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