The Boy Named Demon

Turning Japanese, a new blog on Japanese naturalisation written by several naturalised Japanese citizens (including some regular commenters on this blog) has had a number of informative posts on the topic since launching recently. The latest post tackles the issue: do you have to take a Japanese name when you naturalise? The post ends with question, and a reference that may not be familiar to everyone, which has Curzon, MF’s vice chairman of legal niggling, taking issue:

As a side note, just because a 漢字 {kanji} is legally acceptable for use in a name doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s appropriate. Characters like 悪 {aku} (bad), 闇 {yami} (darkness), 無 {mu} (nothingness), are on the list… but depending on how you use them, a name with a very negative connotation may not be accepted. Remember the parents who tried to name their child 悪魔 {Akuma} (demon)?

The reference to the child “demon” may not be familiar to everyone. It refers to a somewhat famous case that rocked Japan in the early 1990s, when a father (with the apparent approval and support of his wife) submitted a birth certificate to the municipal office that named his son Akuma, using the kanji characters for demon. Most people think the municipal office rejected the name and the parents had to choose a different name. But the case was actually more complex, and dragged on for several months, and the parents actually won a court case they filed against the city–only after this court victory did they chose to initiate a compromise that brought the fiasco to a close.

The story begins on 11 August 1993, when Shigeharu Sato (30), who managed a “snack” bar, went into the Akishima municipal office to submit the legal birth certificate for his son. In Japan, the birth certificate issued at the hospital merely states the technical details of the birth — the child is not legally registered until a legal birth certificate is submitted at the local municipal office, which must be done within two weeks of the birth, and at which time a name is given. The paperpusher at the municipal office’s koseki (family registry) window accepted the forms containing the name Akuma without asking any questions.

The following day on 12 August, a different person working in the same division took issue with the name. He referred the matter to his superior in the Legal Affairs office, who responded that there was no problem with the name. However, he changed his mind the following day on 13 August when the papers were to be finalised, and having doubts, the form was completed but the mayor’s seal was not placed on the document. The municipality thus did not complete the family registry procedure. The parents were not informed of this until 28 September — six weeks later — when the mayor of Akishima officially informed the parents that the child’s name of Akuma was unsuitable, and that the child’s name was temporarily noted as “undesignated” on the family registry until they chose an acceptable name.

The father immediately filed a complaint with the Hachioji division of the Tokyo Family Court on 4 October, representing himself and without consulting a lawyer, on the basis that the town’s actions violated his parental rights. He asserted that the name Akuma was fine, as it used characters permitted by article 50 of the Family Registry Law, and that his son was fortunate to have such a unique name. Did he suffer from lack of counsel, or the bizarre nature of his request in the face of courts that many believe are conservative? No — the court quickly came to a ruling that supported the right to reject an unfavorable name, but ruling in favour of the parent plaintiffs less than three months after the complaint was filed. To translate and summarise the ruling:

In the structure of rights in society, the right of naming a child is part of parental rights, and parents may assert this right against other members of society. If there is a clear issue with regard to the suitability of the name chosen by the parent that could affect the child’s welfare, then, as the child has no ability to assert its right to refuse that name that could damage its welfare, the family registry authorities may think they can reject a name on that basis. Indeed, on the face of it, the name “Akuma” is a violation of the parent’s right to name their child.

However, while it may be possible for a municipal office to reject a name such as Akuma on the basis that this is violation of parental rights, in this case, as the municipal office has already accepted the document, it was a violation of its authority to thereafter delete that name, and the name is valid.

This ruling accurately follows an academic concept of administrative law, that an administrative notification is finalised upon “submission” (juri) to the correct administrative organ, and not at the time of “arrival” (toutatsu), meaning that no proactive action by the administrative organ is required.

