Life in Japan

Error: Why Your Foreign Name Is Most Likely Too Long For Japan

So, you’ve finally arrived in the land of your dreams: Narnia …. err, I mean Japan!

All these beautiful Japanese women who’ve just been waiting for you. All this breathtaking nature, ancient castles, shrines and temples.
Yes, you’re finally in Japan. Congratulations!

But beware, you might wake up one morning and notice that life isn’t all that great.

There’s the insane humidity in summer, these creepy insects that can even kill you, annoying people who’re staring at you all the time, telling you how great your Japanese is while making you understand that you’ll be an outsider forever.

But there’s one thing that you probably didn’t have on your “problem list”, I’m sure. And that’s your “foreign” name!

Why it’ll give you headaches?
Well, read on and you might understand.

 

No Kanji For Foreign Names in Japan

If you have to fill out any kind of official document in Japan (health insurance, driver’s license, credit card, cell phone), you’re almost always required to write your name exactly like it’s displayed in your passport (and thus also on your residence card).

As foreigners don’t have kanji for their names, you’re supposed to write your name in “romaji” (roman letters) and once more in katakana so the Japanese will know how to pronounce it.

Let’s say your name is Michael Johnson (*just a random name I picked for demonstration purpose). It will become something like ジョーンソン・マイケル.

This doesn’t look particularly long to us. We’re used to it, right?

Now, a Japanese person would have to fill out a document in kanji and katakana (no romaji required). This looks less stressful and shorter.

Let’s say our Japanese person’s name is Takahashi Yamamoto. In kanji that will be very short: 山本高橋

But even in katakana it doesn’t seem to be that long: ヤマモト・タカハシ

(*Please note that in Japan the last name goes before the first name.)

 

Mr. Johnson who doesn’t have an official kanji name will run into problems soon.

In Japan, you need a hanko (判子) also more formally known as inkan (印鑑). There are different types, so read about it in great detail here if you’re interested.

For your bank account, cell phone contract and other things, a ginko-in (especially for bank errands) or mitome-in will be enough. It’s really easy to get one of these.

Foreign names in Japan on a hanko.

That’s my little hanko inside its case. It’s a wooden seal.

A typical Japanese last name contains one to three kanji, so it’s easy to squeeze them onto the tiny seal, but as a foreigner you need to somehow squeeze your name in katakana on it. I’ve even seen some with roman letters. Usually neither works well, especially if you have a long name.

Luckily as a Westerner you have a lot of choices. You can use your last name in katakana, or a shorter version of it, you could even use “fake” kanji. It’s not that strict. I’ve done this, too.

So, if Michael wanted a hanko with kanji for his first name, it could look like this:
舞気璢 (dance [mai], emotion [ke], precious stone [ru]) (*super random, but you get the idea)

However, this is not possible with a registered seal, called jitsuin (実印). Such a hanko is needed if you want to conduct business or sign anything legally binding. Rules are MUCH stricter for that one.

(*Disclaimer: Please note that I’m not a hanko expert at all and I cannot guarantee that the bit of information I’m providing here is 100% correct.)

 

Most Foreigners Have a Middle Name

Do you have a middle name? Or even more than one?

OMG! You better shouldn’t come to Japan!

Jeez, that’s where the problems REALLY start!

Like mentioned before, in Japan you NEED to fill out all official and legal documents with your full name exactly as it’s displayed in your passport.

Now, let’s say you’re one of the lucky ones with only ONE middle name:
Michael Benjamin Johnson (ジョーンソン・マイケル・ベンジャミーン)

Oops, all of a sudden this looks really long.

Now, this is where the real fun begins. And I know this from personal experience because I have a middle name, too. emoticon

If you’re filling out any kind of document, you still can squeeze your name in somehow. It won’t look beautiful, but it will work out somehow.

I once applied for a credit card, but I had to send the documents three times until they accepted it. They were confused about the order of the names. I tried to do it the Japanese way and write my last name first and then my first name and middle name. They sent it back saying they want it the way it’s in my passport, so I had to start with my first name. This and similar things did cost me a lot of nerves but I finally received my credit card …. but then I realized that my name was cut off as it didn’t fit onto the card …. well, probably it would have, but their system couldn’t figure it out. My German credit cards can display my full name (including my middle name) just fine!

Isn’t it cool to have a credit card saying: MichaelBenj Johnson? emoticon

This can sometimes lead to discussions when you show your credit card or another document with your fu**ed up name and then your residence card or passport with your full name. So much fun, I tell you!!

Oh, and as most systems cannot work with a middle name, there’s usually NEVER a space between your first and your middle name. I had this a million times on my domestic flight tickets here in Japan. Luckily this never caused any trouble.

But, don’t even get me started on online registrations. Most online systems cannot handle more than like 15-ish characters. I remember applying for a cheap health insurance for abroad when I wanted to visit Germany last winter. I couldn’t get the cheapest ones, because all of their online application systems wouldn’t accept my name.

I kept getting error messages:

“Error: Your name is longer than 15 characters.”

“Error: Please write your name in kanji.”

“Error: Please just don’t be a foreigner with a weird name our system cannot understand!!!”

It’s sometimes so frustrating! We’re living in the 21st century, update your freaking systems, will you?

So, just be prepared that because of your name you might get a few headaches in Japan.

Don’t worry, you’ll get everything you need, but it will just take much longer. And I can recommend good hair dye in case your grey hair is suddenly increasing! emoticon

 

What Happens to Your Name If You Marry a Japanese?

I don’t have any personal experience with this, obviously, but a few fellow German bloggers do. One of them, ginkgoleafs, recently contacted me and asked me if I knew any other nations who also have similar issues, so I thought I’d just share this with you and see what others have experienced.

If you can understand German, I suggest reading about this issue in detail on ginkgoleaf’s blog and nagarazoku’s blog.

The following problem has not only to do with Japanese bureaucracy, but also with the German one. But who knows, your country might have the same issue.

 

In a German passport there’s the note “geb.” (abbreviation of ‘geboren’ = born as / “maiden name”) if a married person decided to take their partner’s last name.

Let’s say there’s a German woman whose name is Maria Katherina Schmidt.

She’s married to a Japanese man, Mr. Kato, so the name in her German passport will look like this: Maria Katherina Kato geb. Schmidt

For the residence card in Japan and a lot of other important documents, Mrs. Kato needs to write her full name as follows: 加藤・ゲップ・シュミッド・マリア・カッテリーナ

Yes, the “geb.” note in the passport has to be part of the Japanese name transition. So much fun!

Now, just imagine she wanted a double name:

Maria Katherina Kato-Schmidt geb. Schmidt becomes 加藤シュミッド・ゲップ・シュミッド・マリア・カッテリーナ

What??? See how long this name is? That’s around 25 characters. I’m sure that 99% of all systems in Japan cannot handle such a name!

On top of that it seems that other official documents (e.g. certificate of marriage) don’t have this super long name! This will lead to a LOT of confusion and headaches.

Last but not least, the “geb.” which indicates the maiden name in German is written as ゲップ (geppu) in Japanese which translates to something like “belch”. I’m not even sure why it’s changed into “geppu” rather than “gebbu” to be honest.

So, Mrs. Kato’s name in Japan is now officially: Kato-Schmidt “Belch” Schmidt Maria Katherina

Isn’t that lovely? …

Imagine a typical conversation on the phone:

“Hello. May I have your name please?”

“Sure, Kato-Schmidt ‘Belch’ Schmidt Maria Katherina.”

“Err …. could you say this again, a bit slower?”

“Sure. Ka-to-Schmidt ‘Belch’ Sch- …..”

“Did you just burp? Are you ok?” emoticon

“…………”

 

Clearly both countries need to find a better solution for this in the future.

 

Is Your Name Giving You Headaches?

I’d love to hear if you had a similar experience! Or maybe one of your friends?

Was there ever anything you wanted to apply for in Japan, but couldn’t do it because of your foreign name?

Please don’t be shy and tell us in the comment box below!

Also, if you’re a German citizen who has run into the “geppu” issue, please contact either “ginkgoleafs” or “nagarazoku” as they’re trying to get in touch with German authorities in order to inform them about this problem. Thanks a lot.

 

91 Comments

  • Holy mother, I would/will be so damned in Japan… Besides my first and last name, there are three more (and something else before one of those, similar to a “von”)… Jesus, help. Isn’t there any way to just change my name? I live in Brazil but I can’t find anything that would allow me to change my name here legally because it isn’t that bad here to have basically four surnames…

    • Don’t change your name!
      It can be annoying, but I’m sure there’s a solution for you as well. Just be prepared that filling out forms might take longer … or the forms might even be sent back to you, but it’s not the end of the world.

  • This is terrible! When did they make this new law? Are the rest of still grandfathered in and allowed to use our Kanji names? Or do we have to change them back? It is strange that no one has ever told me about this….

    • I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to right now.
      Do you mean what happens to second- or third-generation Japanese with foreign names once they come back to Japan?!

      • I am German-American. Though I have a Japanese name and it is in Kanji, obviously. So you are saying that we will have our names extracted now? Or are we grandfathered in and can keep them? Does the rule only apply to new residents?

