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Last time when I was in Japan on holiday - I'm originally from Scotland - I noticed that employees at hotels, airport etc., as well as new acquaintances I meet in less formal environments, had difficulty pronouncing my surname. A British local would certainly know how to pronounce it but its spelling is rather unusual. In Japan when, for example, someone was calling out my name, I would work out that they were calling for me and would answer them quickly, just to avoid any possible awkwardness (for both of us!). This was usually done by process of elimination as in most of these circumstances, I knew the person was talking directly to me or I was the only obvious foreigner in the room.

In preparation for another trip, I'm more confident in my Japanese but would like to know what the etiquette is around using my own first name in conversation. I had thought about politely suggesting they simply use my first name, but my concern is that this will come across as too informal. I have not struggled with speaking Japanese names aloud myself.

My questions are:

  • Would it be considered inappropriate in Japan to suggest to a staff member / relative stranger to use my first name if they struggle with my surname?
  • Are there likely to be any complications (legal or otherwise) if I use an alternate spelling of my name to make it easier for Japanese speakers to read?
  • Is it possible to use a nickname or short version that has a more direct spelling->pronunciation factor? Like instead of Catriona, use Kate or Cat. – Johns-305 May 14 '18 at 16:03
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    I've been to Japan and almost no one ever wanted my name...So, could you try avoiding having people pronounce your name at all? – xuq01 May 14 '18 at 17:59
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    This should probably be an answer--have a native Japanese speaker transliterate your name into katakana and show it when giving someone your name. – mkennedy May 14 '18 at 20:06
  • @Johns-305 This is certainly possible with my first name. I had wondered at times if it would be considered too informal. – Kozaky May 15 '18 at 10:10
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    Hey, if Arnold Schwarzenegger can be known as シュワちゃん (Shuwa-chan) I think abbreviating is A-Okay. – Armstrongest May 16 '18 at 19:08
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Would it be considered inappropriate in Japan to suggest to a staff member / relative stranger to use my first name if they struggle with my surname?

No, this will not cause any offence. Foreigners are weird anyway, remember.

Are there likely to be any complications (legal or otherwise) if I use an alternate spelling of my name to make it easier for Japanese speakers to read?

Yes. When you are asked to write down your name, it's usually for a good reason. For example if you book a hotel under an "alternate" name, when you present your passport at check-in (as you are legally required to) and the names don't match, how is the hotel supposed to find your booking? Likewise for rail pass exchanges, etc.

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Let's be honest here, due to a limited number of sounds, Japanese can't replicate many foreign language sounds. This is common with many languages, by the way. English speakers have a lot of trouble with Vietnamese words that start with Ng, Japanese りゃ、りゅ、りよ, and even the ふ in 富士山 (Mt. Fuji).

First of all, you have to accept that your name simply sounds different when transliterated into another language. For example, Yochanan (Hebrew) became Ioannes (Latin) or Hans (German) or John (English) or Yanni (Greek) or Iain (Gaelic) or Evan (Welsh) or Jean (French) or Ivan (Ukrainian) or ヨハネ (Japanese).

Sometimes original spelling is kept but pronunciation changes. Sometimes the pronunciation was similar, but the language changed.

As for Scottish surnames, I'm assuming yours is difficult to pronounce because it's long. However, there's one really long Scottish surname that is well-known all over Japan and yet mispronounced every single time. You probably already know what it is, but here it is:

マクドナルド

How do the Japanese deal with that tricky Scottish surname (McDonald's btw)? They usually abbreviate it to either マクド (Kansai), or just マク (Kanto). It's not weird, it's commonly done with other foreign business names (like ケンタ or スタバ) and although strange sounding to our ears, very normal in Japan.

English speakers usually abbreviate things long words, using letters to represent words ( NBC, FDA, SCUBA, TV, IBM ). As you probably already know, Japanese speakers naturally abbreviate using initial sounds (レモコン、テレビ、アニメ). And it's not limited to loan words, either. Many Japanese companies are abbreviated the same way. Nissan (Nippon Sangyo), Toshiba (Tokyo Shibaura), Nikkei (Nihon Keisai Shinbun).

