Japan to Limit Unusual Baby Names

Growing up, all Yuni Matsumoto wanted was to fit in.

But his name made that hard. It was highly uncommon in Japan and, on top of that, essentially unreadable as written. Middle school classmates ridiculed him. The bullying got so bad that he eventually dropped out of school.

Mr. Matsumoto, 24, had what is known as a kira-kira — meaning “shiny” or “glittery” — name. A growing number of Japanese parents are choosing these unconventional names, often in hopes of making their children stand out in a country where pressure to conform is strong.

Mr. Matsumoto’s parents were driven by that same desire for uniqueness, but to him, his name was a shackle. This spring, he went to family court and had it changed to a common one, Yuuki, written in a way anyone could read. “I felt like I had finally been freed,” he said.

Japan is far from the only country where unusual names are on the rise. But Japanese children with unconventional names face societal and practical challenges unique to their country and its written language. Citing those difficulties, the government is now moving to rein in the practice, while insisting it is not closing off space for parents to be creative.

Within the next two years, changes will take effect in the law governing the all-important family registry certificates that every Japanese citizen must hold. The revisions will bar parents from giving their children some more extreme types of unconventional names and, for the first time in the registers’ 150-year modern history, require notations ensuring that all names can be read as intended.

At the root of the issue is an unusual feature of the Japanese language.

In Japan, most traditional names have characters, known as kanji, whose meanings represent what parents hope their child will grow up to become. (For instance, Hikari, a girl’s name, is written with a character meaning “light.”) Each character — parents can choose from among 2,999 under the law — has a pronunciation generally associated with it, and those sounds together make up the reading of the name.

Here’s the catch: Most kanji have additional possible pronunciations, a quirk related to Japan’s adoption of the Chinese writing system more than 1,500 years ago. That can give parents an opening to derive an unusual pronunciation from the sequence of characters that make up a name, with an intended reading that no one could know just from looking at the characters — the issue with Mr. Matsumoto’s name.

Seiko Hashimoto, a politician and Olympic medalist in speedskating, named her two youngest children Girisha (Greece) and Torino (Turin) — borrowing the sounds of characters to create names with meaning to her, but that are otherwise unreadable.

The use of Japanese names with unorthodox readings has increased over the past four decades, according to research by Yuji Ogihara, an associate professor of psychology at Aoyama Gakuin University.

Although “Japan is not known as an individualistic society compared to the West, the increase in the originality in baby names” is an indicator of a gradual easing of its historical collectivism, Mr. Ogihara said. The declining birthrate may also be a factor, he said, with many parents having only one shot at naming their child something distinctive.

The term kira-kira first appeared in the 1990s — often with a mockingly negative connotation, sometimes with a class element — and entered the vernacular around a decade ago.

The word has been applied to headline-grabbing names like Oujisama (“Prince”) and Akuma (“Devil”). Cases of unusual pronunciations include names drawn from anime, like Pikachu, or inspired by Western words.

There are, for instance, around 1,000 women and girls in Japan whose names are written with the character for “moon,” which is usually pronounced “tsuki,” but read as “Luna,” said Hiroyuki Sasahara, a linguist at Waseda University.

Not everyone with an unconventional name dislikes it. Urara Takaseki, a founder of multiple startups and a Ph.D. candidate in engineering at the University of Tokyo, said that a unique name — hers means “spring beauty” — helped her stand out in business and social settings.

“It’s a great conversation starter,” said Ms. Takaseki, 25, and it “makes it easy for others to remember you.”

But with the rise in unusual names has come more media attention to cases of people unhappy with them. In 2019, after a tweet by the aforementioned Prince went viral, the 18-year-old gave interviews expressing the embarrassment and shame he had endured.

According to a survey by NHK, the national broadcaster, 4,000 people a year change their names for reasons other than marriage. In Japan, people can legally change their name without parental permission starting at age 15.

A recent survey conducted by Bengo4.com, a legal consultation site, found that 80 percent of respondents believed that the readings of names should be limited by law. Many countries restrict names that could cause confusion or go against the best interest of the child.

The change in the Family Register Law will limit readings of the kanji in children’s names to those “generally recognizable by society.”

Family registers, or koseki, which are kept in local town halls and include vital records such as a person’s identity and family relationships, will also now indicate how names should be read. In written Japanese, phonetic symbols can be attached to characters as a reading aid.

“Our names are registered through sound, not sight, in daily life, and the law has never taken that into consideration,” said Atsumi Kubota, who led the legislative subcommittee that examined the law.

Under the revisions, for example, the name Takashi, written with a character meaning “high,” cannot be read as the Japanese word for “low.” Also disallowed: names that would cause confusion because their reading resembles, but is slightly different from, the usual reading.

Acceptable names will include those related to foreign words with the same meaning as the characters used, those with readings of words related to the meaning of the kanji, and those with unusual readings with a well-known precedent. In some cases, official approval will be required, Mr. Kubota said.

He argued that the amendments would still leave room for inventiveness, and that they would in fact improve comprehension of the unusual names that will still be allowed.

But Mr. Ogihara, the Aoyama Gakuin professor, said he worried that the changes would “restrict the creativity of parents in naming their children when giving them their very first gift.”

For his part, Mr. Matsumoto said he would like parents to think twice before giving their children unconventional names. Before he changed his own name to Yuuki, he said he had wanted to someday give his own son that name, which is written with two characters that mean “kindness” and “hope.”

“If you have a kira-kira name, other people will look at you and think that your parents are socially inept or unintelligent,” Mr. Matsumoto said.

“A name,” he added, “can change the trajectory of a life.”

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