All this time, we’ve been calling Japan’s prime minister the wrong name

Scott Morrison and Shinzo Abe have talked up a series of agreements on infrastructure funding. (AAP) Source: AAP

The name Western media use when referring to Japan's PM could be set for an overhaul.

Shinzo Abe may be referred to as "Abe Shinzo", if foreign media outlets follow a request to be lodged by the Japanese government.

There are reports Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono plans to ask overseas media outlets to write Japanese names with the family name first, as per the tradition in the country.

Other Asian leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, are already named in this way by foreign media.

It is not the first time such a call has been made in Japan.

In 2000, in response to what it called "increasing internationalisation", Japan's National Language Council announced people should respect the naming practice of other cultures and nations, and the Japanese naming patterns of Japanese people should be followed.

Japan's Shinzo Abe (L) and China's Xi Jinping.
Japan's Shinzo Abe (L) and China's Xi Jinping.

"It is part of a wider deliberation that was hinting towards multiculturalism and respecting people's naming choices," Claire Maree, a senior lecturer in Japanese at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, said.

Things could get confusing for journalists and commentators covering the upcoming Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"For some people who are not used to it, it will take a bit of getting used to," Ms Maree said,

"But it is interesting that in Japanese scholarship in English there is a tradition of always mapping out that we are going to refer to Japanese people by the traditions of Japanese naming.

"So in academic work it has been happening for a long time.

"It can sound rather clumsy to do it the other way round in English."

When saying your own name has you pausing for thought

Preparing to be interviewed by SBS News, Etsuko Toyoda was nervous about introducing herself.

The Japanese-born lecturer at the University of Melbourne has to consider how to say her name and eventually decided to say her given name first and her family name second. 

Etsuko Toyoda

"To me it is not that which is correct or which is wrong," she said.

"I actually prefer my first name first because I like my first name.

"My (given) name is given to me, myself, and I like to have it first."

Raised in Japan, she recalls the first time she was referred to by her given name first.

"I went to Thailand as a child and I thought that was what I had to do when I go overseas," she said.

She said she saw the Japanese government's plan as part of a push to bring Japan back to being a more family-orientated country.

"I think it is more to do with this conservative government," she said.

"They are concerned with how foreign countries perceive Japan."

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch