I have already considered, and rejected, doing some sort of detailed post on this subject (at least for the time being) as there is no shortage of such reporting already, but I did just stumble on one citation that is too good not to post.
There is a shadow of Japan everywhere you turn your eyes in the Philippines. Stories of Japanese fishing depradations, for instance, are almost a daily routine in the papers. When you hear Philippines independence discussed, Japan and her imperial conquests are mentioned in the same breath. The fact is that Japan’s adventures in Manchuria and China have sent chills down the spines of nationalist Filipinos.[…]
For it is being made apparent in the most realistic fashion that such a political freedom-soon to be realized- may yet expose the Philippines as ripe for spoilation by a powerful militaristic neighbor. This is no chimera or idle preoccupation; it is born of facts which are tell-tale evidence of a Japanese plan of conquest of the entire Asiatic Continent including all the rich island tributaries along the coastline. Japan has methodically followed a very logical course of action. The seizure of Hainan Island at the gateway to French Indo-China gave Japan tactical control of the French and British sea-lane to the East Indies.
And after that introduction, we get to what was to the author of this piece (S.P. Vak, Jr. – a name that could almost be out of Star Wars) probably considered to be an idle aside, but in light of current events I found to be the most fascinating lines.
The seizure of the Spratley Islands has tactically brought Japan near to a complete encirclement of the Philippines. The Spratley Islands are barely 200 miles west of the Palawan group. (It is of interest to cite in this connection a farseeing move on the part of Hon. Elpidio Quirino, who as Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Government memorialized the State Department at Washington in 1937 for a formal declaration of claims to the Spratleys for national defense purposes. Unhappily, the State Department did not see fit to act ion the question. The islands apparently had no official owners, though geographically the Philippines should have been their rightful claimant.)
While we know from both looking at a map and from the current controversy that “geographically,” claims on the islands by Okinawa or Taiwan (which were both Japanese territory at the time), and China via a more convoluted legal route, also seem quite feasible, but it is interesting to see that this author did not even so much as consider those options.
Let us also take a moment to remember that Japan was also considered somewhat of a trade threat at the time, although hardly on the scale that it was in the 80s, or China is now.
Japanese industrialists employ every possible device to flood the market [note: the Philippine market] with cheap imitations of popular American articles. In 1937, for instance, Japan sold 32 million pesos’ worth of commodities in spite of the high tariff barrier, reaching as high as 65 per cent ad valorem on some articles.
Japan, fighting tooth and nail for markets, has resorted to all sorts of weapons. She has unscrupulously copied patents and designs which are purportedly American in Origin. Peculiarly Filipino textiles of the Ilocos and Visaya regions, copied on Japanese looms, sell for less than the originals because of the advantages obtained in organization, technology and cheaper cost of labor.
One of the more entertaining characters I’ve run across in my studies of Taiwan is has been George Psalmanazar, one of the famous hoaxers of all time. Born around 1680, nothing factual is known about his early life, even his country place of birth, although he later claimed it to be somewhere in southern France, which was allegedly corroborated as likely by those who had heard his French dialect, while doubted by those who were familiar with his ability to impersonate such dialects.
Regardless of where he spent his early years, upon completion of his education Psalmanazar began traveling around Europe, attempting to scam his way to Rome by impersonating an Irish pilgrim. Upon realizing that Ireland was neither exotic enough to elicit much interest from potential marks nor far enough to be entirely unfamiliar, he began instead impersonating a rare pilgrim from the distant land of Japan, and later to the even more exotic and lesser-known island of Formosa, which we now usually call Taiwan.
His wild tales of alien customs and bizarre foreign lands were popular, and after a detour through Rotterdam he arrived in London in 1703, where he became a minor celebrity. Banking on his fame, in 1704 he published a book entitledAn Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. “Originally written in Latin by Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa was translated into English and quickly went through two editions. A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfort in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.”
This book provided a detailed description of the island of Formosa, including its history, geography, flora and fauna, religious customs, language, and so on. And virtually every single word of it was completely fictional. Psalamanazar knew all of this, he claimed, because he was himself a native of Formosa. Having been named after the great Formosan “Prophet Psalmanaazaar, who delivered the Law to the Formosans” as well as their writing, Psalamanazar was bringing knowledge of his exotic homeland to the credulous and curious people’s of Europe. In fact, not only had he never been to Formosa, or Asia at all, he knew nothing about it.
