Foreigners' Names in Chinese and Japanese

I recently stumbled upon a fascinating article entitled Japan and China: National Character Writ Large (via Language Log) regarding the way the Chinese and Japanese languages render foreigners’ names in their own scripts. These are all things that I’ve thought about at one time or another, but it was nice to see it all brought together so succinctly.

It’s true: when I was in Japan, I had no choice about my “Japanese name.” My name was simply my English name pronounced according to Japanese phonetic limitations. There was no discussion. In China, however, choosing a Chinese name is a big deal, and it’s sort of a necessary measure for anyone staying in China very long and dealing with Chinese people frequently.

Here’s an interesting quote from the article:

“China is a big continent and has an inclination to think that it is No. 1 and that others are uncivilized,” said Minoru Shibata, a researcher at NHK, Japan’s public broadcast network. “Therefore, they feel that giving Chinese names to foreigners is doing them a favor.”

Give the article a read.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. So, what guided your choice(s)? What is the import of it? Are the Chinese properly appreciate/impressed by your choice? Does it translate well into the various dialects? Or is it the same, just pronounced differently? Can you put it on your soundboard?

  2. Da Xiangchang Says: March 22, 2004 at 3:01 am

    Highly, highly fascinating article!

    However, I think a basic point of the article is flawed: the Chinese are more open to foreign influences than the Japanese. I would think it’s the other way around, or, at least, both are equally open to Western ideas. Just because the Chinese don’t use a different set of characters to write foreign names really doesn’t mean anything. Look at the societies themselves. I’ve never been to Japan, but I’d bet the average Japanese can experience a LOT more Western things than the typical Chinese. For example, I doubt “The Passion of the Christ” will be playing at a Shanghainese multiplex anytime soon.

    And I don’t buy the Japanese guy’s idea that China “think[s] that it is No. 1 and that others are uncivilized.” Maybe 200 years ago, but I think modern China is VERY aware of its fall from power, and is trying its hardest to climb back up.

    Finally, is the citizenship factor between the two countries so different? From what I know, to be “Chinese” or “Japanese” is still solely a matter of blood. I think a 100 years will have to pass before a guy who looks like John could say, “I’m Chinese,” and not have some guy say, “Get the &*!@$#^%@ outta here!”

  3. I have to disagree, although the article is interesting, I think it is nothing more than a superficial treatment and deeply flawed in many ways. One of the first things I should mention, that sadly none of the American expatriats picked up on, is the adaptation of foreign loan words into Chinese. Unlike in Japanese, there simply is no other alternative (katakana) to introducing foreign words. This is not an attempt at sinacization but rather practicality. To use a more illustrative metaphor. Consider the following statement. “Man drinks water because he enjoys the taste of water” while overlooking the obvious fact that “Man drinks water because it is required to live”. In the same ways, foreign words are mimiced phonetically in Chinese because there exists no alternative.

    Secondly the adoption of foreign words does not make anything neccessarily “chinese”. Depending on your level of fluency in Chinese, it may not be noticeable for Americans, but for Chinese, there are very noteable differences in native Chinese words and Chinese words of foreign origin. Take for example the word Sha Fa. This is a Chinese transliteration of the word sofa. However, the characters used to depict this idea have nothing to do with either furniture or relaxing. Instead the characters used represent sand and hair, which have absolutely nothing in common with the idea and associations of the word Sofa beyond the fact that they are simply convenient to use because they most closely mimic the sound.

    In regards to Chinese identity and associations, I believe the author makes another mistake in assuming that all or even many overseas Chinese can be regarded as Chinese even after so many generations. I myself am a first generation emigre and can testify that upon return visits to China, I find it difficult to associate myself even with my immediate family. They of course accept me as part of the family but not everyone does so without reservations, particularly those beyond the family. For them, I will always be the prodigal son who grew up in America. While they regard me as Chinese, I can’t help but feel I am ersatz Chinese and there exists a gulf between me and them.

