Hong Kong (Japan) In a full-page spread on March 2, 1979, the Los Angeles Times introduced its readers to Pinyin, a Chinese romanization system it said was changing the “familiar map of China.”
In the new system, “Canton becomes Guangzhou and Tientsin becomes Tianjin.” Most importantly, the newspaper would now refer to the country’s capital as Beijing, not Peking.
This was a step too far for some American publications. In an article on Pinyin around this time, the Chicago Tribune said that while it would be adopting the system for most Chinese words, some names had “become so ingrained in our usage n that we can’t get used to new ones.”
The Tribune would continue using Peking into the 1990s, though by then it was something of an outlier. The New York Times noted in 1986 — while announcing its adoption of Beijing — that the name “has now become equally familiar” as the old moniker.
Now, Japan wants its turn. As the country marked the dawn of the Reiwa Era last year with the coronation of Emperor Naruhito, its foreign ministry felt it was an opportune time to request that the names of Japanese officials be written differently.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name, for example, would become Abe Shinzo, with his family name coming before his given name — just as the international media prints the names of Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
But if history is any guide, the Japanese government may have a long wait ahead of it before the English-language media conforms to its request.
The family-name-first format has always been used in Japanese. But during the Meiji Era that began in 1868, the order was reversed in English, to begin with, the given name, a format more familiar in the West.
While that decision may have made life easier for some 19th-century Western diplomats, Japan’s neighbors soon proved that foreigners could (for the most part) handle writing the “last name” first. And for almost two decades now Tokyo has been trying to reverse the Meiji reversal. Last year’s request to the international media was only the latest attempt.
Japan is “being hoisted on its own petard,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University. He added that in the past, the country was “eager to distance itself from its neighbors so as not to be confused with them.” Now, though, it wants the West to treat it the same. Read more