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Hello! My name is Mami. I am from Japan, but recently moved to Canada. Having experience with foreign people in Japan, as well as being in a foreign place (♬ Ohhh Canada ♪), one thing I have noticed is the difficulty that there is with people’s names. I wanted to share my experiences with you on this topic, because I think it’s important for everyone to think about (or at least humorous, in some cases, eh!?).

The Importance Of Names

A name is a very important element of how people identify with a person. Many celebrities’ names become a kind of symbol for that person. What do you think about when you hear the name Brad Pitt? Just think about it for a moment… Now, what would you think if I told you that Brad Pitt’s real name is Carol Christmas?

brad pitt christmas sweater
Merry Christmas, Carol

I’m sure you’d be surprised, because that’s not his real name (did I get you?). His actual real name is William Bradley Pitt, but he wouldn’t be nearly as cool with a name like Carol Christmas. Now compare this to Brad Pitt. Obviously, the coolest of them all is this one. This is how important a name is for someone’s image.

Let’s look at a couple more examples. Do any of you know who “Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra” or “Thomas Cruise Mapother IV” are? Maybe you can figure out the latter? The first person, Margaret Mary Emily Anne is actually Meg Ryan. Thomas Cruise Mapother IV is, and you probably guessed, Tom Cruise. Mapother is spelt M-A-P-O-T-H-E-R but it is pronounced “May bother,” with a “B.” That’s strike one in the action movie star new-name handbook right there, so he removed that part. He also shortened Thomas to Tom, just like Ryan shortened Margaret to Meg. With these shorter versions of their names it became easier for people to remember who they were.

Some people’s names don’t originate from English and can, sometimes, sound strange to English speakers. Though the pronunciation doesn’t change, what a name means in one country is not what the same name could mean in another country. For example, Lea Michele, who became famous with her role in the TV show Glee, changed her name from Lea Michele Sarfati to the shorter version: Lea Michele. It is a Jewish name that, oddly enough, means “French,” but Lea was made fun of as a child because her classmates called her “So-fatty” or “So-farty.”

Anyways, my point is: names are very important, both to the people who have the name and to the people who have to remember the name. This is especially so for Japanese, I think.

The Difficulty Non-Japanese People Have With Japanese Names

greatestmom

My name “Mami” (pronounced mommy) is a good example of this. Mami is quite a common name in Japan and mostly means “true beauty” or “true”, but in English, it just sounds like mother. Therefore, I always feel embarrassed when I introduce myself, because I have to say, “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Mami.” It’s pretty strange, isn’t it? “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Mother. Say my name.” Even my teachers and my bosses have to call me Mommy!

There was a famous Japanese actor, whose name was, Yuusaku Matsuda (pronounced like “You suck” Matsuda). The name Yuusaku means “superb job” in Japan, but in English speaking places it means something very different. So sometimes, celebrities have to change their names if they want to perform in countries with other languages.

yousuckyuusaku

Once you remember the Japanese five basic vowel pronunciations, it’s not really hard for non-Japanese people to catch or pronounce Japanese people’s names. Yet, like above, they just sometimes sound so silly or very confusing. There are other problems, though, that don’t even arise from incorrect pronunciation.

One such case was back in 2008 when author/translator Hiroko Yoda tried to register for Facebook. Turns out, she wasn’t allowed to join, because her last name (a fairly common Japanese last name, btw) was Yoda, the popular Star Wars character. They were blocking her because of her name! Of course, no American has the name Yoda (well, I’m sure there were a few poor kids, actually).

Confusion with Japanese names doesn’t only happen with non-Japanese people. Japanese people will get confused by Japanese names as well! So, you can feel a little bit better. In Japan, we don’t really use “あなた (anata)” meaning ‘you’ in conversations. Instead, you have to use their names like “abc-san”, “def-kun”, “ghi-chan”, etc. Therefore, remembering people’s names is the first thing you get used to when you speak Japanese.

However, it’s a little tricky when you have to guess Japanese people’s name from kanji because there are different readings for even just one kanji, and names often have their own weird readings. I assume that many of you guys are probably wondering how Japanese people know how a name kanji’s kanji reads if he/she doesn’t know who the person is yet. Don’t worry! It’s actually difficult for even Japanese people, unless the kanji are usually read in a particular way in a name. That’s why Japanese names in official document usually have “furigana”, which is a Japanese reading aid.

Difficulty For Japanese People With Non-Japanese Names

michael-jackson

I also have difficulty catching people’s names because they are not familiar to me at all. So during introductions, if it was the first time I heard that name in English, I usually can’t catch it, even if it’s simple.

For example, even with the common name Michael, which I knew because of Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and other famous people, I had trouble here in Canada when a guy introduced himself to me for the first time.

“Hi, I’m Michael.”