Additionally, entire regions of Japan are abbreviated in a related way, but by using the same character. The Keihanshin area consists of one character from each of Kyoto (都), Osaka (大), and Kobe (戸) although they use the Chinese readings. Japanese call the 1995 Kobe earthquake the Great Hanshin earthquake. The epicenter was around Kobe and suffered the worst, but the entire Hanshin area was affected.

Okay, so now that you have that background on to your questions:

Would it be considered inappropriate in Japan to suggest to a staff member / relative stranger to use my first name if they struggle with my surname?

Not at all. It's quite common for Japanese to use first names followed by the 〜さん suffix for foreign names.

Are there likely to be any complications (legal or otherwise) if I use an alternate spelling of my name to make it easier for Japanese speakers to read?

Not usually, no. Especially if you just use the Katakana version of your name when writing it down, instead of the romanized version.

Legally, there is a standard way to katakana-nize MOST names as well as a standard way to romanize Japanese names. For super official purposes you may be required to use the official transliteration of your name. If your name isn't obvious to pronounce, learn how to write it officially in Katakana and there shouldn't be a problem. However, unless you're signing a mortgage, it generally won't matter. Some forms and documents will require you to write your name in Katakana ( Japanese speakers also do this with Kanji names as they can use different readings ), but it won't matter that much in real life.

If you're filling out a form like for getting something shipped to you on Amazon, just use what you want and don't worry too much. If your name is Victor, feel free to use either ビックター (Bikkutaa) or ヴィックター (Vikkutaa). Well-known names have standard pronunciations which may differ from yours, though. British pronunciation differs from standard American pronunciation and Japanese use one or the other, depending.

Really, the ONLY time you'll run into complication is if you're doing something super official requiring a Hanko stamp or like I said, getting a mortgage out or maybe opening a bank account, but banks usually are pretty good and have documentation about how to deal with it. Everything will be based off of your passport name in any case, and I'm sure they have an SOP somewhere that takes care of almost ALL contingencies. That's very Japanese.

As to what that official transliteration, we can't help you as you didn't provide the surname in question.

  • Oh... and I forgot my FAVORITE transliteration of a foreign name... シュワちゃん ( Schwarzenegger becomes Shuwa-chan ) – Armstrongest May 16 '18 at 19:06
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    This is way too verbose, especially the long digressions on issues irrelevant to travelers. – fkraiem May 16 '18 at 21:50
  • And also, シュワちゃん is more like a nickname. Even though it is in sufficiently wide usage that even the major dailies use it, nobody would consider it (a transliteration of) his actual name. – fkraiem May 16 '18 at 22:09
  • It's a bit of a cheat to claim "Hans" as the German version. More directly, it's Johannes, which is essentially identical to the Latin Ioannes. Hans was originally a familiar version and still is, as well as being a name in its own right. – David Richerby May 17 '18 at 16:59
  • @DavidRicherby yep, you're right. Just like Elizabeth is shortened to Beth or Betty. Names change when being transliterated was my point. Who would pronounce Iain as John or Yochanan for example. – Armstrongest May 18 '18 at 17:51
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While it would be unusual and often too informal for Japanese themselves to do it, most Japanese recognize that Westerners often prefer to just go by their first names (sometimes erroneously, to the chagrin of some expats) so it won't come across as weird coming from you. And in fact you offering the option of a simpler to pronounce name would likely be welcomed as they might fear offending you by mispronouncing your difficult last name.

In terms of written communication, the only real complication that I can think with using an alternate (Latin alphabet) spelling of your name is if they need to see ID and it doesn't match. For example, hotels often require to see the passports of foreign guests, and if you had booked with an alternate name that could be an issue. Providing a katakana rendition, either in lieu or in addition to your actual spelling, may be a better solution.

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