Although there were a handful of Jesuits who had been to the real Formosa, their denial of Psalamanazar’s fantastic claims were largely ignored due to the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England at that time. While it might seem absurd to us today that people would have believed such outlandish tales, consider how unreliable information on foreign lands was in the days before the photograph, the telegraph, and even regular long-distance trade to many regions. We may find it unbelievable that the English believed that a man with Western European features similar to their own could have been a native of the East Asian land of Formosa, but how many Londoners would have ever seen an Asian face themselves?
He not only created fanciful, entirely invented, accounts of Formosa all the while portraying himself as a native of that exotic island, but also invented a Formosan language, in what must have been one of the very, very few pre-Tolkien attempts at such an endeavor. Psalmanazar’s creation of a fictional Formosa was actually very Tolkien-esque, not merely in the way that it included a fictional language, but in the way that the development of the language was linked to the invented history. Although the fantasy island was named after the real island of Formosa, and the title of the book claimed that it was “an Island subject to” the very real island of Japan, the descriptions of the customs, geography, history, and language of these real places was very nearly as invented as that of Rivendell or Gondor. Psalmanazar describes the language of Formosa as follows:
The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, the plusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it is Jerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery’d as in the preterit.
The Japan Language has three Genders; all sorts of Animals are either of the Masculine or Feminine Gender, and all inanimate Creatures are of the Neuter: But the Gender is only known by the Articles, e.g. oi hic, ey hoec, and ay hoc; but in the Plural number all the three Articles are alike.
TheJapannese wrote formerly in a sort of Characters most like those of the Chineses; but since they have held correspondence with the Formosans, they have generally made use of their way of writing, as more easy and more beautiful; insomuch that there are few now in Japan who understand the Chinese Characters.
To get an idea of how famous Psalmanazar actually was in his time, consider that he was referenced very prominently in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which Swift uses him (albeit spelled a bit differently, perhaps due to imperfect memory and a lack of handy reference) as part of his case for the encouragement of cannibalism.
But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.
The fact that must be remembered here is that not only was George Psalmanazar a famous public figure in Swift’s time, but that by the year in which A Modest Proposal was published, 1729, Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa was already been widely known as a fraud, the author having had confessed as much in 1707. While Swift’s essay is still widely read, virtually no modern readers will have any clue to what he is referring in this paragraph, and even fewer will realize that much of the basis for the humor in this section is due to the fact that the essayist is attempting to prove his case by referring to a a source that, at the time of publication, would have been recognized by Swift’s audience as not merely fraudulent, but famously and comically so.
Following the end of his career as a hoaxer, Psalmanazar used his celebrity to start a career as a legitimate writer, producing such works as The general history of printing: from its first invention in the city of Mentz, to its first progress and propagation thro’ the most celebrated cities in Europe. Particularly, its introduction, rise and progress here in England. The character of the most celebrated printers, from the first inventors of the art to the years 1520 and 1550: with an account of their works, and of the most considerable improvements which they made to it during that interval, published in 1732. As a now-respectable man of letters, he became friends with such luminaries as Samuel Johnson.
Although he revealed his fraud as early as 1707, details were not revealed until the year after his death. Naturally, this was in the form of a book, which is wonderfully entitled: MEMOIRS OF ****. Commonly known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; A Reputed Native of Formosa. Written by himself, In order to be published after his Death: Containing An Account of his Education, Travels, Adventures, Connections, Literary Productions, and pretended Conversion from Heathenism to Christianity; which last proved the Occasion of his being brought over into this Kingdom, and passing for a Proselyte, and a member of the Church of England.
The one thing that he never revealed, even in his posthumous memoir, was his real name. As far as I know, no details of his early life have ever been verified.