But, I couldn’t catch it well, because Michael is pronounced マイケル (ma-i-ke-ru) in Japanese. Also, he said it so quickly, like “Hi’m’Michael,” so it sounded like one word to me. Because of the difference in pronunciation between the Japanese version and the English version, and also because of the speed at which he said it, I was unable to understand. Perhaps if he said it slowly, “Hi, I’m M~i~ch~ae~l” I’d have gotten it. But, because it’s such a common name in North America, people named Michael don’t usually introduce themselves that slowly.


Hey, Michael

However, it seems that this is not only my problem but others’ as well. I searched “外国人の名前” (foreigners’ names) 聞き取りにくい (hard to catch)” in Google, and approximately 275,000 results came up. In the results, I found a blog called “ハーフを考えよう” which literally means “let’s think about a half.” You might have known already, but “a half” is used to describe a “mixed race child” in Japan. Instead of saying, for example, “I’m half Japanese and half American,” Japanese people tend to say “I am half.” Anyways, this blog was written by “a half” person (half Japanese and half German) named サンドラ・へフェリン (Sandra Heafelin), and she said that her name was always misunderstood by Japanese people who heard 田村 (Tamura) instead of Sandra and フェミニン (Feminine) instead of “Heafelin.” Tamura is a very common name in Japan, by the way.

She also had a friend named Müller(ミュラー)and they went out ot dinner one day. Müller had made a reservation, but when they arrived at the restaurant, a server told them that they didn’t have a reservation for them. However, just a moment later, they found a reservation card saying “reserved 三浦様 (Miura-sama), 6 people.” The server mixed up Müller and 三浦, which is a very common family name in japan as well.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Since the Japanese language is limited to fewer sounds than many Western language countries, the version of the name in Japanese is quite different from the one that’s from somewhere else. Even names as simple as John can be confusing. For example, in English, John is just John, right? But, pronounced in Japanese, John sounds more like “Joan” because it is written as ジョン (jyon), but in English you pronounce it like the Japanese “jan” or じゃん sound. So Joan is John and there are probably a lot of ladies named “John” out there, at least when it comes to the pronunciation in Japanese.

johnrivers

Outside of common names, which do have set Japanese versions, there are also less common names that don’t have any really decided way to say them. Due to how Japanese works, this could mean that there is multiple ways to pronounce a foreign name. This can get confusing for both the person with the foreign name and for the people trying to say it. Miller isn’t “Miller,” it’s ミラー (mi-raa). Smith isn’t “Smith,” it’s スミス (su-mi-su). Bluth isn’t “Bluth,” it’s ブルス (bu-ru-su). To say the least, it isn’t always easy to make that jump.

What’s Your Name?

say-my-name

There is so much to be said about names. I think if you’ve spent some time in Japan and you have a non-Japanese name, you’ll have a story or two to tell (go ahead and tell us in the comments!).

For me, I have an interesting story about my name too. When I came to Canada for the first time, I had difficulty getting a job or even an interview. Then, I encountered an article about foreign names, which could possibly prevent someone from getting hired! I got a hint from the article and decided to put an English name on my resumé. I’d taken a while to decide my name, but ended up choosing “Anna.” I thought it was a cute name and easy to remember, because of the famous Japanese Airline ANA (which is pronounced the same way). It actually seemed to work, too, as I got a phone call right after handing out the “Anna” resumés. However, when I went to do the interview, I totally forgot what my made up name was! The interviewer said, “Hi, I’m ABC, and you are…?” I was like “Hi, I’m… well… uhmmmm… (made a really nice smile?).” Other than the horrible introduction I thought the interview went well. That being said, I didn’t get a callback, sadly.

darth-vader-no
ANNNNNAAAAAAAAAA!

This probably happened because I hadn’t gotten used to English names (and maybe I was a little too nervous). I figured that it’s also difficult to memorize foreign names, even though they sound similar to some random words in your native languages.

I hope you finish this article understanding the difficulty (and humor!) of names between languages, especially Japanese. Since names are so often made up of strange sounds (even for your own language!) you can get fun results, but sometimes it can create difficult or embarrassing situations, too!

  • Mami

    Yeah, I’d say so!!! (^^)

  • Jacob Hansen

    My japanese name is ジェイキ、which most japanese people will pronounce it as ジーキ、which can have some odd meaning’s if misheard.

  • Tiffany Harvey

    Oh no! I can see how “Mami” would be awkward. I always hated how exchange students in the US were told to choose an English name to fit in better, even though most places have tons of experience with foreign names. But a small change might be good if the name would be embarrassing in the language.

    Have you ever thought about using the name Mimi? It’s a common name and very close to yours!

  • Stellaire

    I remember a geiko called Fukuyu. Americans couldn’t cover their laugh, because they thought it was basically “Fuck You”… Not a great name for a glorious geisha. Another example is maiko Fukuho… Poor girls!

  • My Theory

    Quite interesting that you write an article about names because Mami is the Japanese given name that intrigues me the most.

    Yes, mami (can also be written mamie, mamy or mammy but still pronounced まみ anyway) is how we affectionately call our grand-mother in France.More generally we also call an old lady “une mamie”.

