Japanese Names, White Faces

Marmot has a post titled “Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Mr. Fujita…” that looks at the case of Scott Fujita, a 6′5″ 250 pound white football player with a Japanese name who plays for the New Orleans Saints. He’s not ethnically Japanese, or even Asian, but was adopted by a family with a Japanese-American father born in the World War II detainment camps. He reportedly feels Japanese in his heart and is a fan of mochi ice cream and Pocky.

Reading the post and the comments reminded me of my meeting with Sailor Nathan Nakano, resident on the USS Kitty Hawk, when I visited as a guest of the Tiger Cruise in Yokosuka in 2006, seeing US military hardware and life on board an aircraft carrier, courtesy ComingAnarchy reader Eddie.


Curzon and Nakano, September 2006

I remember asking Nakano: That’s a Japanese name! What gives? And if I recall correctly, his father’s father was either Japanese or half-Japanese, making him one-fourth or one-eighth Japanese. You can read a news story that quotes Nathan here.

I wonder how many Westerners there are with Japanese names in the world? Marmot’s commenters have a few stories relaying similar stories about white kids with Japanese names due to adoption or stepfather relationships. There’s also a (sorta) opposite case, Haruki Nakamura, the current United States Chess Champion — he was born in Japan to a Japanese father and American mother, but his parents divorced, his mother remarried a Sri Lankan, and his stepfather, FIDE Master and chess author Sunil Weeramantry, taught him chess. So he’s got a Japanese name, but has only non-Japanese parents.

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20 thoughts on “Japanese Names, White Faces”

  1. There are quite few westerners with no Japanese parents but a Japanese name. They are married to Japanese men. One of Britain’s leading athletes falls into that category. Mara Yamauchi got quite a decent reception in Japan when she won the Osaka International Marathon in 2008.

    Of course, that’s not really the example you are thinking of. One other trend, which I can see increasing in the future, is where parents give their children Japanese names. Shirley MacLaine’s daughter with Steve Parker is called Sachiko Parker. Since she was brought up with her father in Tokyo, she speaks Japanese fluently. Along with her name, that leads many to assume she must have a Japanese mother.

    Johnny Knoxville came close when he decided to give his son the middle name “Akira”.

  2. I know a couple with absolutely no Japan connection that named their daughter Kyoko (they knew it was a Japanese name, found it in a baby book). They pronounce it Key-Yo-Koh, however, which means that she is likely to be in for a surprise if she decides to do JET or something.

  3. I personally knew a Columbian guy that decided to take the name of his Japanese wife as this would prove easier to pronounce than his actual family name.
    So we had in my company this totally South-American looking man named 浅井さん.

    It is probably quite unusual, but family name change after marriage can work both ways.

    But this is possibly not always easy to bear. I remember the testimony of this other man from Eastern Europe, lived in Japan for a couple of decades. Speaks native-level Japanese, and he took Japanese citizenship at a time when it required choosing a Japanese name. (that’s quite a couple years back I think)
    He told me he renounced it after a couple of years, fed up that people he was meeting for his job would laugh at him, finding that this “Yamamoto-san” they had on the phone proved to be a white dude in the end.

  4. Native Japanese people react strangely to foreign origins from time to time — this has been a topic on the blog before, but in different contexts. However, I think the only way to change these reactions is to ignore them and plow ahead. There are enough famous examples of naturalized Japanese that any person who watches TV should be fairly comfortable with the concept of a white guy named Yamamoto. The only thing one can do to further help the situation is to be bold and be out there. Perceptions change based on experiences.

    I believe Debito has written several times that he rarely gets any weird reactions about his nationality, and that most of the reaction from natives is positive. Then again, he chose a very unique kanji name that doesn’t imply a Japanese background, so he may just be setting the right expectations.

  5. Advice to white guys with Japanese names who encounter surprise – just remind them of Koizumi Yakumo.

  6. I don’t get questions about my nationality or race. Sometimes a question or two about my parents origin or whether I’m 婿養子 {mukoyōshi}, if anything. After a 10 to 15 second explanation, that’s it. They move on. I don’t mind answering the question, because it’s legitimate; I’m aware that people like me are unusual.

    Interestingly, if there’s teasing or poking fun or laughing or derision, it has always come from non-Japanese (especially Asian-Americans), never Japanese—even drunk Japanese. The most extreme reaction I’ve gotten from a Japanese is “すごい.” {sugoi} (“wow”)

    Then again, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet Takeo Hiranuma.

  7. I met a guy called 泉 who was blonde and blue-eyed. Apparently he was Serbian and got adopted by a western-japanese couple when he was a kid. So the kid’s main language was japanese.
    It was pretty funny to listen to him speak english.

  8. I know a couple with absolutely no Japan connection that named their daughter Kyoko (they knew it was a Japanese name, found it in a baby book). They pronounce it Key-Yo-Koh, however, which means that she is likely to be in for a surprise if she decides to do JET or something.

    That’s spooky — I have a Japanese friend whose (very Caucasian) friends in California named their daughter the same thing. This was about 30 years ago, so it wasn’t particularly trendy. IIRC the reason was that she was born in Japan during some kind of trip her parents had taken.

  9. Curzon,

    It’s “Hikaru,” not “Haruki.” I used to follow his career back in high school but didn’t keep up with things once I entered college. I’m glad to know he made champion. When he made grandmaster, I think he beat Bobby Fischer’s record of youngest American to qualify for the title.

    What’s funny about Hikaru’s name is that I think he’s the only GM in the world of Japanese descent. Although China’s chess team has beaten the US’s in olympiads, chess is not popular in Japan and there hasn’t been a Japanese national champion in years. Oddly, at the same time it’s the country that provided Fischer with one of the last homes he had because the acting head of the Japan Chess Association took him in. Weird stuff.

  10. What’s even more surprising is that the full name of Nathan Nakano’s ship is actually the USS Hello Kitty Hawk.

  11. Justin:
    While you may not know,but in Sanrio universe the cat as we know as Kitty is actually “Kitty White”,a Brit born in London.
    What I didn’t know is that Kitty had a boyfriend by the name of “Daniel” who had moved to Pretoria,SA.I’d presume Daniel is either in the romantic relationship with exotic kittyfriend in the region or eaten alive by now.

    This is all from wikipedia,BTW.

  12. Being a Kobayashi, I do get the occasional surprise. I have fun sometimes in taxi cabs when I am sitting in the front seat, and wearing a suit. This only works if the driver’s name is Kobayashi too.

    What I do is, wait till we are stopped at a traffic light, then flip open the left side of my suit jacket where the “Kobayashi” is embroidered, and say “I am also a Kobayashi”

    I only recommend doing this when the cab is at full stop though.

  13. Kobayashi reminds me of Usual Suspects, where Pete Posthetltetltelwaite (…sure, I *could* have Googled the spelling) plays Mr. Kobayashi, despite not appearing the least bit Japanese.

    Wait, you have your name embroidered on all of your suits?

  14. Of course I do, doesn’t everybody in Japan? I have a friend who is from the US named Silverman. In his suits, it is銀男. I must admit, that one took a minute or two to figure out.

    In any case, Kobayashi is the 7th most common name in Japan, so I have a lot of automatic friends!

  15. I can translate my family name as 熊夫, 熊男, or 熊雄 (all read as kumao), but can never decide which works best. In Chinese the readings are all different though – Xion2gfu1, Xiong2nan2 or Xiong2xiong2.

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