probably because this is how his name sounded to Japanese listeners when pronounced by English speakers. His legal Japanese name was composed of five kanji (Sino-Japanese) characters chosen strictly for their pronunciation. Although they convey no coherent meaning, when combined the characters (pronounced as Rōsu Rarufu) sounded something like the two pronunciations of his family name. Rohlfs was in the minority, however; most of the Westerners (referred to as kikajin ‘naturalized people’ in those days) used katakana renderings of their own Western family names as the official names in their koseki, or Official Lineage Registries. These were not Japanese family names, nor Japanified versions of their Western names, but simply adaptations of them to the Japanese phonology and representations of them in the Japanese script (e.g., Gilley became Gērē, Savory became Sēborē, Webb became Uebu, Washington became Washinton, Gonzales became Gonzaresu).

The usage of kata[ka]na names continued for a couple of generations. It was not until the Sōshi Kaimei (創氏改名‘Establishment of Family Names and Alteration in Given Names’) law that people with non-Japanese surnames were forced to change them. This 1940 law is mainly known for its effect on the millions of colonized people in Korea, but it also affected the Bonin Islanders. Elderly islanders today recall choosing their own last names, often hurriedly and quite randomly….

Some of the islanders chose kanji characters that either sounded like their original names or expressed some significant meaning. The Savorys became Sebori (瀬堀[‘rapids-ditch’]), and the Ackermans, the Akaman (赤満 [‘red-full’) family. The Webbs chose characters that could be read as Uebu (上部 [‘upper-part’]) (though the name is pronounced Uwabe today). Other families decided on a name with some symbolic value. The Gilleys, proud of the “South Sea Islander” part of their roots, chose the name Minami (南 ‘lit. south’). Other families abandoned the idea of names in which either the sound or the meaning of the kanji held significance. In most cases, different family names were chosen by distant branches of the family tree, so that the Gonzales family descendants became either Ogasawara (小笠原 [‘little-hatshade-field’]) or Kishi (岸 ‘shore’).

During the war years, Westerners gave their children Japanese names. Children born after World War II (during the U.S. Navy period) were given only English names, and they use these today—written in katakana—as their official Japanese names.

Following the reversion to Japan, Westerners adopted the practice of giving Japanese names—written in kanji—to their children, but even here, we find cases of islanders identifying with their cultural roots. One case of this is Nasa Sēborē (セーボレー那沙), born in the 1980s, whose name, although written in kanji, is an homage to his ancestor Nathaniel (pronounced “Nasanieru” in Japanese).

Some of the Westerners legally changed their surnames back (from Japanese ones forced upon them in 1941) to their older katakana names following the changes in the Japanese law in the 1980s.

In many cases, a single individual has possessed four legal names in the span of his or her life. A case in point is Able Savory. He was born Sēborē Ēburu (in katakana, セーボレーエーブル), was forced to changed his name to Sebori Eiichi (in kanji, 瀬堀栄一) at the start of the war, and used Able Savory (in the Roman alphabet) during the Navy Era. After the 1968 reversion, he reverted to his wartime kanji family name, but used the katakana “first name” given to him at birth, resulting in the name Sebori Ēburu. In the 1980s, when some of the Savory clan changed their surname back to the katakana Sēborē, he decided four names in one lifetime were enough and retained the kanji surname.

In Ogasawara today, one finds many interesting name-related phenomena. Nicknames—in both Japanese and English—are the norm. Then, most of the Westerners have two names; many have both Japanese and English surnames and given names, which means there often are at least five or six ways to refer to most Westerners.

This reminds me my favorite comment thread ever on Language Hat, in reaction to a post about a poem entitled Peaches in Cluj.

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3 Comments

Filed under anglosphere, Japan, Korea, language

3 responses to “Multilingual Name Changes in the Bonin Islands

  1. Kaji

    Thank you for this information. I’ll be moving to Chichijima soon.

  2. Joel, yours is the most succinct explanation I’ve ever seen for the variety of surname changes plaguing the Bonin Islanders. It drives a family historian like myself mad at times. May I copy and paste your explanation to our family tree at familysearch.org (free access) when I set it up? I’d rather use a copy/paste of the text and a link rather than just a link to this page of your blog because links are sometimes taken down and then valuable information is lost.

    Incidentally, I remember Jerry Savory telling me how angry he was at the time kanji were required for his last name. ‘rapids ditch’ was put upon his family (not chosen) and he felt that ‘rapids ditch’ was given to them by the Japanese as a humiliation.The French ancestral name Savory actually means sword (saber) prince (ri or rex).

  3. Correction: Danny Long’s explanation…
    Thank you for sharing it, Joel.

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