The mayor immediately petitioned to the Tokyo High Court, and the story became national news. The father went on TV and made bizarre statements like “I want to call my next child “Emperor” (帝王) or “Explosion (爆弾)!” But facing further time and money on an issue, he sought a compromise. He first proposed to use the hiragana (あくま)for “Akuma,” which the municipal office rejected. He then chose different characters for the same name (exact kanji unknown but believed to be 亜区馬, 亜駆 or 阿久真). The mayor withdrew his appeal and the high court never made another decision on the matter.

During this fiasco, Akishima asked for help from the national government to clarify the rules for accepting family registry names, but no proactive action was taken then, nor to this day, to restrict the use of characters available for use on the family registry. The Ministry of Justice maintains a list of characters that can be used on a family registry as required by the implementation regulations of the Family Registry Law, and that database include both “悪” and “魔.” As far as the judiciary and the authorities are concerned, the rule as stated by the family court stands as valid — as long as you can get your birth certificate received by the municipal office, you can use any characters you like. To the best of my knowledge and research, there is no government order or anything legal that officially prevents the use of negative characters.

ENDNOTE: Family values advocates won’t be surprised to hear the unpleasant aftermath. The father’s business went bust in 1994, the parents divorced in 1996, and the father, who obtained custody, was arrested months later for possession of heroin, at which time he had links to the yakuza. Akuma was cared for by his paternal grandparents and then placed in an orphanage. When his father was released after serving four years in jail, he refused to take custody of the child due to his economic circumstances. Akuma will today be in high school, if he is still attending. His mother said in an interview in 2006, “After my ex-husband was arrested I looked after the child, but circumstances were too difficult and we lived apart. After that he was raised by my ex’s parents. I don’t know what happened after that, but when he grows up, one time would be enough so I hope to see him when he’s older.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the parents abandon their children when they wanted to call him “demon.”

37 thoughts on “The Boy Named Demon”

  1. Even if the “Akuma rule” were applied, I don’t think it should apply to choosing one’s own name. Choosing your own name is less of a potential human rights violation than choosing a baby’s name.

  2. Excellent post Curzon. I did know the general story, but had never looked into how it worked out in terms of legal procedure, and the update was particularly interesting (if depressing).

    On a tangent, I’m sure we all remember this story:,2933,468250,00.html

    “The father of 3-year-old Adolf Hitler Campbell, denied a birthday cake with the child’s full name on it by one New Jersey supermarket, is asking for a little tolerance.”

  3. Interesting blog, though placing romaji over the kanji like that is kind of hard to read

    Something tells me Akuma is working on a crab-canning ship under an assumed name

  4. There is such an obvious class angle to this story. Akuma is the quintessential “DQN Name” with DQN being the net community’s code word for “non-urban working class yankii values.” There are global parallels but more of the “unique” names in Japan come from the bottom of society rather than the middle or upper classes.

    Also, heroin arrest? Heroin arrests in Japan are super rare, so this guy was really in the thick of things.

  5. more of the “unique” names in Japan come from the bottom of society rather than the middle or upper classes

    I wonder if this is really true. My hunch is that people at all levels of society are choosing rarer and rarer names for their kids, and that it’s only more apparent among the lower classes because they are having most of the kids. But it would be pretty hard to empirically prove either argument unless we had statistics on the commonality of names and the SES of each kid by name — pretty unlikely now that Japan has such harsh personal data privacy laws.

    Let’s try a quick experiment using Wikipedia categories…

    1950年生: I have seen maybe 90% of the first names on this list. There are a few oddballs, but most follow pretty traditional, modular patterns.

    1970年生: A bit more creativity, but everyone basically still has the same modular, easy-to-confuse, 4ji-jukugo names. I’d give this list maybe an 80% familiarity rating.

    1980年生: I’d give this list a 50% familiarity rating. Parents getting more and more creative.

    1990年生: WTF?! 20% at best. Many parents seem to be on drugs at this point.

