Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Follow-Up on Toms, Dicks, and Harrys

I’ve struck up a dialogue of sorts with Siegfried Knittel, who has confirmed that he is indeed the guy in in this article. (It was hard to imagine two German freelance journalists named Siegfried Knittel who share an interest in things Japan.) However, he also tells me that he is not the white guy in the photo, in case you wondered. With his permission, I’m taking a passage from his email as the jump-off point for a post, a follow-up to this one.

About your thoughts about names. I think specially first names have a lot to do with identity or who people would like to be. Often parents have some ideas what kind of people their child should be, what kind of character it should develop. So if Asian parents give their child an English name, they think, I guess, the child should live like the Americans do, should be wealthy, successful like the Americans. But I think it's a burden for the children. I am German and I feel, think, eat like a German. I like Italian, French, Japanese food very much, perhaps at home I cook more Italian style than German style, but I guess my last meal should be a special meal from the region of Stuttgart, where I was born. When Germany was divided, the people from East Germany could not travel to the southern Europe countries like Italy or Spain. So they gave their children Spain names like Carmen or Manuela—or English names like Mike but mostly written Maik. Their children should fulfill the wishes of their parents. I think it's not the best preparation for their lives.


It is true that Asian parents can be overbearing, and burden their children with impossible expectations. But one’s given name is the least of those problems. Besides, in the case of the Taiwanese, their English names are more often than not adopted when they get a passport. That means that they can make their own choices. And remember, under the Confucian tradition, a member of the upper classes assumed a new, permanent name on reaching adulthood (a chronologically flexible concept BTW), a name that expressed the person he aspired to be. The old name would be left, I assume, to be used among old intimates, in private. In that context, don’t you think that leaving your home country for the first time would be a perfect time to take on a new name?

Your story about the East German names is touching; it’s also a significant piece of social history of the Cold War history. You may be know that many Cubans gave their post-revolutionary children Russian names, with their spelling often altered to conform to Spanish pronunciation (similar to the German Maik). To those Cuban parents, Russia must have been the beautiful country that many good things came from and only the chosen few were able to visit. In retrospect, there must have been better places for the parents to wish their children to aspire to, but I don’t think that much harm came of it. And if it gave them a reason to wonder about the big, unseen world out there, that would have been for the better, in all.

Closer to home, Japanese names have changed and mutated enormously throughout history, particularly after the Meiji Restoration, so we are used to name changes over and beyond the Confucian tradition. Moreover, we do not have the Christian, Jewish or Islamic heritage of an unchanging core group of names grounded in scripture. (An extreme example of a somewhat similar phenomenon may be the nation of Sikhs, where everyone's surname is Singh.) Thus, any half-way decent name goes in Japan, although Akuma (phonetically, Japanese for devil) was rejected by the authorities.

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