Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Naming Game

It was Friday, and the last exam was over. The homeroom teacher that I assist was occupied elsewhere, so I had to take care of the closing homeroom session. It was easy enough; only a couple of relatively routine announcements followed by the regular cleanup routine. The kids were relieved to be finally out from under the towering cumulonimbus of exams they'd been under for most of the week. The atmosphere was very much a jovial one as they finally started scattering for the day. As sometimes happens, a couple of the friendlier girls came up to chat with me afterward. However, I was unprepared for what they had to say:

"Sensei, your kanji signature is dasai (uncool)!"

Woah. That was a surprise.

All Japanese carry one or more name stamps, or hanko (判子), whose seal (inkan 印鑑) is used in lieu of a signature. The one that is used on official documents is registered at the local city office and/or one's bank. Many if not most foreigners that live and work here use name stamps engraved with their name as it is written normally in Roman letters. (I have one of those, too.) However, some such as myself make it a habit to use a seal that is in kanji, or Chinese characters.

Typical Japanese hanko, or name stamp. Image from Japan Culture Club.

That's not as strange as you might think. It is becoming more and more common for Japanese parents to give their children Western names such as Mary, Sally, Lisa, Len, or even Johann, but written in kanji. Of course, doing so means that the kanji are chosen for their (often irregular) readings rather than their meaning. This can result in some pretty ironic names (for example, one common way to write "Mary", 麻里, actually means "hemp country"), but no one really pays attention to the literal meaning of name kanji nowadays.

Apparently not everyone thinks this is a good thing. Take the two girls that were talking to me then. My kanji signature is well known all over Ye Olde Academy and many other places around town. For (I admit almost totally pointless) reasons of privacy, I won't say what my last name is here, but my kanji signature includes three characters (松楠原), the first two of which were chosen for their reading and the third of which was chosen because of its meaning in English. If the whole thing were translated literally, it would mean "field of pine and camphor trees". Students at Ye Olde Academy have always seemed to get a big kick out of it, and they tend to get really excited when I reward their good work with a name seal on their paper! Not these two, though. They were firmly convinced that a field of pine and camphor trees was hardly an appropriate image for me.

Therefore, they set to work trying to come up with a better one. Making intensive use of their brains (even after those exams??!?), their imaginations, their senses of poetry and humor, and my well-worn electronic dictionary, they tried and ditched several ideas before finally settling on one they liked. This is what they came up with:


Again, I won't go to too much detail, but two of those characters were chosen for their meaning in English, and one was selected because it has one very irregular reading found in a historical proper name somewhere. Translated literally, the combination would mean "a wave of maximum feeling".


Yes, I think those girls might be on to something. Now if only I could find a kanji combination with musical implications to represent my first name...


  • I think having a kanji name stamp is SOOOOOO coooooool!!!

    OK, camphor is not the greatest smell to have in one's name...
    But LOL! A wave of maximum feeling, I can see where that originates. It's funny too, though :)
    You can have a wave of maximum feeling in music!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 4:55 AM  

  • It seems very appropriate that your name should include trees as you are from the land of trees IE the northwest.


    Sorry, just cleaning a bit of debris from my "m" key

    A wave of maximum feeling...

    Moody Minstrel...

    Yes, I see why they chose that.

    You are quite animated emotionally.

    I think tht is a good fit.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 7:04 AM  

  • I really like what the girls came up with! The original was fine, but they hit the nail on the head.

    By Blogger Kami, at 12:23 PM  

  • Very creative. Definitely "you".

    My hanko is in plain old katakana. :(

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:24 PM  

  • I need to download the international pack or something. All of your kanji came out as ???.

    Nonetheless, I think ??? really suits you. :D

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 3:47 AM  

  • A wave of maximum feeling? Is that the wave on that famous woodcut, or is it a tsunami? Yeah, it sounds musical to me - is there a musical term to fit?

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 11:52 AM  

  • {L.O.L.}, I do understand both of your hankos originates of[kanji signature (松楠原)and 最感波].