    • Nah, I don’t think so. It also depends on how your names translate into katakana. Trust me, it doesn’t sound as bad. There are people with much longer names out there and while it’s annoying, they manage. :D

  • I somehow feel like could have trouble with my name… I was born and raised in Spain, but both my parents are foreign. In Spain you take your fahter’s first surname and your mother’s first surname, which means you have TWO surnames (and both of mine aren’t exactly short)… I don’t quite know how they’ll feel about that in Japan. :whyohwhy:

    • Woah, sounds like your “official” name would be quite long.
      Don’t worry, there are always ways around it. Like .. my credit card didn’t have my whole name printed on it (wasn’t possible), but I still could get one and use it.
      It’s just very annoying at times! ^__^;

  • I’ve been wanting to live in Japan ever since I first learned where anime came from but now I’m worried that my name will be too long, especially since I have been blessed with two middle names. So I was wondering if I changed my name to Lynn (my second middle name) if my problem will lessen from migraine to headache.

  • I can tell you my experience with foreign names. Being Spanish, I have Name+Surname+Surname. Yes! Two surnames, as every spanish citizen! Now, to your examples add another word, that would end up being a complete hell!

    But wait, things go even worst for me. My name and surnames contain “r” and “l” letters all mixed together, and even “z” and “s” at the end of my surnames. Then, if even my girlfriend (japanese) doesn’t know how to pronounce that mess, how can I expect anyone else in Japana understand it when hearing it for the first time?

    • Not being able to pronounce foreign names correctly is quite common. So, don’t worry! You’re not alone. ;)
      I suppose as soon as one has more than just a first and last name things get complicated – even more if those names are super long and / or quite complicated. ^^;

  • hahaha. This made me laugh! -and worry.
    I’m from Latin America, so i have long first and middle spanish names, and two last names. All together are 25 characters. I’m probably marrying my japanese boyfriend, so i will end up with over 30 characters.
    I had never considered this before, it’s giving me headaches already!!
    But thanks for the article, just found this blog and i’ll follow it from now on.
    Cheers!!

    • Why would your name become longer if you marry a Japanese? Shouldn’t it become shorter? *g* Or do you intend to get a “double last name”? O_O; …..
      My current name is almost as long as yours, so have fun with an even longer name. ;)

      Wish you good luck and hope it’s going to be an awesome wedding! :3

  • My son has been invited to travel with a childhood friend of his next year to visit his friends father who it’s stationed with the US Navy in Japan. Will Amy of this confusion and difficulty pertain to him?
    When I traveled in Japan and Okinawa out was on a military ID so I didn’t need a passport. I’m just trying to help him make it as smooth a trip as possible.

    • He’s just travelling to Japan, right?
      Then he won’t have any problems. This post applies to people who live in Japan and need to fill out official documents in order to get a credit card etc. ;)

  • now i´m a bit afraid of having a japanese boyfriend in japan because my full name is ” Julia Alexandra Teresa Merkle” how long would that be in katakana xD ?

    • What does that have to do with having a Japanese boyriend? XD
      It only applies if you actually live in Japan.

      The length depends on how many “legth characters” you plan to put in there, but it would definitely be long. Not only in katakana, but also when your name needs to be displayed on credit cards using the alphabet. Mine never fit on any credit card and mine is shorter than yours. ^^;; ….

  • Hi!
    I just read this entry and most of the commets, and realised there are no one commenting on the hazards that people with Spanish or Slavic names have to endure… waaayyy more complicated than simple middle names, if I may say so.
    Why? Well, to begin with, even if there is no enough space to write your middle name, at least bearocrats in Japan KNOW what the heck a middle name IS. Now, try to explain them (or beauroctrats in any other country) WHAT IS a second family name (as we all have in the Spanish speaking countries), or WHAT IS a patrinimic (as is the common use in Slavic countries).
    You see, I often get asked to write my FULL name, as you pointed out in the article. It happens to be Manuel Cisneros Castro. Now, try to explain them that I DON’T HAVE any middle name (I am not Manuel C. Castro, as soooo many times I get addressed in the USA). Try to explain them that MY ONLY given name is Manuel, that Cisneros is my FIRST FAMILY NAME (i.e. from my father), and that Castro is my SECOND FAMILY NAME (i.e. from my father).
    Now, THAT is a hassle.
    I suppose the same fun goes trying to explain a patronimic.
    Greetings from Osaka

  • Oh-oh! My first and middle names are double-barreled with lots of “L”s, and my last name (married a Sri Lankan gentleman 30 years ago) is simply impossible in Japanese, since its full of v’s and b’s. I may have to change it before I go to Japan!
    Alison

  • I have a Japanese friend who thought it’d be fun to give two of his kids middles names, then the friends of one of those two got middle names for fun as well. Then I got a middle name

  • I’m French, so traditionally I have several names… 4 to be exact TT
    I was thinking about going to Japan for a few years after my graduation, maybe it is the right time to change my mind hahaha