The table of contents, as well as some all too brief excerpts of Psalmanazar’s first book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa,can be found here, but until earlier this year it was very difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the English version of the book, at least outside of certain libraries. Although it was published in Taiwan a couple of years ago, that was a Chinese translation, which even if I could read well would hardly be as entertaining. Original copies are very expensive, with the English first edition going for US$1426 on a rare book site, and the French version selling at an even less accessible $1900! Copies of his memoirgo for a technically more affordable, yet still entirely unaffordable $600 or so.
Luckily, not only has an affordable reprint edition of both his Description of Formosaand his Memoirs(as well as some others) are available for purchase online. However, even better, just the other day I managed to locate a scanned electronic edition of both books, freely available in an archive of the British Library. As the online version only seems to be accessible from licensed institutions, such as libraries and universities, I am providing both of them for download as PDFs. Since their PDF creator can only generate files up to 250 pages in length, both of them have been split into two files. Scans of 300 year old books, these files are as public domain as they get. Feel free to spread them far and wide.
Update [August 5]: I regret that I forgot one very important detail from this when I first published it yesterday. While Jonathan Swift may be the most significant literary reference to Psalmanazar’s imaginary Formosa, it is not the only one. Many readers may be familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and hopefully not the abysmal film based on it), in which they spin a version of our world in which every fantastic story, character, and geography is integrated into a single tapestry. While the story proper is mainly told in the form of comic book panels, Volume Two (for sale here, and highly recommended) contains, in the form of a lengthy appendix, a sort of gazetteer of this fantastic geography, which contains the following text.
We passed east of Zipang, or of Japan as it is these days called, and went south by way of Formosa, which possesses of its coast another smaller island of the same name, where the women and the men go naked save for plaques of gold and silver.
Zipang is in fact one spelling of the Shanghaiese reading of “Japan,” formerly used by some Europeans and thought to be the origin for the modern spelling. Moore here is obviously referencing Psalmanazar’s Formosa, as we can see from page 225 of the Description (first page of PDF Part II). By describing this Formosa as “another smaller island of the same name”, Moore is cleverly leaving room on the map for both the real and fantasy Formosa.
The great difference between the Japannese and Formosans, consists in this, that the Jappanese wear 2 or 3 Coats, which they tye about with a Girdle; but the Formosans have only one Coat, and use no Girlde. They walk with the Breast open, and cover their Privy parts with a Plate tied about them made of Brass, Gold, or Silver.
Incidentally, Moore’s reference to Formosa is located just above a large illustration of Laputa – which readers may remember from either the eponymous Miyazaki Hayao film, or its original source: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. When one considers that Swift was clearly a fan of Psalmanazar’s imaginary geography, it actually seems quite reasonable to wonder if perhaps the Description of Formosa was an influence on Gulliver’s Travels, which as a chronicle of fantastic geography has some undeniable similarities.
Once again, I have made a promise to post all of my backlog of travel photos and narratives before embarking on my next journey, which yet again lies unrealized. Tomorrow – or technically today as I write this at 3.30am – I depart for a primarily research-justified trip to Manila, Philippines and Taiwan. I will be in Manila from the 23rd to the 28th of February, then fly to Taipei on the 1st of March, and back to Manila on the 14th, from whence I return to Japan on the 21st. Following that, I am taking an entirely non-research trip to Seoul from March 24-31.
Taiwan will be mainly in Taipei, but with a few days going down to the south, Kaohsiung, maybe Tainan, maybe Taichung area. Philippines will be almost totally Manila, and Korea will be basically just Seoul.
People in any of those places, feel free to get in touch and see if we can meet up!
I was just reading the 1938 edition of “Social Education in Taiwan,” published by the Japanese colonial government, when I came across this rather neat line in the middle of a section (page 76) on how the civilian population was being taught to aid the war effort (Second Sino-Japanese War) on the home front.
The value of gold held by an individual merely possesses the value a piece of jewelry, or of causing vanity, but should that ownership be transfered to the state, then it will not serve a function in resolving the international balance of payments, but also serve as a grand contribution to the development of the fate of the nation.
It then goes on to recommend that citizens (or perhaps “subjects” is a better word)
think of their own personal finances and sell their gold to the government, as it will not only be highly profitable to sell at the current high market price, but that by exchanging the gold official currency, it can be invested in other ways such as bank deposits, where it will bring about a natural increase in wealth [i.e. through interest], which will be far more profitable than letting it going to waste sitting at home. [Error in my original translation corrected thanks to Aki’s comment below.]