    Finally in regards to what the big sausage said about citizenship. This is one area where China has somewhat of a lead over Japan. Japan maybe ethnically homogenous (excepting ethnic Koreans and Ainu) but the PRC officially recognizes 56, including the han, ethnicities within its borders. Some of them, such as the Uighur have facial features far different than your standard mongoloid yet they are still Chinese citizens.

  4. Jing hits the nail on the head. Very superficial. It also seemed to me like it was just another article about how ‘unique’ the Japanese see themselves:

    “There is no other language that has three sets of characters  only Japanese,” said Muturo Kai, president of the National Institute for Japanese Language.”

    So? And the article’s final statement is also demonstrably incorrect, and merely perpetuates a common stereotype:

    “Overseas Chinese have a long tradition, and they remain Chinese even after generations have passed. Japanese regard second- or third-generation overseas Japanese, even though they are of Japanese origin, as `people from that country over there.’ “

    I don’t know of any 2,3 4,5, generation etc Chinese-American that would consider him/herself ‘Chinese’. And Chinese I know in the Mainland/Taiwan also consider second and third generation overseas Chinese as ‘people from that country over there’.

    And Jing is also correct for the most part about loan words into Chinese. In most cases you can spot them right away.

  5. I purposely chose the quote to incite this kind of response… Looks like it worked. 🙂

    I think that although the article oversimplifies a few issues (and in doing so comes across as superficial), it’s not as off track as some of you seem to think.

    Da Xiangchang, I think you would agree that China seems to have a weird superiority/inferiority complex with regards to the West. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. I think we’ve talked about it before. The article only makes reference to the superiority side.

    Also, being Japanese is not solely a matter of blood, and it is here that I completely agree with the article. I have numerous Japanese friends that have spent long periods of time in other countries. Upon returning to Japan, Japanese people treat them differently, as if they are “less Japanese” for spending so much time away. The Fujimori example is a good one.

    Jing and Roy, I think you’re looking at that issue from the wrong angle. It’s not a question of how a person of Chinese descent sees himself in relation to China, it’s a question of how China sees him. And all evidence I’ve seen seems to point to the fact that the Chinese still see him as part of the family (even if he’s a little different). Were he Japanese, it wouldn’t be the case.

    Regarding katakana… Jing, you say that in Chinese there’s no alternative. Well, isn’t that the point? The Japanese made sure they could keep the new foreign loanwords separate.

    Also, I think it’s significant that the Chinese transliterate far, far fewer loanwords into Chinese characters than the Japanese. Most of them are represented by Chinese concepts (good example “computer” — diannao in Chinese, konpyuutaa in Japanese). The fact that native speakers can still tell which words are loanwords is beside the point. Since the loanwords are not orthographically distinct, with time the distinction will blur. Chinese society is changing fast, and so is the language. Meanwhile, more and more loanwords are pouring into the Japanese language, but it’s orthographically obvious; a quick glance at any magazine page will reveal that a huge proportion of the text is katakana — loanwords.

  6. I have to side with jing, at least for the chinese language. the Chinese language does not do loan words well. Besides a few words like “shafa” chinese attempts at recreating english are totally unrecognisable. Ask somebody to say the full chinese vesre of George W. Bush or bill clinton. I think this says more about the uniqueness of the chinese language than chinese culture.

    I was only in japan for about a week, but the thing I noticed about the language was how many loan words it had for things that I thought would already have had a japanese word. I rember ordering a “greeno saladu” and the major mountain chain is called the “alpu”

  7. Just wanted to comment that the Chinese can be very clever when they do indeed transliterate. Case in point, kekoukele (可口可乐). The Chinese name I was given was also picked to sound like my last name in English.

  8. I’m not a linguist, im a history major, so I’ll have to take what the writers at the Language Log say at face value. They make the point that katakana is not solely for the purpose of adopting foreign words into the Japanese lexicon.

    “Historically, there is no association at all between katakana and foreign words. Originally, Japanese was written entirely in Chinese characters, where the characters were sometimes used for their meaning and sometimes for their sound. Not just any character could be used for its sound: for each syllable a certain set of characters could be used, up to about a dozen. This writing system is called 万葉仮名 [man’yoogana] “10,000 leaf kana”, after the 万葉集 Man’yooshuu “collection of 10,000 leaves”, the great anthology of poetry compiled in 752 C.E., which was written in this writing system. Over time, the redundant characters were eliminated, so that each syllable was represented by a single character, and the characters were simplified, which had the effect of differentiating them from Chinese characters. For instance, the katakana letter ナ [na] is a simplification of the Chinese character 奈.

