Funny things, names. In Japan, I am lucky enough to share mine with a delicious kind of stick-chocolate treat, which not only means that I can introduce myself as such: “Fran – you know, like Pocky, but not as cheap”, but also means that I often get given chocolates with my name on the packet, which I can confirm is something of a win-win situation.
My family name, however, is a terrifying mix of Rs, Ls, Ys and Ws that tends to provoke confusion and mild panic here in Japan. I have a good stock line for accurately communicating its spelling and pronunciation in the UK (“Wrigley, like the chewing gum”), and another one for Americans and/or baseball fans (“like Wrigley Field”). I’ve never come up with a good line to use on Japanese people, though, except to awkwardly mutter “um… yeah, sorry, it’s kind of a difficult name. Don’t worry, people in England can’t pronounce it either.”
But what if your name means something embarrassing or just downright odd in another language? Today, we bring you five kinds of Japanese names that make English speakers do a double-take, or a little snort into their coffee.
What’s in a name, anyway? Well, for foreigners living in Japan, the practice of writing non-Japanese names in katakana script has the advantage of providing a consistent pronunciation guide. When a name is written in katakana, Japanese people can look at it and know exactly how to pronounce it. Admittedly it’s in Japanese pronunciation, so that Smith becomes スミス (Sumisu), and Williams becomes ウイリアムス (Uiriamusu), but that’s the point – it’s easy to say, even for people not familiar with your native language.
But whilst its common for Chinese people to use an English or European name when travelling or interacting internationally, Japan has no such custom. When Japanese people go abroad, therefore, they may find that people have a hard time knowing how to pronounce their name. And once that name is mangled into English pronunciation – well, there are going to be some odd results. Let’s take a look:
1) A boy called Kate
It’s a popular Japanese boys’ name: Keito. In English pronunciation, though… it sounds like Kate. Which is a fine and splendid name…if you’re a girl.
2) Hi, I’m Psycho
While Saiko is a perfectly nice Japanese girls’ name, it might remind some people of a certain horror-thriller:
3) “I’m Kawai.” “Kawaii?” “No, Kawai.” “Kawaii!“
The Japanese word kawaii, meaning cute and loveable, is well-known in many countries now. But did you know that Kawai is also a common Japanese family name? The main problem with being called “cute” is that it invites comparison: you’re almost asking for people to suggest that you’re not that cute really.
▼ Kitty-chan, epitome of kawaii, a.k.a.”too cute to function”.
4) Names that sound a bit offensive
For example, Dai (pronounced like “die”); or Yudai (“you die”). Or Nobu. Or Fukuyo. (Those last two don’t actually sound remotely bad if pronounced correctly, but they do if you just look at the word, think in English, and say it out loud).
5) Names that sound like they have “you” in them
I used to teach a kid called Yu. After I’d made the same “How are you, Yu?” joke every lesson for about three months, the class finally got why it was funny (well, alright, it’s not funny at all. But teacher jokes are supposed to be unfunny, anyway!) and would obligingly crack up every time. Other gud’uns: Yumi (“you, me”) and the aforementioned Yudai.
▼ I’ve also got a lot of mileage out of the “joke” that yunomi (Japanese tea cup) sounds like the English sentence “you know me”. But what can I say, I tell “American jokes“.
Of course, most of these problems could be solved if we all tried just a bit harder to pronounce people’s names correctly. Until then, though, there’s nothing wrong with making up a new funky nickname if people can’t get your real name right. Just make sure you choose your new name carefully, too…