I don’t feel 100% confident about my translation of the latter part, so if anyone has a better translation for 「之を貨幣に換へ、貯金其の他の方法にて運用せば自然財産の増加を来すを以て徒に死蔵し置くに比し極めて有利になること」 than please let me know. Incidentally, this isn’t a section I plan to use in what I’m working on now, just that I thought it would be of interest to all of you.
Now, I wonder how the value of the original gold vs. the paper money held up over the course of the next several years.
Jade Mountain, or Yushan (玉山), is the tallest mountain in Taiwan at 3,952 metres (12,966 ft) above sea level. It had previously been known as Mount Morrison in English, after an American sea captain in the mid-19th century, it was given a new name after Taiwan’s annexation by Japan. As Yushan is taller than Japan’s tallest mountain, Mount Fuji at 3,776 m (12,388 ft), it was renamed Niitakayama (新高山), which translates to “New Tall Mountain.”
Apologies for the lack of English but I don’t have time to try and translate the little poem right now, but wanted to post it anyway.
Update: Commenter Sublight reminds us that “Climb Mount Niitaka” was the secret codephrase transmitted by the Japanese Navy to signal the attack on Pearl Harbor. I found a Japanese page that has some nice info on the message, including the original text on the Japanese side, and the intercept analysis on the American side.
『新高山登レ一二○八』 was the message, and it was analyzed as follow:
Combined Fleet Serial #10.
Climb NIITAKAYAMA 1208, repeat 1208
Comments; Interpreted freely, above means “Attack on 8 December”
Explanation; This was undoubtedly the prearranged signal for specifying the date for opening hostilities.
However, the significance of the phrase is interesting in that it is so appropriately used in this connection.
NIITAKAYAMA is the highest mountain in the Japanese Empire.
To climb NIITAKAYAMA is to accomplish one of the greatest feats.
In other words undertake the task (of carrying out assigned opertations).
1208 signifies twelfth month, 8th day, Item time.
It is often said that had the intercepted message been decoded before the attack, Pearl Harbor would have managed to defend themselves, but I wonder if anybody would have actually correctly interpreted “Climb Mount Niitaka” as an assault on US forces.
About two weeks ago I talked about how the protests in Taiwan over the importation of American beef are more about anxiety over a loss of sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China than about any serious concerns over possible mad cow disease. Well, this has only become more obvious as the debates and protests continue. For example, DPP caucus whip Pan Meng-an says “The [lifting of restrictions] on US beef became effective spontaneously, without legislative approval, as did the financial MOU with China. Will [the government’s plan to sign an economic cooperative and framework agreement] be next?” And whether or not allegations that DPP Chairperson Tsai Ying-wen secretly met with American Institute in Taiwan (the unofficial embassy) director William Stanton to promise that the protests were purely an election ploy to discredit the ruling KMT and not a sign of anti-Americanism turn out to be true, that is also clearly a major impetus for the protests.
But what is a mass political protest without a little crazy? Well, some was provided by Chu Cheng-chi (朱政騏), a PhD student at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Sociology, who posted a video of himself eating a “burger” made out of actual cow-shit to youtube as a symbol of…something I guess.
Chu Cheng-chi (朱政騏), a graduate student at NTU’s Graduate Institute of Sociology, lay down outside the legislature’s front gate and covered himself with a straw mat — a gesture Chu said symbolized how the poor cover the body of a deceased person.
He said he would continue his hunger strike to protest a proposal by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) caucus to amend the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法).
Chu was referring to a proposal the KMT put forward last Tuesday to authorize the government to “draw up measures to inspect beef products from areas where the risk of mad cow disease has been under control,” instead of two other prosoals for a ban on “risky” beef products from the US.
Chu began a “lie in” protest in a coffin in front of the legislature on Saturday and vowed to stage a hunger strike until today, but police fined him and forcibly removed the coffin on Sunday night, saying Chu had violated the Road Traffic Management and Punishment Act (道路交通管理處罰條例).
