Of all languages in the world, Japanese is the only one that has an entirely different set of written characters to express foreign words and names. Just seeing these characters automatically tells the Japanese that they are dealing with something or someone non-Japanese. What's more, the names of foreign citizens of Japanese ancestry are also written in this set of characters, indicating that while they may have Japanese names, they are not, well, really Japanese.When Japanese first began writing down their own language, they used Chinese characters whose pronunciation most resembled those of the Japanese words. (Actually, it was somewhat more complicated than that, but let’s leave it at that for the moment.) The characters used to depict the Japanese words in the Manyo era would lose many strokes and flourishes until they evolved into two sets of alphabets: the katakana and the hirakana. The stiff, unbending, “masculine” katakana was the alphabet of official record and academia—almost always as a complement to the vastly more exalted Chinese characters—while the “feminine” hirakana was the preferred means of expression for the womenfolk, the vernacular, and indigenous literature. Thus it must have been that noble names would be registered in official records in Chinese characters only, while those of the common folk would tend to be registered by a mixture of Chinese characters and katakana (but not, if it could be helped, hirakana). Vestiges of this tradition lived on in pre-WW II legislation and regulations that survived defeat and US occupation as a mixture of Chinese characters and katakana. By contrast, Meiji era authors aspiring to high literature (which came to be known as jun-bungaku or “pure literature” as opposed to taishu-bungaku, or “popular literature”, all of which in a turn of events that even I have to admit has a distinctly Japanese flavor spawned the category chukan-bungaku, or “intermediate literature”) used the effeminate hirakana even as they increasingly began to write in a new, evolving vernacular. Throughout all this, Chinese characters continued—continues—in use if nothing else as a visual aid to enable groups of letters to stand out and distinguish themselves as individual words.
By contrast, in Chinese, no such distinction is made. There, non-Chinese names are depicted, sometimes with great difficulty, entirely in Chinese characters. Foreigners are, in effect, made Chinese.
At bottom, the differences reflect each country's diverging worldview. In Japan, the rigid division between the inside and outside in the language underscores this country's enduring ambivalence toward the non-Japanese. While today's Japanese travel overseas with an ease and confidence that would have been unimaginable only two generations ago, they remain uneasy about foreign things and people coming here. Safer to label them clearly as foreign.
In the United States, parents' freedom to name their children may be absolute. Here the government and the media set the boundaries of names and the way they are written, thereby also setting the boundaries of Japanese identity.
In the media, the names of George Bush and Saddam Hussein are written in the characters reserved for foreign names. But so are the names of people of Japanese ancestry, like Alberto Fujimori, Peru's deposed president, or Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of ''Remains of the Day,'' who left Japan at the age of 5 and is a British citizen. Their names could be written in kanji, but are instead written in katakana, in an established custom indicating that they are not truly Japanese.
The distinctions are sometimes difficult to draw, as they touch upon the difficult question of who is Japanese, or, rather, when does someone stop being Japanese. The media have no set criteria. Are the criteria citizenship, blood, mastery of the Japanese language or customs? Or, in this island nation where leaving Japan has always meant leaving the village, does one start becoming non-Japanese the minute one steps off Japanese soil? There is a strong argument to be made for that. Children of Japanese business families stationed overseas for a few years invariably encounter problems returning here. Schoolmates often pick on them and call them gaijin, meaning foreigner or outsider.
It is within this context that foreign words and names were incorporated into Japanese writing. Rendering them in Chinese characters was out of the question, since even Onishi admits that this is done in Chinese “sometimes with great difficulty.” So the choice of katana within the context of a hirakana-based text was all but inevitable. This had nothing to do with any kind of Japanese ethos that Onishi intimates; it was the logical outcome of the ancient legacy where Japan was using three sets of letters when the Black Ships arrived. The katakana served as a surrogate for kanji, nothing more.
Be that as it may, this raises the Onishi question: How should the names of foreigners with Japanese-origin names—not necessarily ethnic Japanese—be written in Japanese? Using the original Chinese characters is not as easy you would imagine; even the most commonly used surname can have several different renderings in Chinese characters and it is not a given that every individual will know which one applies in his case. As for the given name, a second-generation Japanese-foreigner may not have a Japanese rendering of it at all. The simplest, uniform rule then is to treat them as any other foreigner, that is, render them in katakana. And that is what the media and official sources, in principle, have done. This arrangement that has everything to do with the peculiarity of having two alphabets in addition to the Chinese characters (in contrast to Koreans, who have only one alphabet) and little to do with Onishi’s insinuations.
What remains is a small number of borderline cases, i.e. what to do with naturalized Japanese citizens, individuals who have given up Japanese citizenship, and the rare individual who are revealed to have retained Japanese citizenship after becoming a public figure in Japan. The first case is the easiest: upon naturalization, the new Japanese citizen needs to assume a name that can be rendered in one or more of the three character sets. And this is the one moment in a Japanese citizen’s life that he can adopt the name of one’s desires, be it a close approximation of one’s original name, or something altogether different with few legal restrictions. (I don’t see any legal barriers to a newly Japanese male renaming himself Tsuchiya Anna, for instance. Or Hoshino Aki. And did I tell you about the time that I ran into a very pregnant Jun Okumura?) With the second and third cases, my sense is that the media tends to use whatever script that was being used when that person first became a public figure. Thus, the name of a star figure skater who subsequently gives up Japanese citizenship will continue to be rendered in the characters that comprised that person’s original Japanese name (unless that person has adopted a different name), while someone like Alberto Fujimori, whose Japanese citizenship became known only after he sought asylum, will continue to have his name rendered in katakana. By the same token, “Norimitsu Onishi” woujld be rendered in the katakana alphabet. All this has nothing to do with Onishi’s personal angst.
So why has Onishi produced this crapulous piece of not-even-pop linguistics that cops the fig leaf of journalism? The answer appears to lie in the following personal confession hiding behind a set of questions. For it must be his deep sense of alienation as the oddest of gaijin; an individual who looks like a native, talks like a native—I understand that he speaks excellent Japanese—yet finds that the similarities only serve to accentuate the distance between the North American essence that permeates every fiber of his being. One feels that it would have been much easier on his psyche if he had been White. No, Onishi is not a fuckwad, or even a wuckfad. He is in his own way sincere and true to his essence. He is the one who left the village. This does not excuse his journalistic transgressions, in the same way that the character flaws of Nixon’s (or Carter’s for that matter), but it does help in understanding him and humanizing his errors—much in the same way that I hope mine will be understood, if not forgiven, by those who know me well.
There are many other notable errors in Onishi’s report, but there’s only so much pro bono work I can do.
Finally, it is useful to confuse you further by taking note of the fact that the pronunciation of Chinese names are given in hirakana, while those of Korean names are given in katakana.