Japan Today

Why elderly Japanese women have names in katakana

By Rachel Tackett

Amidst all of the controversy flaring up in Japan over “kirakira names,” the question has been raised concerning a rather peculiar name trait shared by many old Japanese women. A large number of aging women 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 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 among 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

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- The 10 most common surnames in Japan (and their meanings) -- Is the Japanese Word for “Thank You” Losing Its Meaning? -- New wave of “creative” Japanese names read more like riddles

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4 ( +5 / -1 )

A well-written and informative article. More like this please!

12 ( +13 / -1 )

"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."

But then there would still be more old men with their names in Katakana, so it IS still entirely sexist. Anyway, informative article, thank you, although saying Katakana is the phonetic syllabary for foreign words is a bit simple; it is used for emphasis and other purposes as well. But hey.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Very inaccurate.

First, For someone who seems to be concerned with respect, why is she writing "old Japanese women" or "old women" all the time? Doesn't she know "older," "elderly," and "lady," are more respectful?

As for the story, that might be part of the story, but I don't think this author has a real appreciation of Japanese language or history. Katakana is not "reserved" for foreign words, though in current practice it is often used for them, it is and always has been used for a lot of other things too. I sincerely doubt that using Hiragana in Tohoku was any kind of sign of modernity, or, "hey let's step forward." it was probably some kind of cultural preference or aesthetic choice. Further, Hiragana is not "plain," though I suppose the author has a right to her personal opinion about it, in standard J aesthetics and the opinions of average J people Hiragana is a beautiful cursive script. Kanji too is not enjoyed for is "complexity" usually, but for its beauty. While it would be a personal feeling, J kids who have hiragana names are likely to like them, and not complain that they are just as complex a human being so they "deserve" a complex kanji name. Finally Katakana too is generally believed to be beautiful too, though in an angular and strong way.

Probably the truest part of the article was the part where the illiterate parents told the names of their kids to the town officials who wrote them in katakana, (presumably the boys as well as the girls). This shows us a number of things: everybody was illiterate, so even those (probably few) who paid hard-earned cash for a son's kanji name couldn't read it and it was either for fashion to display wealth, or to help the kid obtain a job in the future. Also it shows one of the uses of katakana, which is to write phonetically when you are not sure of what you are writing. i.e. Now as well if you tell someone to write down a sentence that has a word they don't know in it, they will be more likely to write the unknown word in katakana than hiragana, (though of course you could do either). Hiragana is used for word endings and grammatical particles (though long ago, katakana was), and katakana is more often used for just phonetic sound. And this is really why foreign words often get written in katakana (though an awful lot of foreign words DO have kanji, and you also DO see them written in hiragana), because it is more likely to be used for phonetic notation when not sure of meaning/ origin.

Now to the names. Yes, we all know times were tough in the old days and certain kinds of chances were going to be given to the sons. But names are more than just that. These old two-syllable names have charm and beauty and femininity, and they became a custom, beyond just being a convenient way to "cheaply" name a "cheap" daughter. Thus, even after literacy became more widespread, you would keep similar names, and writing styles, because it was a custom. i.e. people liked the names. In fact like parents everywhere, they thought about the sound of the name, the meaning, and important ppl in their lives, relatives, etc. when naming their kids.

So what has this article told us? Well, I already knew that in old times boys had more chances for different jobs in the world. As for names and language? It seems the author has tried to make a simple equation of Katakana= childish and low level, illiterate, weak, Hiragana= plain and not complex, Kanji= complex and therefore a sign of intelligence. Ergo boys w/ Kanji names got a better deal than girls w/ Katakana names. Well, that's just wrong. The J language, like any, is not just some simple hierarchy, but a complex set of signals. And, As I said all syllabaries are appreciated for beauty more than complexity, including kanji, and I have never heard anyone say "Writing in kanji is better than hiragana because it is so complex." If anything the opposite. Nor do you hear "Kanji names are better because they are complex". This is laughable. They want a good meaning for their kid, or a cool stroke order, or the name of a relative, whether kanji or katakana or hiragana.

So what about names in old times? They too got names that were good sound or meaning or a relative's. It's their name and often they are proud of it. When one of the "old women" stands up and says "My name is sexist I want to change it." I will believe her.

-6 ( +5 / -11 )

What does the poem have to do with the article, other than that the poem is written in katakana?

They've bloomed, they've bloomed, the cherries have bloomed.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Very interesting! I always wondered why my husband's grandmother's name is "Ema" and is written in katakana. Seemed so un-Japanese to me.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@roten The poem shows that textbooks for kids were very simple in an age where many had low levels of literacy.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

My grandmother in law has only hiragana for her name since the Kanji for her name no longer exists or never existed. Her name is Minewo and it's always in Hiragana or Katakana on new years cards. When I asked why he said "her name has no Kanji" This article was very interesting though!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Interesting article. As a long time student of Japanese I am often asked by those of Japanese ancestry about the meanings of their first or middle names given to them by their parents or grandparents. In many cases the parents or grandparents were not literate in kanji, so had family elders, Buddhist priests, teachers, etc name their children. While katakana and hiragana are phonetic and don't have meanings per se as kanji do, there are trends in names (fewer girls' names ending in "ko" over that past few years) so I am able to provide some context on that. Kanji, literally Chinese characters, pack a lot of meaning so I have spent many an hour discussing the meaning of a person's name.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Great read! I love stuff like this! Indeed more please! :)

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Picking nits here:

Even now, those belonging to the oldest generations in Japan — the women in particular — have a lot of trouble reading kanji.

No. Unless when you say "oldest" you mean "over 110." Even then, I think not. Meiji education reforms requiring basic primary education for girls, including of course learning to read and write at least a few hundred kanji, kicked in by the end of the 19th century. (That's why the first magazines specifically for girls began to appear in 1902--I'm going to be lecturing on this very topic in one of my classes this week.) Some rural areas may have been lax about literacy, but I think you would be hard pressed to find an old person of either sex who has trouble reading kanji, unless that person has a learning disability or came from a particularly dysfunctional background.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

i didnt know that.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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