Huang Tai-shan (黃泰山), a doctoral student from National Tsing Hua University, who also covered himself with a grass mat next to Chu, said five more doctoral students would join the protest should police forcibly remove Chu and Huang.
But of course, you really want to see the video itself. Enjoy.
After the opening vignette of him tasting a cow patty is the opening title of:
I eat cow dung, I protest!
My rough translation of his monologue is as follows:
I have in front of me some delicious edible beef.
After the Ma adminstration opens the door to American Beef, it will turn into beef that one could fear is poisonous.
I am just an ordinary youth who decided to protest against the government.
I have no power to change things, I am only able to make my own body suffer.
This is the most serious kind of protest!
I am now going to take Taiwanese cow dung and prepare it.
Consuming American beef will absolutely be scarier than eating the dung of a Taiwanese cow!
Followed by another title reading:
Eating American beef is scarier than eating Taiwanese cow dung!
They then drive out to Qingtiangang (擎天崗), a ranch area created during Japanese occupation, now part of Yangmingshan National Park to collect the fresh cow dung as cloying music plays in the background. You finally see him sit in front of the presidential building, prepare the burger, and eat some of it while reciting more nonsense about how he can “absolutely guarantee that it is still safer than American beef” and that “the Ma Yingjiu administration is opening up to American beef and not protecting the safety, well-being, and health of the people.” He then pukes in the bushes.
Enjoy the e-coli, chu. E-coli, for those who forget, is a bacteria found mainly in the digestive tracts and feces of animals, which generally poisons humans when it is transmitted by accidental contamination of meat by feces from the same animal when it is slaughtered. According to the CDC, e-coli poisoning kills at least 60 Americans and sickens 2000 every year. For comparison, take a look at the CDC’s own stats on mad cow disease-showing only 3 confirmed cases in the US to date. And note that these are the numbers of cases in COWS, to date there have been exactly zero cases of humans contracting the disease from cows raised in the US.
Inspired by the news the other day that a Kyoto district court has rules that housing rental contract renewal fees are a violation of consumer rights, I thought I would write a brief introduction to how renting works, based primarily on my own experiences.
I have rented twice in America, three times in Japan, and one time in Taiwan, with an asterisk. As this post was getting quite long, I’ve decided to split it up into three pieces. Since I want to go in chronological order, I’ll first discuss America with a brief mention of Taiwan, then part 2 will discuss how it works in Japan, and finally in the third part I will break down my actual housing contract as specific examples.
I went to college at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in the small city of New Brunswick. After two years in various dorms I decided to move out, and went looking for a house or apartment to share with a friend or three. The Rutgers campus is surrounded by a zone of houses (with a very few apartment buildings) which are occupied almost entirely by students renting from year to year, formed as if the city were insulating itself from the campus in much the manner of an oyster generating a pearl to protect its soft, fragile body from a piece of grit. Since houses in the area are almost entirely for students, landlords can advertise directly to them quite easily through the housing office bulletin board etc, so there is no need for anyone to involve real estate agents. In most cases, the owner of the house rents directly to students, and are usually very amateurish about arranging repairs etc. The security deposit is equal to 1.5 months rent, as specified by city ordnance, and must be kept in a special bank account which may be used only to store the security deposit. When first moving in, the only thing you pay are first month rent, last month rent, and the security deposit. There is no “renewal fee” or anything similar, and in ordinary circumstances, most of the security deposit is returned.
This is pretty much the procedure throughout the US. While houses may be rented directly by the owner or through a real estate agent (who I presume earns some sort of fee), one often has contact with the landlord (i.e. the actual owner) after moving in, but owners of multiple properties may hire a company to deal with residents for them. Large apartment buildings generally have a superintendent who manages building, particularly construction, although I am somewhat vague about how small apartment buildings generally work. Security deposit is usually legally restricted to an amount of 1.5 or 2 months rent, and contract renewal fees are illegal. There is one big exception in the case of ‘key money’, which I will discuss later.
I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.
