When watching a naginata match, be it a small local match or the regional championships, there will usually be a program printed with the names of all of the participants included in bracket form so that the audience can follow along, mark who advanced where, and how the judges were split between determining the winners. Single matches can go on for what feels like a really long time, or they can be over before you’re even had a chance to locate the kids you’re cheering for. It can be exhausting to closely observe a long morning of match after match after match, but once you get the rhythm of it, it gets a lot easier to tell what’s going on. That doesn’t always make it easy to catch all of the details, though.

Seeing as I don’t always see my classmates’ names written down because we mostly interact on a vocal basis, it’s always fun seeing for the first time how their names are written. Given that a single, common-sounding name can have numerous ways of being expressed in kanji (or–surprise!–hiragana or katakana phonetic characters instead), it gives you a glimpse into how their parents’ generation thinks, and what trends have seemed to emerge in the previous decades.

A trend that many Japanese people find somewhat worrying is Kira-Kira names. Think Western celebrity baby names or other lists of the most cringe-worthy, “did they actually let them put that on the birth certificate?” names. Although civil servants do turn down names like “Pikachu” despite it’s clever potential kanji, there is still a rising trend in bending the laws of kanji readings to fit things they would not usually say, or choosing creative ways of writing common names, or coming up with entirely new names for their special-snowflake children. I find it really funny when I go to a small elementary school, see a board with all the students listed, and a good handful of them all have the same trendy name but each of them have different kanji. However, there is a push against them not just for those children who will sometimes be stuck with ridiculous or unfortunate names, but because it could genuinely make their lives more difficult. One point Kira-Kira opponents like to refer to is ambulance workers, and how trying to get an unusual name correct would cost them precious time.

I cannot comment of the validity of all of their concerns, but I can tell you even with my outside perspective that a lot of names sound weird. However, there are a lot of very tempting kanji out there to use! That makes reading lists of names, especially of the current generation of elementary school students and below, very interesting. However, I’m not the only one who had no idea how to read some of them. Their peers didn’t know some of the ones we saw listed, and even the adults around us weren’t sure and had to ask people who knew the kids personally.

But it’s not just personal names! Although some surnames are far more common than others and some kanji are used and used and overused in surnames, Japan has a very, very varied set of surnames. Sometimes two names written with the same characters have different pronunciations. Is it Nakajima or Nakashima? Both! Is it Nishikori, or Nishikiori? If you’re in this part of Shimane, probably Nishikori (as in Nishikori Kei, the recently famous tennis star born in Matsue). Is it Takata or Takada? Kanamori or Kanemori? But sometimes, it’s “what in the world is that kanji???” Even worse when you’ve got a common-sounding surname but a really, really complex way of writing it, so much so that it won’t normally pop up while typing in Japanese text. You find people just give up and address things to you in hiragana.

At least everyone taking part in the naginata matches has their name clearly displayed on their uniform and armor, so even if you can’t read it, you can at least recognize it–hopefully fast enough to keep track of everything else going on in the match.

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