    In here, almost every student in kindnergarten have their name stamps, we call 圖章.

    By Blogger PinkPanther, at 3:35 PM  

  • YES, pp IS RIGHT..

    Both name are actually Chinese character or known as kanji in Japanese.

    最 - most
    感 - feel
    波 - wave

    By Blogger Robin, at 7:01 PM  

  • Cool, I want one
    I want a 'hanko'

    are they like our 'rubber' stamps
    or more intricate and made from some 'exotic' hardwood.

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 7:55 AM  

  • Olivia
    Coming up with the kanji for one's stamp can be challenging for a Westerner. It's fun what some people come up with!

    My students don't know about my internet handle, but they know I'm moody and musical.

    That would be cause for worry. A famous expression in Japan is "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down."

    My last name has nine letters in katakana. MUCH too long...

    I wondered about that, but nowadays my browser has shown me Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit without any trouble. I figured international support was now standard. Oh, well. You have a multinational reader base now! UPGRADE!

    I thought it was a wave more like what they show in some of these eyedrop commercials here...or the infamous "Kamehame Wave" (kamehameha in Japanese, obviously a play on the Hawaiian king's name) from the cartoon Dragonball Z.

    Pink Panther
    It's the same here in Japan, except that parents usually stamp for their children until they get to be teenagers.

    The English reading for the first two kanji that the students came up with was similar to what you wrote. Try expanding on those English words a little, especially the first one.

    I own four name stamps. The two that are officially registered (the first kanji name I showed and another that is in Roman letters) are both made of machine-tooled bone, specifically bone from the horn of a type of water buffalo. I have one hanko that is my wife's surname (for family reason), and it is made of machine-tooled stone. I have yet another, also of stone but hand-carved, that has my name in yet another kanji pattern (最大原) that was given to me by a former coworker.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 2:07 PM  

  • Awesome, of course I should have thought of bone or stone ... longer lasting

    I just thought of wood because I used to carve wood

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 10:48 PM  

  • Hi there--

    I flew over from Quasar's place and I'm glad I did.

    "A wave of maximum feeling." Can't beat that, dude.

    By Blogger San, at 1:49 AM  

  • Quasar9
    Really? What sort of carving did you do?

    I once got a set of woodcarving tools and tried my hand at it, but (as with just about everything else) I had trouble finding the time to do it. Maybe I should think about trying it again.


    Yes, I really have to give those students credit for that one. It's a classic...and oh, so appropriate!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:43 PM  

  • San - again,

    After reading your profile and looking at your site, I think I should definitely introduce you to my friend Kami. You two are very much on the same wavelength if not the same path!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:57 PM  

  • Kanji is just amazing. That connection between pictograms and language is just wild. Nothing really like it in Western language anymore... Sure western names have meaning but it’s not the same. It seems like Heraldry is closer in some respects.

    Wouldn’t it be hard to change your Kanji name at this stage of the game?

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 3:48 AM  

  • "The Naming Game"
    Was that a movie title?

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 10:01 PM  

  • Quasar9
    If it was, I can't find any info on it, but the same title has been used for a lot of news articles and columns as well as at least one play and a few video games.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:21 PM  

  • Over here, it's still the signature or a thumbprint that's official on documents.

    All Chinese names have a meaning. So if one reads Chinese, one would be able to tell a name's meaning or roughly know why he's named such.

    "A wave of maximum feeling" is cool. Quite befitting you, I should say. So, if you were to adopt this instead of the old name, would you need to re-register it officially?

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 12:05 AM  

  • I am 66 year's old. In my younger years, I was labelled and called ESKIMO and I was not insulted. When I travel and people ask me what race I am (I can pass for Russian, and Russians always claim me, especially when I wear a scarf), I answer ESKIMO. I have been delighted by the reactions worldwide of peoples..."igloos, blubbler, rub noses, give wife as gift...." Now, when people ask, I answer INUIT, the response is FLAT, mostly WHAT IS THAT?

    I love being known as ESKIMO.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:48 PM  

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