I lived in one such house for a year (actually the first story of a two family house, as many houses are in the area), went to Japan for two years, where I lived in school dorms, and then returned for my final year at Rutgers, where I shared a second-story apartment of a different two-family house, which had been arranged while I was away by the girlfriend of a good friend (the girl being Jess Rees and the friend being Brian Cervino, both members of the band Huma whose music I recommend), and another guy that she knew. I’m afraid I forget now exactly what the rent was, but it came out to somewhere between $300 and $400 per person, plus some more for utilities. The security deposit in New Brunswick is set by law at 1.5 months, and in both cases most of it was returned, although well after the 30 day window required by law. As a student with no independent source of income, the landlords also required parents to co-sign as a guarantee. This is common in the US in such situations, but is not usual for renters who actually have a stable job. In both cases, everyone living in the apartment signed the lease, but the room and rent allocation was not explicitly spelled out, which in retrospect might have been a good idea, as there were some minor arguments in that area in the first house (although none at all in the second.)
I next went to study in Taiwan for a few months, where had arranged no housing in advance aside from a one-week reservation in a youth hostel, but almost immediately found a promising room advertised on a bulletin board at school. This experience gets an asterisk because as a subleter I never signed, or even examined, a contract and know relatively little about the local procedures and laws. My general impression, however, is that it works more or less the same as in most of the US, with no ‘key money’ or renewal fees, and only moderate security deposits. It seemed to me that rentals often go through agents (at least in apartment building-dominated Taipei) but perhaps in smaller cities/towns there are more landlords renting directly.
the US is the only developed country – and one of only a handful of undeveloped countries – that still tells the world that people with HIV are dangerous pariahs, who need policing at borders and deporting if discovered.
When I went to study abroad in Taiwan 2005-2006 they actually did require an HIV test to get a visa, as did China, who abandoned the policy with much fanfare a year or two ago. However, I never saw an announcement that Taiwan did so, but I also could not find any mention of it in the current visa application procedures. Does anyone know if Taiwan has abandoned the HIV test policy, and if so, when? I suspect that they ditched the policy around the same time China did, but did so quietly to avoid drawing any attention to the fact that they continued a system criticized as backwards and uncivilized when the PRC was doing it.
Just two weeks ago I posted a link to an article about a Taiwanese “collector” of rare Chinese family names. While his activity may seem to be a mere eccentric hobby, documenting these names and their lineage does have important historical significance, as seen in recent moves by the Chinese government. According to a NYT article from April 20, China has been phasing in an electronic ID card system which does not support many of the exotic antique characters used in rare family names, and their solution has been to ask people affected to change their names.
One of the main examples given in the article is the character [ed: oops, actually the character they reference was too obscure for me to enter using either the Japanese or Chinese IME. I confused it with the still-rare but far more common “驫”. 驫 (骉 simplified, as it would be written in the PRC), pronounced “Cheng” according to the article, but “Biao” according to the dictionary. Apparently the software used for the Chinese ID system does not support this character, despite the fact that I had no problem drawing it on the IME pad in Windows Vista using my house, and it can even be found in the Japanese language Wiktionary.
(Before I go on, I want to note briefly that the word 漢字, meaning “Chinese character” is used in Chinese, Korean and Japanese, respectively pronounced hanzi, hanja, and kanji. When using one of these three words I am specifically referring to the use of Chinese characters in that country/language.)
According to the article, the computer system currently in use by the government supports 32,252 hanzi, out of well over 50,000 found in the most comprehensive classical dictionaries. The government is currently working on a restricted list of characters approves for use in modern Chinese writing, which they estimate will exceed 8000 characters-a significant drop from even the current de-facto list of 32,252.
While these sorts of legal restrictions on one’s very name name may sound stereotypically totalitarian for the communist People’s Republic, in fact both Japan and Korea have had similar restrictions for a long time. In Japan, the Law on Household Registration (Koseki-hou) governs the kanji which may be used in personal names. Under current regulations, kanji for personal names may only be chosen from either the Joyo Kanji (Kanji for Daily Use, the list that forms the basis of public school Japanese education, Japanese proficiency tests, etc.), consisting of 1945 characters, or the 983 character Jinmeiyou-kanji (Kanji for Use in Personal Names). Both of these lists have been revised, usually expanded but sometimes with deletions, over the years.
