katakana names01

Amidst all of the controversy flaring up in Japan over “kirakira names,” the question was raised concerning a rather peculiar name trait shared by many old Japanese women. A large number of aging grandmothers have names written in katakana, the phonetic alphabet that modern Japan usually reserves for foreign words. It’s a trend attributed to the Meiji and Taisho eras (roughly spanning the years 1868 to 1926), and sure enough, it’s no coincidence.

These days, most Japanese names, both male and female, are written using Chinese letters called kanji, lending additional meaning to the name. For example, many parents these days use the symbol for beauty (美, pronounced “mi”) in the names of baby girls. Another popular practice is adding the symbol for child (子, pronounced “ko”) at the end of girl’s names. But did you know that the latter was once reserved only for nobles and members of the Imperial Court? Until the time of the Meiji Era Census Reform, it was simply not allowed. In fact, most girls born in and around that time were given two-syllable names in katakana. It’s cute now to think about these tiny, old women with their short phonetic names that sound like “valley” (Sawa) “verse” (Shiku) or “rice plant” (Ine), but the reality behind why their names are written so simply is an amazing indicator of just how much Japan has developed as a society.

Basically, the katakana names given to baby girls born prior to the 1900s were a result of gender discrimination. The ability to read was not prevalent amongst the poor of that time period, so many families would pay a scholar to help them decide on a splendid name in meaningful kanji for their sons. However, that same measure was almost never taken for daughters. Even now, those belonging to the oldest generations in Japan—the women in particular—have a lot of trouble reading kanji. In other words, one of the reasons that a girl’s name remained written in katakana was that women were not thought of as fit for education. If a girl were to be given a name in kanji, she would be unable to read it. Only girls belonging to the most wealthy and noble families, such as the daughters of samurai, would be given names in kanji as an indication of their status.

To be fair, not all explanations for katakana names are so sexist. From the Meiji era all the way through World War II, aliases would be given in katakana (the syllabary for foreign words), rather than hiragana (the syllabary for Japanese words) or kanji (Chinese characters). Also, during that time period, names were registered orally with the local government office. Because few parents knew how to write kanji, much less explain which symbols to use in a child’s name, the documentation was often made in katakana.

Now, some might wonder why hiragana was not used in place of katakana when naming these girls, since hiragana is also a phonetic alphabet and closely associated with words of Japanese origin. It is because the soft, curvy nature of hiragana was thought of as womanly, so only katakana and kanji were used in official documents for a very long time. However, in a somewhat modern move, women born in the Tohoku (Northeast) region of Japan during that time period were often given hiragana names, instead of katakana.

These days, while you will find some boys and girls with names written in plain hiragana, most children, regardless of gender, have meaningful kanji to their names. It’s nice to know that even though the patriarchy has far from fallen in Japan, girls born into this modern age are given many more equal opportunities to excel, starting with a name of equal complexity to that of their male peers.

Source: Naver Matome (Japanese)
Image: Mako2050 on Yahoo! Blogs