    Granted, as we move from older people to younger people, we see fewer politicians and academics, and more singers and athletes, so we are talking about very different populations. But still, my wife’s friends (middle-class Tokyoites with salaryman husbands) and my Japanese peers (lawyers and bankers) tend to pick names for their kids which I find to be “unique” in the sense that I have never seen them before and would not dream of seeing them on any person over the age of 25. I think it’s just a generation gap and not a class gap.

  6. “There is such an obvious class angle to this story.”

    100% agree. When I pictured the father, I had him with a chapatsu mullet, wife beater, and red “jersey” track pants with four white stripes on the side. People who name their son Akuma don’t settle for three white stripes.

    “Parents getting more and more creative.”

    I think this is a case of copying more and more names from manga and singer / geinojin stage names (just like many Americans get stuck with the Soap Opera flavor of the year). Marxy’s ideas about “approved” culture apply here, I think. There are “appropriate” different names and then there are the “Akumas” of the world.

  7. Popular recent boy’s names – 空, 大樹, 翼, 大翔, 翔 and stuff like that = all from manga.

  8. The first 翼 I ever met was in my host family when I did a high school homestay. He was born in the early 80’s and his father is a Keio-educated attorney. I have no clue whether manga was a factor in naming him.

  9. キャプテン翼 ran in Shonen Jump (the big one) from 1981 to 1988, has spawned several sequels, and was so popular that it is credited with sparking the soccer boom. The title is from the main character’s name 大空 翼. Timeline fits. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least some influence there. Perhaps if he wasn’t a manga fan, he might have picked it up from the manga fans who WERE calling their kids Tsubasa around the same time – these things tend to snowball.

  10. Marxy, he was guilty of possessing 覚せい剤. Due to the vague nature of Japan’s drug laws, that could mean any type of illegal drug except marijuana, but in this case, the people arrested were injecting it (a nurse was busted for stealing syringes from the hospital where she worked, which led to the arrest of seven others), so I can only assume it was heroin.

    And I take the compromise view between Marxy and Joe — the phenomenon of bizarre names is a lowerclass and middleclass phenomenon.

  11. An anonymous injected illegal drug in Japan is probably some sort of amphetamine. Heroin is rare in Japan; it’s more of a European drug.

  12. So-called high-class people have a tendency to be more conservative when choosing names for their kids, but usually choose from a wider pool, and tend more than other strata of the society to pick old names from their family’s alleged prestigious past.

    This “rule” works at least for my country (France), but I dare say it is the same everywhere.

  13. Regarding pop culture’s influence on naming, there’s a neat applet that tracks the popularity of baby names in America over the past century, with the top 1000 for each decade since 1880, and the top 1000 by year since 2000:

    Check out the recent spikes in popularity for Xander, Willow and Angel.

    It would be interesting to see a similar app for Japan.

  14. “and tend more than other strata of the society to pick old names from their family’s alleged prestigious past.”

    Not going to see this much in Japan. For example, the 兵衛 naming pattern for men is right out.

    “but usually choose from a wider pool”

    This is it, I think, and fits with Curzon’s point as well. There are strange names for the “betters” (European wannbes, classical poetry allusions, “look at how many kanji I know” names) and then for the underclass. 悪魔 could just be a weird choice, but combined with 帝王 – that’s a dead bosozoku (or poser) giveaway for me. The “original” famous zoku was “Black Emperor” (katakana, but they also had 帝王 on their regalia…. and an assload of swastikas) and that sort of pompus pseudo-imperial stuff and fun with kanji (夜露死苦 “yoroshiku” is their version of “how do you like my driving”) is an underclass culture motif right up there with YOKOSUKA JAPAN jackets.

    Fascinating app Sublight.


    This is the mega-list of purported DQN Names. As you will see, the joke is not that they are “weird” or “new,” but they are idiotic. Anaru? Takashi-kun — with the kun in the name? 黄熊 as “Pooh”? These are likely correlated with yankii parents, and yankii culture is almost perfectly correlated with a certain class background.