There was an amusing incident during the 2004 round of additions to the Jinmeiyou list. The committee proposed an initial list of 489 additions purely based on statistical analysis of the commonality of various characters in modern Japanese text, and then posted it online to seek comments. While many of the names were popular, 9 of them were the target of objections from the public, and were removed from the list. Those 9 kanji were: 糞(feces) 屍(corpse) 呪(curse, magic spell) 癌(cancer) 姦(rape)淫(lewd obscene) 怨(hatred, grudge-as in the horror film) 痔(hemorrhoid) and 妾(concubine). (Bonus word trivia: two of these kanji combine to make the word for necrophilia.) As a foreigner who has only been studying Japanese for around 8 years, I recognized all of 9 of these on first glance and could read all but two(淫 and 妾), so I would assume that any adult native-reader of Japanese knows all of these moderately obscure characters and many hundreds more, despite their not being on the official government lists.
In South Korea there are 5151 characters allowed, even though most people normally write their name in the natively developed hangul alphabet, which has replaced hanja in everyday use. While traditional Korean family names are all hanja, personal names may also contain hangul. Interestingly, the Korean list of name characters is written using the same Chinese characters as the Japanese one-인명용 한자（人名用漢字）, although like other shared Sinic words it is pronounced in the Korean fashion “inmyong yo hanja”.
North Korea legally eliminated hanja from their language some time ago, so even though most names can be traced etymologically to Chinese, all legal names today are written in hangul in all circumstances.
Vietnam was also historically a Chinese-character culture (known locally as chữ nôm), but they abandoned it early in the 20th century. While as much of their vocabulary is descended from Chinese words as in Japan or Korea, today they write purely in the Roman alphabet and the original Chinese characters for words or names are found only on old art or documents, or in dictionaries.
Taiwan, as befitting its role as the bastion of traditional Chinese writing, has no restrictions on hanzi name use. Hong Kong and Macao, which while part of the PRC also maintain traditional writing and also have a separate legal code from the PRC, presumably also have the same level of name freedom as Taiwan.
Now, what about immigrants? When I was first studying in Japan as an undergraduate, I know a girl whose name contained the hanja “妵” (pronounced “ju” in Korean), which is not just absent from the Japanese name-kanji list, but also not even found in standard Japanese fonts or dictionaries! On her Foreigner Registration Card, this character was pasted in using an obviously different font, as it couldn’t be typed normally. While I do not know the actual law, I assume that this is the traditional custom for dealing with domestically disallowed hanzi/hanja names in Japan, or domestically disallowed hanzi names in South Korea. (In South Korea today, Japanese names are usually rendered in hangul based on their pronunciation, and the actual kanji are ignored.) However, when a foreigner naturalizes in Japan their legal name must follow the local rules, which may force them to adopt a less exotic name. Of course, even should they be forced to change their name, nothing will keep them from using the original one in all circumstances except legal documentation.
To summarize, the freedom of choice for Chinese characters in names of the four countries which still use such names is as follows:
Taiwan* > China > South Korea > Japan
*Hong Kong and Macau may be at this level, confirmation needed
Although the NYT article implied that the imposition of restrictions on the hanzi in names is threateningly totalitarian, in fact Chinese citizens will still have FAR more options than Koreans or Japanese even if restricted to the 8000+ character list, and South Koreans today have nearly twice as many options as the Japanese do, despite that fact that most South Koreans can hardly read any but the most common of hanja. Of course, it is only in Japan where one has the option of choosing a reading for ones name that has no historical relationship whatsoever with the kanji themselves.
Some of the rare surnames Kuo has collected include Hu (虎, tiger), Yi (蟻, ant), Shui (水, water), Yun (雲, cloud), Suo (鎖, lock), Dan (但, but) and Mai (買, buy).
They also list Yao (要) Pang (逄) and Tse (策)as examples, although his total list consists of over 200. I don’t believe I have ever seen any of these used before, except for Yi (蟻, ant) although I can’t recall where that was.
Yesterday I met a Japanese girl with the family name of 鎹 (Kasugai), which is a kind of metal clamp or staple used for fastening two pieces of wood together in carpentry. Most of the Japanese people around had also never seen the name before, and many (in a group of grad students) couldn’t even read it, and the Chinese guy around also couldn’t.