Last name first, first name last: Japan minister tells foreign media to get it right | World news

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Japan’s foreign minister will ask international media organisations to use the family name first when writing Japanese names – as is customary in the Japanese language – in an attempt to reverse a century of linguistic convention.

Taro Kono – or perhaps that should be Kono Taro – said foreign media should follow the same practice they use when reporting on other Asian countries where the family name traditionally comes first, followed by their given name. As an example, he said Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, should in future be written as Abe Shinzo.

Some see the request as part of a movement, led by the conservative Abe, to demonstrate a growing confidence in Japan’s culture and history as it prepares for more than a year in the international spotlight, first with the G20 summit, followed by the Rugby World Cup in the autumn and then the 2020 Olympics.

Kono suggested the change should be introduced in time for the G20 – being held in Osaka in late June – when visiting leaders will include Chinese president Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, whose names are written in English in the order they appear in their native languages – surname first.

“I plan to ask international media organisations to do this,” Kono told reporters, adding that domestic media with English-language services should also consider adopting the change.

The practice of putting given names first gained wide acceptance during the late 19th century and early 20th century, when Japan looked to Europe as it sought to modernise its economy and military.

Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono.



Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

Historically, the public appears divided on the proposal. In a 2000 poll by the cultural affairs agency, 34.9% of respondents preferred the Japanese order, while 30.6% liked the western order better, and 29.6% had no preference.

Kono, a fluent English speaker who was educated in the US, has made no secret of his desire to promote the change, saying earlier this year the foreign ministry was considering applying the name reversal to official documents. His business card introduces him as “KONO Taro”.

The education secretary, Masahiko Shibayama, is among those who support the change, saying this week the ministry would recommend a reversion to the Japanese system among public bodies, educational institutions and the media.

Shibayama cited a 2000 report by the ministry’s national language council recommending the switch, saying it reflected “respect for cultural diversity” among different countries, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun.

The chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, acknowledged the change could be problematic. “We have to consider a lot of factors, including convention,” he said.

While the surname-first approach has become commonly used in English-language textbooks for middle school pupils, Kono’s proposal could encounter resistance among Japanese companies with a strong global presence. Uniqlo, Honda and Rakuten have all adopted the western name order for company literature.

Last month, experts for the first time drew on Japanese classical literature for inspiration when deciding a name for the new imperial era, Reiwa (beautiful harmony), breaking with the tradition of drawing on characters from classical Chinese literature.

Abe said at the time the era name “symbolises our nation’s profound public culture and long tradition”, adding that Japanese values should not be allowed to “fade away”.

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