The Invisible Ethnocentrism: Unsuspecting Victims of Ideology

Some 13 years ago, I got my first experience of Japanese music through Speed, a 4-member girl group from the island of Okinawa. And it was through the music of Hiroko Shimabukuro, Eriko Imai, Takako Uehara and Hitoe Aragaki that made me begin my Japanese language learning journey.

13 years later, today, so many things have changed. The president of the U.S. is now Obama Barack, after the unpopular reign of Bush George.

Now, the above 2 paragraphs are probably a little disjointed in content but it was to make a point. Most, if not all of you, would probably have no issues with the first paragraph but something seems oddly wrong in the second. For a long time now, I’ve always wondered why in English, the Japanese family names have to come after their given names. Ayumi Hamasaki sounds totally fine but Beckham David is odd.

I’ve got no idea who started it but the unnecessary reordering of Japanese names is perpetuating ethnocentrism and it is a little disturbing. The West have the idea that because English names work that way, when uttering a Japanese name, it is perfectly reasonable to move the surname to the back. But never have I seen an English family name moved to the front when being reported in Japanese or any Asian media. Brad Pitt is always ブラッド・ ピット and never  ピット・ブラッド, just like Barack Obama and George Bush.

I recently took up a translation course and casually asked if there was an industry standard in the translation of Japanese names to English. Not unexpectedly, the American lecturer seemed to take it for granted that it is only natural to switch the order of the names. I suspect it had been the arrogance of the West of olden times that propagated this and that it has settled into an ideology of its own. In school, however, when students ask if they have to put their family names after their given names, I always tell them no, it is perfectly fine to order it the Japanese way.

To break away from the unconscious assimilation of Western culture, we should also think twice about referring to family names as last names and likewise, given names as first names. The naming of first and last names creates an order of the names that make it seem more natural than it should to reorder names the way the West does.


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