    (By the way, there was some yankii mama event in Inokashira Park today that involved hours of video shoots. I thought this was more of an Ayase-kind of thing. No parks in Ayase?)

  16. Funny list. Anonymous, apocryphal and completely devoid of direct references to any “class angle,” but still funny.

  17. Small technicality, but is ‘submission’ the same as juri? I know it’s two sides of the same coin, but it’s the parent that submits the form and the registry employee that accepts it. I had thought that toutatsu was the legal term for the submitting side of the document entry. Then again, I don’t know jack about administrative law, so someone please school me.

    I didn’t know the details of the Akuma case. Thanks for the superb write-up.

    As for Marxy’s hypothesis, I would agree. I would have to say that names get less “WTF?” as the parent’s income/education rise, just from a completely visual survey or people I’ve met and seen in baby magazines. Not a lot of DQN names to make me say, “Wow, you’re an asshole.”, but certainly a lot of “Whoa, did you use a Ouija board or something?” kinds of reactions.

  18. completely devoid of direct references to any “class angle,”

    Uh, since when was Japanese culture ever explicit about class? Or even American culture for that matter? You have to use this thing called “analysis.”

  19. The left has (smartly, I think) decided to abandon a word associated with gulags (fairly) and koban bombings (unfairly) and finally settled on “kakusa”.

  20. DQN is basically a code word for the working class, rural delinquent taste culture, but I don’t think the otaku who use the word really understand it in a class framework.

  21. Are we really talking about a class here, or are we talking about a subculture? I think Japan does have at least a couple of distinct social classes, but I never considered the “rural delinquent” crowd to be a class, and I certainly think it’s wrong to paint the rural working class with a yankii brush just because that image sticks out so much. I’m happy to hear “analysis,” but this discussion sounds more like stereotyping to me.

  22. I won’t speak for Marxy, but I will clarify my position in relation to his (which I supported originally).

    A number of recent books including ヤンキー進化論 and ヤンキー文化論序説 argue, using marketing and sociological surveys, that about half of the Japanese population identify with delinquent culture and are heavy consumers of its fashion products, etc. This taste culture is dominant in inaka Japan – and it can include people in a variety of economic brackets. In this context, “delinquent” doesn’t have a prejudicial meaning, it simply means a type of fashion associated with Yankee and “furyo” culture. People working in construction or primary industry in rural areas or in regional hubs in various careers are by no means “delinquent”, despite favoring a certain look – the vast majority are socially conservative, marry earlier, have larger families, and are generally Japan’s salt of the earth. The rural areas that they inhabit (I’ll include regional cities of under 500,000 people here) have low crime rates. Many of these families also have strong “Japanese dream” aspirations. Many make their children study and go to juku in the hopes that they will get into to-kyo-hoku-kyu-kin dai or one of the big privates. They are the backbone of Japan’s regional economies, have provided a constant stream of talent to Tokyo through the postwar period, and when it comes right down to it, I like V-Cinema and Grappler Baki and I don’t mind going out in a jersey and sandals. I’m far more comfortable in their zone than I would be in Shibuya.

    I disagree with Marxy on a significant point. In my understanding, this image has its origins in and around Osaka as well as in Chiba and Kawasaki. In this sense, it is not rural. By some measures that we have access to – reading Young Jump or Champion, shopping at Shimamura, etc. people from lower economic brackets are disproportionately represented in this taste culture and it spans both rural and urban Japan.