    So when I met a japanese Mami a few years ago, I couldn’t help but smile, it was quite an awkward situation,talking to and looking at this young lady and having the feelings ,emotions or attitude you usually have towards your own grand-mother (tenderness, etc..).There was kind of an internal fight going on in my body and brain…

    So if you meet someone who acts or behaves strangely in front of you, please be tolerant as she or he might be French…

    By the way, when I think of that word (Mami), one of the first thing that comes to my mind is old popular french song.

    And since you live in Canada, here it is performed by a Canadian artist you might have heard of… :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbICC27fe48

  • Spekko

    I had no idea I had an account! And he I was going to post as a guest, but anyways… While I’ve been learning Japanese, I’ve realized that I really dislike the way my name, “Alexander” is translated. Partly the spelling, and partly just the slightly different pronunciation, so instead

  • confusedann

    My name is Ann Cheska , but I prefer using Cheska over Ann since it’s way cooler than plain Ann. Americans have a weird way of considering a person’s second first name , the middle name , so my American BF’s grandmother calls me “Annie”. LOL I always get confused but I’m too shy to correct her. XD

  • Enidちゃん

    I’m not a dog lover but Inu’s are just soo cute!! :3 They might change my mind about dogs. >^__^<

  • linguarum

    It’s not that the Japanese don’t have the phones in their language system. It’s that when they do, they pick the “wrong” one. :-) Japanese does have the sound /ja/, as well as the sound /jo/. So when it comes to the name “John,” why choose /jo/? On the other hand, if I choose to use katakana that more closely resembles the way I pronounce it as a native speaker, am I wrong? Especially as your “pizza” example shows, everybody is just making up katakana as they go, so it’s not like anyone can really insist that one way is Right and the other is Wrong. BTW, funny, but as a native speaker of American English. I’ve always pronounced it PEET-za.

  • Vincenza Vicky Maione

    Look, Italians say Jo-n… I think it’s because the “o” an American Native speaker pronounces is slightly different, close to an /a/ but still a /o/ (maybe an allophone..) To us you sound as /ɔ/,so we say /dʒɔn/.
    I’ve looked it up, according to English dictionaries the IPA transcription is /jon/, but according to Us English dictionary it is /ˈdʒɑn/ (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/american-english/john?q=John#). It may be due to a misreading (i mean, the non-native reads the word according to their personal way to perceive the sounds, reading /o/ instead of /ɑ/ in the case of “John”: this happens a lot with Italians saying English names). But, /ɑ/ is really in-between our /o/ and /a/ – I’m talking as an Italian, but it’s the same for Japanese too since the 2 phonetic inventories are similar. So we do not perceive your /ɑ/ unless some teacher taught us the difference. Take a foreigner (also a Spanish native would be fine I guess) and try and teach him the “john” thing: I think they’ll come up either with /a/ or /o/, because they have not been trained to recognize the phone.
    This is at the base of the very bad accent of the majority of foreigners when they perform in English (or in any other foreign language).
    Starting from the perception, it may be that the Japanese came out with that katakana: the katakana became socially accepted, and it is now the standard to design American Pizza. As I said, American pizza was imported to Japan first, then the Italian one came to be known. But as Prof. Calvetti claims in his studio, in the 50s the Japanese didn’t pay much attention to the accuracy of the phonetic traslitteration of words, reproducing words more closely familiar to their phonetic inventory. That’s why spaghetti was first pronounced as supagechi, then gradually corrected to supagetti. The word became popular through the decades and the Japanese probably felt the need to correct their way to say it. It may be – I’m just guessing – that the introduction of the Italian pizza gave the Japanese the need to correct their pronunciation according to a more “Italian” performance of the world, but this did not eliminate the “old” word which was used only for the Us variety.
    No doubt something is different from the Italian pronunciation –> /’pits:a/ and the Us English /ˈpit·sə/. So, since the word is Italian, why don’t you Americans say it right? may I say. lol
    I think the Japanese perceived a /z/ instead of a geminate /ts/, and I myself perceive a difference in the strenght of the geminate and in the vowels (though it also depends on the speaker I think). It’s a much deeper issue, and I don’t think they just make up the new pronunciations, besides, as a non-native speaker of English I also think that you don’t realize how hard it is to cope with a new phonetic inventory, especially a hard one like Chinese or English, if you are a native speaker…
    Anyways, I am not a researcher and make mistakes myself, so I am happy to hear from others and eventually to learn something new ^^

    *Just realized I repeated myself with the spaghetti thing, sorry*

  • Gabi Swangstue

    I’m currently in Japan and my given name is Gabrielle. That right there, Gabrielle, is a hard name for anyone here to pronounce! The l’s and the r get jumbled and thrown through a loop! I decided it was best to go by nickname from back home of Gabi. Just my luck, it’s translates perfectly into Katakana without a fuss. It’s still pronounced weirdly but it’s much better than what it would have been with Gabrielle!