Japanese Language Blog

Who am I? Posted by on Oct 15, 2020 in Culture

This week, my students are trying to write their names in Katakana.  As I was helping one student write his name, I asked him “have you thought about your name – how it sounds before?”  He laughed as he had never thought about it.  What Japanese native speakers hear is very different from what non-native speakers hear.

Take my name for example (例えば).  My name is Eriko.  Simple to pronounce (発音する). BUT… unintentionally, I was given a new name by friendly strangers.  When I meet a stranger, I introduce myself, “my name is Eriko.”  The stranger usually says “Oh, Erika.” I said “It’s Eriko. E-R-I-K-O. With O.”  “Oh, OK.  Erika.” After about 2nd try, I usually give up (あきらめる).

This happens all the time in Japan, too.  I was stunned to hear a Japanese news anchor say, “Kurt Coburn of Nirvana.”  What?  She meant “Kurt Cobain?”   The anchor was not the only one.  Everyone on TV, except for those who host music programs, says Kurt Coburn.  Where did the R sound come from?  koʊbərn vs kəʊˈbeɪn.

Image by Eriko Yatabe Waldock

I had a theory on this. There was a popular actor named James Coburn in the 70s.   So maybe somebody who remembered the actor unintentionally (無意識に) called Kurt Cobain as Coburn as the names looked like each other and the name Coburn was more familiar.

There is also the opposite of the Kurt Cobain case.  Uma Thurman, an American actress, is called Yuma in Japan.  Her name, Uma, came from dbu ma chen po, a Tibetian Buddhism idea according to Wiki, and her name is pronounced as /umə/.   Why is she called Yuma only in Japan?

Again, I have a theory on this.  Uma in Japanese is a horse.  So someone decided to use Yuma instead of her real name.  But can someone change your name from Uma to Yuma? I would have been so insulted (侮辱する).

Finally, the most enjoyable name change in Japan goes to Matthew McConoughey.  Japanese pronounce his last name as McConoughee.  I have no idea why.  But you cannot help but (〜しないではいられない) get some chuckles out of American friends when they hear it.

Image by Pixaline from Pixabay

Your name is your identity (アイデンティティ).  Well, that was what I thought!  It is quite OK for you to insist on your foreign friends and acquaintances to call you in the right name.  But some names are difficult to pronounce such as Ryosuke or Arlyn.  So relax and learn to enjoy your new name on the Starbucks cup as many people do.   It is regarded as a special “service” in Japanese Starbucks. I cannot be responsible for (責任ある、責任を取る) what your name will become.

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  1. Jonny Lewis:

    yes, we just have to go with the flow, don’t we? my name is jon, but in japanese it always gets pronounced like “Joan” (ジャン)—even though the sound of “Jon” is easy to pronounce in japanese. my son’s name is Seth—impossible to pronounce in japanese, yet when his wife calls him Sesu, i think it sounds cute and tender. i wrote a short film in japanese (someone else translated) and i like that a character named Steven becomes スティーブン (Suchibun). it’s weird, and not very close to the original name, but it has a nice ring to it.

    • eriko1:

      @Jonny Lewis It is interesting that your name is pronounced as “Jan” when “Jon”/John is a very popular name – I assume it is the same pronunciation as “John?” When the Japanese speakers say “John,” it is like a burst of sound – ジョン. But in English, “John” dʒɑ’n | dʒɔ’n. It sounds almost like ジョーン。So when the Japanese speakers hear ジョーン,it sounds a bit like Jan?
      I am glad that you have accepted your new name!