In Shakespeare’s most famous romantic tragedy, Juliet tells her lover Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” She obviously never had to fill out Japanese paperwork. As I lamented in one of my earlier articles, having a middle name in Japan complicates so many everyday tasks. Then there’s the issue of length. As my full English name has eighteen characters—twenty if you include spaces—there are some businesses that won’t have me as a customer because they can’t type my long name into their customer-tracking systems.
After dealing with such aggravations for more than three years, I finally made the decision to take a Japanese name. Many of you dear readers and members of my own family might be baffled at what I have done. Therefore, I thought I would take some time to explain why a foreigner in Japan would want to do this. But first, let me tell you what I actually did.
The Legal Alias System
Back in the United States, people can change their names for pretty much any reason, with few limits on the format. Consider the artist formerly known as Prince. I also read about a guy in Washington State who legally changed his name to “Mike the Mover” to better promote his delivery business. Japan frowns on this kind of nomenclature. While there are ways to legally change your name in Japan, the practice is typically limited to marriages, adoptions, and other special cases. Even then, foreigners are barred from this system, as the Immigration Services Agency requires that your in-country name match whatever is written on your passport.
Instead, Japan offers something called a “legal alias,” or tsūshōmei (通称名). While not a true name change, you can nonetheless use your alias in nearly all situations as if it were your real name. It’s like a “Doing Business As” for companies, but it works for humans. This is the process I used to acquire my new name. My American passport still has my birth name, as does my Japanese Residence Card (在留カード). But over the past few weeks, I started updating all my accounts and subscriptions—even my driver’s license and government-issued health insurance card—to display the new name.
By the way, my new moniker is Tim Odagiri, or 小田桐ティム in Japanese. It pairs my wife’s maiden name with my English nickname. As part of the alias process, I made four specific changes.
- I replaced my given last name with my wife’s maiden name.
- I removed my middle name entirely.
- I shortened my first name from Timothy to just Tim.
- I recorded this new name using Japanese characters instead of the Latin alphabet.
Not every organization is ready to accept this new name. My primary bank, Japan Post Bank (ゆうちょ), will only use my passport name for my account. But other private banks have already told me that an alias is fine. My local city hall was iffy on whether I could register a hanko stamp that used the new name. They said it would likely depend on who was working the counter that day. But in general, the reception from government, businesses, and people around me has been positive.
How to Get a Legal Alias
The application to record an alias at my local city hall was surprisingly short. It asked for my basic identity info (name, address, phone, birthdate), my legal name, and my desired alias. That was it. The hard part was proving that I was entitled to submit the application.
Changing my last name was easy. If you are married to a Japanese national, as I am, you only need to say “please” to the bureaucrat to make the switch. But my first name was more difficult. I was required to prove that I already used my preferred name, Tim, in my daily life.
Even though Uncle Sam is pretty much the only entity that uses my full name outside of Japan, it was challenging to convince the city staff that I always went by Tim. The problem is that I am required to use my full name for anything important in Japan. Bank accounts, health insurance, driver’s license, cell phone contract; almost everything used my long-form name. But it turns out that utility companies are laissez faire when it comes to the responsible party. You can change the name of the person who gets the bill anytime you want, and utility bills happen to be one of the favored documents accepted by the city. Mixing that with my new business cards and a few other less official items was enough to push the alias in my direction.
Once the city approved my alias and printed it on my Certificate of Residence (住民票), I was able to get other official documents updated in no time. I even modified my name on my Nitori Point Card! I still need to do more research on a few of the changes. For example, I don’t know if I can use the alias when I pay my income taxes. But the hope is that I can use it on everything apart from immigration documents.
Why Did I Change my Name?
I already mentioned the difficulty in using a long, three-part, Latin-alphabet name in Japan. The convenience of having a shorter, Japanese-language name was the impetus that set me on this name-change course. There was also the issue of formality. When I hear my full name, I expect it to be followed by “do hereby declare,” or some other complicated contractual language. Nobody in the United States ever called me by that name unless they wanted me to sign something that was legally binding.
Still, convenience alone was not enough to push me into the legal-alias camp, especially given how much inconvenient paperwork I now need to fill out to switch to the new name. A secondary issue was accuracy. When I would encounter businesses that couldn’t handle an eighteen-character name, they would sometimes let me reduce my first and middle-name pair to just “Tim.” That was nice, but it would initiate other problems when I needed connect that business to my bank account, or to some other process or company that used my longer name.
There was also the matter of how you write “Timothy” in Japanese. Is it テモシィ (my preference) or テモシー (everyone else’s preference) or テモテ (the archaic spelling found in Japanese Bibles) or even ティモテ (a brand of shampoo that sounds similar)? I have seen all of these used when someone tries to guess the spelling of my name.
That last complication leads to the core reason why I decided to adopt a legal alias. In short, it alters my relationship with the native Japanese population. Japan is a highly structured, hierarchical society where multiple layers of in-group and out-group relationships are always in play. When you present a foreign, phonetic-only name to someone else, it immediately indicates that you are, in a very real sense, outside of the group.
The inability to input my name into some web site isn’t just an inconvenience. It is a sign that I don’t fit, that I am part of the out-group. For someone from Japan, a ten-character name limit is a non-issue, not because they all have short names, but because the system was designed to meet the needs of 100 percent of the target audience. When someone from outside that audience shows up—someone like me—that’s when the difficulty begins.
An American would say, “Just fix the stupid web site. They have no right to discriminate against you and your obnoxiously long name.” The idea of accommodation for the individual runs very deep in the West. But the longer I live in Japan, the more I become attuned to “deference to the community.” Why should the whole of Japanese society bend over backwards just to meet my non-standard needs? It’s great when they do. But what right do I have to suddenly show up as a guest and demand that a nation as venerable as Japan do it my way?
As I plan to stay here long-term, I am the one who should adjust; I should do it Japan’s way. That is why it was necessary for me to take a Japanese name. Does this mean I am enabling discriminatory behavior at a national level? I don’t yet know how to answer that question. With more than two percent of the population now foreign-born, these kinds of issues are only going to grow, and Japan needs to think seriously about what adjustments it will make to fully integrate immigrants.
However, immigrants need to ponder the flip side of that process, to determine what adjustments they need to make to best integrate into Japanese society. For me, I was willing to update my name to move that integration forward, in part because the benefits of doing so were obvious and significant. Now, when I tell someone that my name is Odagiri, I already sense a difference in the relationship. Sure, some people are shocked. One person I talked with was so surprised that he literally stumbled backward upon hearing my name. But in most cases, interactions have been smoother, quicker, and strangely, more normal. In a country where I am in so many ways the outsider, suddenly finding myself linked to the in-group is a relief, both for me and for the Japanese I meet each day.
[Image Credits: MGM]