    So how does this relate to Akuma? Above, I use the term “underclass”, which I think is more useful than more conventional class definitions at this point. There are kids who grew up rich who are “working class” because they couldn’t get hired as Seishain. I’ve seen job ads for factory work in Aichi just recently offering 40man a month. That’s not bad. If that is “working class” it is no longer a synonym for “poor”. Underclass, however, implies people who do not feel, for whatever reason, that they have a horse in the race. I think that this spans urban and rural as well. There are reasons to talk about “structural” poverty in many cases. This group not only identifies strongly with delinquent fashion and cultural products, but with zoku and yakuza as well. I don’t think that it is out of line to place Akuma’s parents in this group, knowing that his dad was busted for kakuseizai. In the end, I have a hunch that he is underclass because of the behavior described above and I feel that I can predict his “style” based on this. Starting with the “style”, however, does not mean that you can tell if someone should be grouped as underclass. You can have the chapatsu mullet and still see your daughter through to Todai. I think, however, that if you would call a child 帝王, you probably care more about being abrasive and making a fashion statement at the moment than the child’s future prospects. That’s what I mean by “not having a horse in the race.”

  23. “In my understanding, this image has its origins in and around Osaka as well as in Chiba and Kawasaki.”

    Anybody who has hung out at all in southern Osaka will probably agree with the majority of your comment.

  24. I would say that the areas in question are not ‘rural’, but these are the people who’d be labeled hicks by the Tokyo-volk. I dunno, visit the belly of Saitama (Omiya, Ageo, Iwatsuki), and you’ll find a good enough sample size.

    “salt of the earth”, though? C’mon. igi ari on that one.

  25. Maybe you can call people in Saitama hicks, but I don’t see how that label could ever be applied to super-urban Osaka, where an awful lot of people actively reject Tokyo-centric ‘fashion’ in favor of the yankii style. A lot of you guys – as I’ve told Marxy before – are reflexively WAY too Tokyo-centric.

  26. “C’mon. igi ari on that one.”

    I’ve been reading nothing but Red Army lynch stuff for the past few days so this made me wince. Almost vomited when Kan went on to do his 総括. People who have seen 実録連合赤軍 will know what I mean….

    As for the cliche, it was my ace in the hole.

    “are reflexively WAY too Tokyo-centric”

    Igi nashi.

  27. Roy, the point was rather that what to someone in Tokyo is “inaka-kusai” (and the comment is not limited to fashion) may be representative of somewhere like Saitama-city, which is an urb unto its own, and not rural by any stretch of the imagination. Osaka/Kobe must have the same snobbery.

  28. Peter, I’ll be honest in that I know NOTHING about Saitama. I barely even have an image of it beyond as sprawling suburbs that form the backdrop of Crayon Shinchan so I just have to assume it’s the Japanese equivalent of New Jersey and Connecticut.

    As for Kansai, while I assume every prefecture has local pride, Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka combine the general Kansai pride with a strong distinction among the there cities within the region. In my experience, most people from Kansai (not all, of course) have very, very little interest in moving to Tokyo, and usually only end up doing so if forced to by economics. But anyway, I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine even the most stuck-up Tokyo people describing someone from Kobe or Kyoto as ‘inaka-kusai.’ And I’m sure they must have something they can call people from Osaka, but not that.

  29. “and not rural by any stretch of the imagination”

    I’m in Kyushu in a city of 500,000. People here describe it as “inaka”. They say it with pride. You also have people in a city of 500,000 talking about 都会の人たち when talking about Tokyo. This is a sort of self image that I know to be shared in Chiba and Ibaraki, don’t know for sure about Saitama. What was once prejudice has been adopted as a mark of distinction.

    The problem is that we are translating “inaka” as “rural” when it probably should be “the sticks”.

  30. ‘The problem is that we are translating “inaka” as “rural” when it probably should be “the sticks”.’

    It also has another subtle connotation of the region from which one’s family is originally from, even if the speaker was not born there, and never lived there. But that’s irrelevant to the derogatory usage.

    And of course, while nobody would call either Saitama or New Jersey rural, people from Tokyo or New York respectively still often put them down in similar ways.

  31. I always accidentally write rural as translation for “chiho.” Thanks for the corrections. I tend to use “regional” or “provincial” now but those are both loaded.

