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Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007

Giving Japanese names as tricky as picking buns


Special to The Japan Times

When you see an obvious mistake, should you point it out or just keep silent? It was coming up to Christmas, and I was in the bakery beside the station getting a sandwich for my lunch, when I noticed something new on the shelves: hot cross buns.

From time to time the cakes and buns and pastries on display would change, but this was something I had never seen before. Wondering nostalgically about the taste, I was puzzled by the holly-decorated sign that identified the buns, along with certain other items that were part of a Christmas special.

A few days later, dropping in the bakery again on my way home to pick up a pastry to accompany my coffee, I noticed there was no one around. So when I made my purchase, I mentioned very quietly to the man behind the counter that I thought hot cross buns were for the death of Christ, at Easter, and not the birth of Christ at Christmas. There was a gasp of sharply drawn breath: "Oh, I thought it was the Southern Cross!" he said, referring to star constellation. This comment was certainly quick thinking, and not what I expected. I had chosen a moment when the shop was empty, not wanting to loudly berate a shop assistant in a crowded emporium.

Still, my observation clearly wasn't welcome, and I felt even worse when I next went to the shop and found the buns had disappeared, never to return, even at Easter. The damage was irreversibly done.

Of course it was meddlesome to have mentioned it. Nevertheless, many of the bakery's morning customers are students at a nominally Christian college up the road, so I supposed the bakers might like to get it right.

It is discourteous for visitors to criticize, and yet there are many times when foreign residents must act as intermediaries between this country and the one they come from. And it isn't only for people passing through.

Back in Ireland, I was asked to write out the names of a young Irish couple in Japanese so that they could get them tattooed onto each other. I waited till I got back to Japan, then wrote out Aaron and Lisa, vertically and horizontally, in the kana script on my computer. Together with the printout, I sent a note saying that I would not attempt to put the names in kanji, and that I thought that hiragana was more elegant than katakana, but they could choose.

A more difficult request came up when my sister told me that someone she met at the hairdresser's wanted her two little girls' names written out in Japanese for them to take to school. No tattoos this time, but the problem was the names themselves: Kenichi and Sarika. It seemed the children's mother had heard them somewhere and just liked the sound. The difficulty was that only one of them was a girl's name.

I explained, or rather exclaimed, at once that Kenichi (more accurately rendered Ken'ichi) was invariably a boy's name in Japanese and couldn't possibly be otherwise outside the mother's fancy. Did she realize, I wondered? But anyway, I was asked to go ahead and come up with something. Sarika is not unthinkable as a girl's name in Japanese, though I have never seen it. It would not be difficult for someone to concoct a set of ate-ji, kanji characters used as a phonetic symbol rather than for its meaning.

While it was possible to conceive something satisfactory for Sarika, the other name was quite impossible. "Ken'ichi" in two characters — the second usually the character for "one" — is not only invariably a boy's name, it is usually reserved for the eldest son as well. There was simply no way that this could be made to look like a name for a little girl. And not just that, but the little girl would certainly one day find out the truth about her name. Once again I decided to avoid kanji and stick to kana, as I tried to solve the problem.

To make it fair, I decided to give each name three letters in kana, although Ken'ichi is usually four. Sarika is not difficult to do, and naturally comes out as three. To balance this, and to soften the boyishness of the other name, I did it exactly as it was written in romaji: Kenichi (ke-ni-chi). Both the girls, then, would have something the same length that looked quite similar on paper. It was the best I could think of.

I told my sister to have a quiet word with the children's mother, when she passed the papers over, to alert her to the situation.

Aaron and Lisa, I later heard, gave up the idea of their tattoos. And I said nothing more when I found hot cross buns being sold in a London supermarket — in August.



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