Sunday, January 08, 2006

What's in a name?

Interview at IzumoTaisha
Originally uploaded by Jason In Japan.

So in my 2nd year here I've made a concentrated effort to learn more of my students' names.

For instance, the three girls in this picture are named (l to r) Mako, Risako, & Sayako.

You might think there's nothing that remarkable about me learning their names, but let's look at Mako's name as an example -
I have 9th grade girls named Mako, Maki, Mika, Miho, & Maiko. It's tough.
But adding to the difficulty is the fact that one rarely uses someone's first name at school. All Japanese say their name last name first and teachers call on students by their last name followed by an honorific such as "kun" (for boys) or "chan" for girls or "san" for either. So Sayako here isn't ever called Sayako - she's Moriyama san in class and to most of her peers - only her close friends call her Sayako, and then even they would possibly abbreviate the name into something cute like Saya-chan or something along those lines.

But wanting to introduce Western styles, I've tried hard to call all my kids by their first names. It only makes sense since they all call me Jason, although I still have teachers and students that call me "Mr. Jason" which is one of the few things that irritates me in Japan. I doubt some of them even know my last name is Harris.

So, being bored the other day and taking an idea from my friend Emily, I decided to look thru my Jr High "face book" and see which last name is most in use at my main school. My town is small and close-knit, so I know many of the families in town are related and I'm sure many of the students with the same last name are probably siblings, although not always.

What's a face book, you ask. It's the item that's allowed me to make some progress this year learning my kids' names. Every year, in April, the school takes passport-size head shots or mug shots of all the kids in every class and then compiles a book listing their class, student number and their name and picture. So I made a xerox of each class's page and with the help of some of my students i wrote out all the kanji names in romaji. So now I have a face to go with the name and it's helped immeasureably.

So I went through the face book the other day (I had to go to work to save using a vacation day even though there are no students at school until Tuesday - Monday is a holiday here - "Coming of Age Day" - a special day for young people turning 20 this year) and just made a list of which last names appear in more than one class.

Just like "Smith" or "Jones" or any other common name in the West, there are names which are very common in Japan and like I said, my small town probably has a higher instance of some names due to long standing family ties to my region of Shimane.

My very unscientific research found 19 names that are shared by more than 5 students. Taisha JH has roughly 480 students.

Here are the names followed by the number of students that share that name:

ITO - 10
SATO - 9
KATO - 9
AGO - 7
SOTA - 5
AOKI - 5

With 4 appearances are these names:
Ueno, Hino, Takahashi, Nagami, Watanabe, Ishida, Iijima, & Fujihara.

Many of these even with practice are difficult for me to pronounce and whenever I hand back papers in class and have to call the students' names it's an endless source of amusement, but I'm getting better.

I have 4 students named Moriyama in one class, but luckily 2 are boys and 2 are girls, making it easier to keep them separate in my mind.

So when I see my kids outside of school. like at the grocery store or at the shrine on New Year's Day I count it as a small triumph if I know their name, and if I don't then I try to make a mental note to learn it. Of course, anyone who's taught in Japan can tell you how disconcerting it can be to see your students outside of school in regular, everyday, street clothes. 95% of the time I see my kids in the exact same outfit - either their winter/summer uniform or their gym clothes - even when they have to some to school on the weekends or on a holiday or during a vacation period they wear their school uniform. Which means that another thing that helps you keep track of your students' names in a Western school - their individual fashion style, whether that be a hoodie and jeans or slick and preppie or jock casual - is removed from my situation - it actually throws me when I see my kids in jeans and a t-shirt - i simply don't recognize them.

So I call Moriyama Sayako "Sayako" and perhaps I'm one of the only people that does - but I think it's good for them to get used to because in any western setting they'll be known by their first name. In Sayako's class there are also girls named Sayaka and Ayako and Aika and Ayaka. And just as I've finally got a grasp on my 9th grader's names - they'll be graduating in March and I'll have a whole bunch of new 7th graders to start on.

That's Mr. Harris to you :)

PS - Mako, Risako & Sayako all are fantastic students - 3 of my favorites who I will miss then they move on to high school in 2 short months.


Emily Watkins said...

Wow, Fujihara only tied for 20th in you school. I gave you the stats on Nita Junior High. Yokota's got a bunch of them, too. That's where I learned the kanji for Fujihara: I gave lots of interview tests one day, and to make things more interesting for myself, whenever I had a student hand me their score sheet with their name written only in kanji, I'd read their name to them if I could, or ask them to pronounce it for me. By the end of the day I could read Fujihara on my own.

I find it much easier to remember kids' family names, cos I can read more of the usual kanji. The given-name kanji I don't recognize so much, though I'm getting a little better. But the family names are full of kanji I recognize.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason-

Nifty blog. I was actually searching the net for an approximate English pronunciation of the Japanese surname "Iijima" and your site came up. Any chance you want to attempt this? (We are hosting a visiting violin instructor and I would like to pronounce her name as correctly as possible.)