    I totally buy M-Bone’s larger statement, but I don’t think you call someone “working class” who has grown up rich and doesn’t happen to have a full time job. Class is more than just income, but a compounded history of certain social and cultural expectations about your place in the world. If I lose my job tomorrow, I still will not have yankii values. Yankii parents end up having yankii kids. The values are passed on quite naturally. Many ex-yankii make good money running restaurants, etc and end up with more income than the middle-middle classes. But they don’t go to Keio and don’t work for white-collar corporations.

    There are plenty of rich Tokyo delinquents in Japan (like Ishihara Yujiro, who was supposedly a legitimately terrible guy), but they have always worked hard to have a style that was intentionally non-yankii. The chiimaa in the early 1990s were basically forming yankii-style gangs, but took their inspiration from hip hop rather than bosozoku.

    Back to Akuma, I also agree with the high correlation of using that name with underclass status. And the yankii in particular have a history of giving their kids non-traditional names.

  32. “but I don’t think you call someone “working class” who has grown up rich and doesn’t happen to have a full time job”

    I don’t think that is appropriate either. But we are now seeing the phenomenon of people who grew up “well off” – at least to the point that their family never had to worry about necessities – who, by choice or by structure, will likely never be making enough to raise a family of their own. In this context, the old ideas of class no longer have the same meaning.

    “yankii values”

    In “the sticks” there really are bank managers who wear Yokosuka Japan jackets (with green Crocs!) on the weekend, however, so you can’t always tell as the fashion is so pervasive. That’s why I favor the “Yankii style” vs. “underclass Yankii” distinction.

    “but took their inspiration from hip hop rather than bosozoku”

    I’m not sure that the inaka types really know the origins, but they sometimes manage a broad pastiche – you definitely see guys who are hiphop from the waist down (stop thinking that, I mean pants and shoes) and yankii from the waist up. I’ve even seen an old school perm combined with basketball jersey (dude was wearing sandals too….).

  33. There are plenty of rich Tokyo delinquents in Japan (like Ishihara Yujiro, who was supposedly a legitimately terrible guy)

    The movie Arashi wo Yobu Otoko was trying to accentuate this, no? All I got from it was that Yujiro was a legitimately terrible actor, a bad singer, and liked to flip the lapel up on his blazer.


    ‘Adolf Hitler’s’ parents lose custody

    A New Jersey couple who gave their children Nazi-inspired names have lost custody of them

    Friday 6 August 2010 20.21 BST

    A New Jersey couple who gave their children Nazi-inspired names have lost custody of them. A US state appeals court made the ruling, citing the parents’ own disabilities and the risk of serious injury to their children. The state removed Heath and Deborah Campbell’s three small children from their home in January 2009. A month earlier, the family drew attention to the names when a supermarket refused to decorate a birthday cake for their son, Adolf Hitler Campbell. He and siblings JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell have been in foster care.

  35. Even better…

    Judge unleashes ruling on name change
    Wednesday, August 11, 2010
    By Timothy McNulty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    An Allegheny County judge has denied a Green Tree man’s petition to legally change his name to Boomer The Dog, saying it would cause confusion and have unintended consquences, such as “putting the public welfare at risk.”

    Gary Guy Mathews — a 44-year-old fan of the “furry” lifestyle that celebrates giving human characteristics to animals — made the unique plea to change his name in a hearing Tuesday before Common Pleas Judge Ronald W. Folino. The judge issued a page-and-half denial late today.

    He said the name change could result in “confusion in the marketplace,” including in business records and public documents, as well as more serious consequences.

    “Consider the following example,” should the court grant the request, Judge Folino wrote. “Sometime thereafter, Petitioner witnesses a serious automobile accident and telephones for an emergency medical response. The dispatcher on the phone queries as to the caller’s identity, and the caller responds, ‘This is Boomer the Dog.’ It is not a stretch to imagine the telephone dispatcher concluding that the call is a prank and refusing to send an emergency medical response.”

    Mr. Mathews could not be immediately reached, but he is expected to petition for the name change again.

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