The seminar's members, representing the full range of academic disciplines that bear upon the study of Japan and including Japan specialists from government, business, and the nonprofit sectors, meet regularly to discuss scholarly papers on all aspects of modern Japan, from history, literature, art, and the performing arts to politics, economics, social issues, and the US-Japan bilateral relationship.

Seminar: #445

Founded: 1960

May 22, 2008

March 13, 2009
Noriko Watanabe (Baruch)
Envisioning Identities: Language Policies and Naming Practice in Japan

What has naming a baby to do with language policies? This is a question that many Japanese name-givers ask. The names that are recorded in the Family Registry, or koseki, must use approved characters: hiragana, katakana, or the 2,928 characters on two specific lists: i.e., the List of Kanji for General Use (常用漢字表) that currently comprises 1,945 characters*, and the List of Kanji for Personal Names (人名用漢字表) that comprises 983 characters.
In general, language policies are often motivated by ideologies of language that link language and linguistic features with social and cultural meanings. The particular governmental policy on character use in question is intended to promote public communication through clear and uncomplicated language by limiting the character set. However, this policy can conflict with private use of language, such as naming a new member of one’s family or community. Kanji’s graphic complexity and semantic potential provide rich resources for name-givers to create linguistic representation of individuality and identity. Disapproval of written forms by the government, therefore, means drawing a boundary on how name-givers can envision the individuality and identity of the new member of society.

In this presentation, I examine this conflict of naming practice with language policies by tracing the history of script policies as well as by exploring naming motivations through actual examples.

Discussant: Patricia Welch (Hofstra)