    This systematization and simplification of the 万葉仮名 took place twice, resulting in hiragana and katakana. hiragana came to be used particularly by women, katakana (together with Chinese characters) by men. Prior to the Second World War, katakana were routinely used to write native Japanese words. When European words first began to enter Japanese in the latter half of the sixteenth century, in many cases Chinese character spellings were created for them, as I’ve mentioned before. There was no special way of writing them.

    Two relatively recent developments give rise to the impression that katakana are for writing foreign words. The earlier of the two is the shift away from maximizing the use of Chinese characters. This resulted in most of the old Chinese character spellings for European words being abandoned, and in the cessation of the creation of Chinese character spellings for newly introduced foreign words. The more recent of the two is the postwar shift to hiragana as the default phonological writing system. Together, these resulted in foreign words being written phonologically, and in the use of katakana becoming special.

    Even if katakana were not developed for the purpose of writing foreign words, are they now used exclusively for this purpose? No. katakana are also used in a number of other situations:

    to write the common names of plants and animals in scientific text, e.g. カエル [kaeru] “frog”;
    to write certain female given names e.g. エミ Emi and マリ Mari;
    to write slang words such as インチキ [inchiki] “fake”;
    to write onomatopoeic words such as ワンワン [wanwan] “bow-wow”;
    to spell out a person’s name so that the reader will be sure to pronounce it correctly;
    to write any word when it is desired to emphasize it, as italics are used in English;
    Until recently, telegrams were always written in katakana. However, in 1988 it became possible to use hiragana, katakana and roman letters in telegrams, so the default writing system for telegrams shifted to hiragana as it had for other text.

    So we see that even now katakana are by no means used exclusively for foreign words. The real principle at work is that hiragana is the default, while katakana is marked. When you want to mark something as special, you use katakana, rather like italics and scare quotes are used in English. The fact that Japanese usually write foreign words in the marked writing system may reflect a particularly intense interest in what is foreign and what is Japanese, but it isn’t really very different from the English practice of writing words and expressions still perceived as foreign in italics, such as ad hoc and force majeure.”

    One more point I’d like to make is that Kana alphabet itself did not emerge simply because of any exclusionary Japanese mentality. It arose because of neccessity and practicality. As you well know, Japan did not develop an original written language but instead classical Chinese was imported from the continent. However, monosyllabic ideograms are not particularly well suited for spoken Japanese thus hiragana and katakana emerged to suppliment the Kanji lexicon. If anything, I could use the example of the Japanese adoption of classical Chinese as indication of their willingness to embrace foreign thought, but that too would be fraught with the same superficiality that I accuse the original article of.

  9. Jing,

    Most of what you quoted there was spot on. However, it is still not incorrect to say that katakana is mostly used for loanwords. It is. This can be proven by picking up any Japanese newspaper or magazine and categorizing the use of katakana.

    You state that “Japan did not develop an original written language,” but it did. Hiragana and katakana exist in no other languages. Japanese just didn’t start from zero. Very few civilizations created their writing systems from scratch.

  10. I disagree that Chinese still treat other Chinese who have lived overseas as “part of the family.” I have found the opposite: they are viewed with suspicion. Two of my Chinese friends who have lived in the US and Japan for extended periods have commented on this. It is difficult to generalize, however. In any case, I also read that article a few days ago, and was also surprised at how superficial it was. To me it just seemed like a string of stereotypes. And probably every non-US country on Earth has a superiority/inferiority complex (the US just has a superiority complex). .. well, sometimes we feel inferior to Canada….they wish. 😉 That’s a joke – don’t go ballistic on me.

