Mistyping Japanese names

After reading this rather interesting New York Times (by way of the International Herald Tribune) article about how Yomiuri Shinbum publisher Tsuneo Watanabe has recently been reconsidering the impact of the right-wing political views that he has helped to spread through his paper, I decided to look for some Japanese language coverage of this issue using Google News Japan.

As you may or may not know, Japanese names are more or less insane. That is, the method of writing them in Japanese. Despite their phonetic simplicity and easy spelling when transcribed in, say, the Roman alphabet, it feels to me little exaggeration to claim that becoming an expert in the reading and writing of Japanese names would take almost as much effort as learning to read and write the entire rest of the dictionary.

Japanese names (both people and places) are written using the same kanji (Chinese characters) as other, ordinary words, but are often pronounced in ways that are entirely unrelated to their pronounciation in other words, with some parents even assigning names to their children in which the characters used to transcribe it and the pronounciation have absolutely no historical relationship to one another. Furthermore, even many common names have several, or even dozens, of different possible ways that they can be written.

This can pose a severe problem when Googling a Japanese person’s name. Just because you know how to spell their name in English does not mean that you can type it correctly in Japanese. Sure, if you type sounds, the Windows IME will convert it to kanji, but with so many different ways of writing names, the odds are that it will have chosen incorrectly.

In the case of Tsuneo Watanabe, I had never read about him before, and therefore didn’t know what kanji he uses to write his name. Now, the family name is easy. (In Japanese, as many other Asian languages, the family name is written first, so to avoid cross-linguistic confusion I won’t say “first” or “last” name.)

Watanabe is one of the more common family names in Japan, and generally always written the same way, 渡辺. It CAN be written using other kanji, such as 渡部 or 渡邊 (although technically the latter one is just the old-fashioned or “traditional” version of the common character), but the standard 渡辺 is overwhelmingly the most common, and so I could easily assume that Tsuneo Watanabe writes his family name in this way.

Now comes the tough part. When you type Tsuneo in Japanese text input mode in Windows, the software gives you all of the following choices:
常雄 恒夫 恒雄 恒男 常夫 常男 庸夫 常生 恒郎 恒生 庸男 経雄 庸雄 経男 庸郎 経夫
Yes, there are actually 16 of them, and there are even more possible combinations that aren’t pre-programmed into the software’s dictionary. Naturally, I tried the first option that popped up, which was 恒夫, and lo, there was a hit. Strangely, a single hit. For a name important enough to pop up in the New York Times, I would have expected a huge amount of coverage in the native language, so I had a look at the article itself. Ok, it definitely seems to be the guy… but why only one hit?

Realizing what the problem was, I tried another search, this time And lo, there were 31 hits! Instead of searching for his entire name, I’d tried just 読売  渡辺, or in alphabet, Watanabe + Yomiuri, the name of his newspaper. Why did I get 31 hits on the second try, yet only a single hit on the original search? Because both I and the newspaper representing that single hit made the same mistake! Both of us had simply chosen the first possible kanji offered by the Windows IME instead of the correct name. As it turns out, his name is actually
渡辺恒雄.

While the frustration of trying to deal with Japanese names is something that I just have to deal with (at least, if I intent to keep using and studying the language!) at least once in a while I get the satisfaction of seeing that even Japanese people can’t keep it straight.

In case they correct their mistake, here it is, preservered, for the record.
tsuneo watanabe.gif

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some articles to read.

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3 thoughts on “Mistyping Japanese names”

  1. Wikipedia is often a big help; most of the English articles contain the Japanese name, or the Japanese Wikipedia can help you out because the ‘yomi’ of all names is included.

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