Your typical full name in Japan is made up of 4 kanji – 2 kanji for a first name or given name and 2 kanji for the last name or surname. There are somewhere around 600 or so extra kanji that are used just for names, but names also use common kanji like the most common last name in Japan – Tanaka, 田中. The 田(ta) is rice field, and 中(naka) is in the middle of. So, Tanaka literally means in the middle of the rice field, which is where I assume his great ancestors lived.
These names can get quite complex and even include kanji that people are not familiar with. The latest trend is to use kanji so complicated that most people have a hard time recognizing it much less reading it. In addition to that, different pronunciations of the kanji can be used to form different names. So, to eliminate all this confusion, there is usually a space on application forms for you to write the pronunciation of your name in katakana.
Where it gets tricky is for names that are natively in another writing system, like say roman letters. When that’s the case, sometimes you write your name in roman letters in the main box and the pronunciation of it in katakana in a smaller box that runs along top. But, sometimes, you have to write your name twice in katakana. Or, in the case of some poorly programmed web forms, you can’t enter your name at all.
To add to this, there are no middle names in Japan. So, if you are a foreigner with a middle name (like me) that middle name becomes a part of your first or given name. This can sometimes lead to confusing situations, where people have no idea what to call you. Is it the two names? Just the first part of the given name? Last name?
Getting your Personal Seal
In Japan, you use a personal seal, called a hanko or inkan, when you ‘sign’ a document. As a foreigner you can also just sign your actual name, but for whatever reason, banks seem to want you to have a seal. Most other places seem to be totally fine with a signature though. There are special shops that are set up that sell all manners of hanko, jeweled ones, fancy ones, automatic inking ones, etc… But, the most common names can be bought at your local Y100 store.
So, to make a seal for a foreigner, your name is usually converted into katakana. Also, if you are a part of the national health care and pension plans, you will have to use your name in katakana. Because katakana can’t really accurately represent the sound of your name, this can get a little complicated and be prone to errors. My name has been katakana-ized about 3 different ways if I can remember correctly, but now that I am apart of the national healthcare and pension plans that has become my official katakana name.
For my stamp though, things are a little different. When I first came to Japan I was working out in the country side and the person that arranged things for me got me a personal seal, but used my last name instead. This is because the name she got was listed in ‘passport’ order – MacKnight Clayton J. So, now my personal seal is just for ‘Mac’ or more specifically ‘MAKUU’ because it is 真空, which literally means ‘True Sky’. Not that bad I guess.
And that my friends, is how my nickname became ‘Mac’, which is a lot easier to say for people in Japan, also I don’t have to try to keep a straight face while they mangle ‘Clayton’.
Money Transfer Headaches
About 4 or 5 years ago, I managed to get a Japanese credit card. This can actually be a little difficult to do for a foreigner without a permanent residency, but if you keep the same job for 3 years, they will typically give you one, which is really handy for online shopping and other things where paper money is just a hassle.
Anyway, I applied through my bank and got accepted, got the credit card sent to me in the mail. A few weeks later, I used my fresh piece of plastic for a purchase, and received my bill in the mail. All cut and dry stuff really.
But, then when the payment due date came, my bank called me, actually they called me several times, well 8 times and left messages. They were calling me every 20 or 30 minutes. I thought somebody had stolen my card or something. When I finally did get them on the phone (and got them calmed down to speak slow enough for me to understand), they told me that my name on my credit card didn’t match my bank account, so they couldn’t make the withdraw to pay that month’s bill.
Now, this was my bank, actually someone at the branch of the bank that I signed up for an account at, telling me that the credit card that I applied for through them had the wrong name on it. I really started to question the intelligence and competence of the staff at my bank. How could they be that bone-headed?
Similar problems have happened when we registered our newborn at city hall, and gave them our details for them to deposit the child assistance that the local government so nicely provides. My wife put down my katakana name, but apparently my bank account was in my roman letter name. So, I had to go to the bank and change the names on my account. Now there are something like 3 different representations of my name attached to that one bank account.
Save Yourself from the Name Game
I personally recommend that if you are going to be staying in Japan for awhile, pick a katakana version of your name and stick with it. Write it down somewhere and always use that name. Also, just be aware that if you apply for something (like internet, or cell phone service) there might be some delays caused by name mismatches.
The same thing goes for money transfers of any kind, whether it is your paycheck or somebody sending you money, if you don’t receive it, your name might be the culprit.
Also be aware that a lot of big banks will allow you to put a couple of different representations of your name on your bank account. I recommend having at least a katakana and one in roman letters. You might also want to add a name that is surname first, and one that is given name first, like so:
Clayton J MacKnight (Western order)
MacKnight Clayton J (passport order)
Also, if someone tries to send you money, they may not always tell you or know if the money bounced. So, you will have to do the leg work and find out why it bounced and tell them to send it again.
Have you had name troubles?
If you live in Japan, have you had any issues with your name? What happened? How did you resolve the problem? Let me know in the comments.