  11. You know, it’s funny, I’ve been in China for a month and I haven’t really found it necessary to have a Chinese name yet (it’s mostly out of indecision that I don’t have one). The only person I’ve met who cared was a reporter who interviewed me for the local paper. She was like, “Why not pick one right now?” but I decided I wasn’t going to do that all of a sudden just because she said to. Any advice on picking one that doesn’t sound stupid to Chinese people?

  12. 楊 經 緯, a name fitting of a champion Nat 🙂

    p.s. John I noticed under the pictures section that you graduated from UF? I’m attending right now and wrapping up my junior year. It certainly seems the internet is making the world a smaller place. I ran into another blog (voluntarily in China) whos author is a Tennessean living somewhere Liaoning, where I was born and raised. Oddly enough, I spent 12 of my formative years growing up in Tennessee and only left to begin university life here at UF.

  13. “I decided I wasn’t going to do that all of a sudden just because she said to. Any advice on picking one that doesn’t sound stupid to Chinese people?”

    Why not just have several and rotate between them as the need demands? That’s what I do.

    — Liu Dehua
    (huabing de hua)

  14. Alf,

    About Japanese using loan words for things that should have Japanese… They oftentimes DO have Japanese words for things such as green salads and Alps, but it is considered more modern/contemporary/stylish to use foreign loan words than to use the native Japanese word, especially in restaurants or commercial enterprises. One chain that I noticed resisting such adoption of loan words is MUJI. Most of their products are labelled in full Japanese, good for studying 🙂

  15. For what it’s worth, I too thought the article was bunk.

    As for katakana, I think Jing is correct in that it’s “mostly” used for loan words. Doesn’t it have other uses? For example, I hear that telegrams are transcribed in katakana. Also, somebody mentioned the invention of katakana, and I believe that at its inception it was not an alphabet for loan words.

  16. Anonymous Says: April 20, 2004 at 1:58 am

    zxgkl;’/. n/”xz

  17. Hi Please can you email me how to spell SADE in chinese
    kind regards

  18. John,

    Katakana and hiragana didn’t come from ” scratch” like you said, it derrived from kanji. Therefore, the entire Japanese script derrives from China. The Koreans claim that their ” hangul” is a real ” indigenous” script, not something derrived from sinographs, like the Japanese came up with their kana, but many Indian scholars scrutinize this and claim it is inspired after the Devangari system from which Sanskrit and other scripts in the Subcontinet of India derrived and which they said, Buddhist monks copied from. So there is a huge controversy with the ” hangul” Korean originality.

    Regarding the growing pseudo-english with katakana in Japan. It is a real disgrace; it looks like they are selling out their language, something that I don’t see in Mandarin, they guard it well like the French do.

  19. schtickyrice Says: February 25, 2005 at 5:05 am


    Interesting possible connnection between Korean hanggul and Sanskrit. However, hanggul does not look anything close to other Sanskrit derived East Asian written languages such as Burmese, Thai, Khmer or Tibetan…superficially at least.

    Considering the geographic proximity of Korea and Manchuria, I wonder if Korean hanggul has any connections with the Manchurian script as seen on the bilingual plaques above every building in the Forbidden city in Beijing. I believe the Manchurian and Mongolian scripts were based on a phonetic alphabet developed by the Uighurs, who have subsequently abandoned their own script for the Arabic version after their conversion to Islam. Written vertically from top to bottom, the original Uighur script itself was believed to have been adapted from the Syriac alphabet, which was written horizontally from left to right and used in the Middle East before the rise of Islam.

  20. I read the NY Times article (thanks for the link) – it made fascinating read, as too the comments on this forum. My experience has taught me that Chinese consider all Chinese people that – regardless of where they have lived… they only change that view if the Chinese person in question doesn’t speak Mandarin/Cantonese or know cultural values or norms – as my Australian-born and raised Chinese friend discovered years ago when she was yelled at on the street in mainland China when she said “I only speak English.” I am sure it is an affront to their culture. As for Japanese, my experience with my ex-partner (Japanese man) is that blood matters. Even mixed race Japanese are looked down upon. My partner lived in Australia for many years and returned back to Japan two years ago. He has encountered no issue whatsoever about his “Japanese-ness”. This is my experience and I, in no way shape or form, assume this is the truth or the experience of others.

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