Years ago, I remember researching some Japanese celebrities online, and I’d often find their name written two different ways. Basically, their first and last name would be switched around. It confused me. What could explain the inconsistency?
Japanese custom is to put the family name first, as in China and Korea. This is called “Eastern name order.” When Japanese names are written in English, they are usually flipped into the Western order, but this is slowly changing.
Below, I’ll explain why Japanese names are written “backwards,” and the changing views on how they should be written in English. I’ll also share some practical tips about when first and last names are each used in Japan!
Why Are Japanese Names “Backwards”?
The first thing to realize here is that “backwards” is a relative term. In the U.S., we refer to “first name” and “last name”—but these are just terms based on the order we use.
The more general terms are “given name” (what we call “first name”) and “family name” or “surname” (what we call “last name”).
Japan is not the only country that puts the family name first. Many Asian countries, including Korea, China, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Vietnam also put the surname or family name first.
In fact, putting the family name first is often referred to as “Eastern name order,” since it is more common in East Asia. (Interestingly, Hungary also uses Eastern name order, along with parts of India.)
The original reasons for name order are based on grammar. The given name and surname are kind of like a pairing of noun and adjective. So different languages have treated them differently. (source)
- Do Japanese surnames come first or last? Japanese surnames come first when written in Japanese. When written in English, the convention has long been to write Japanese surnames last. However, this convention may be changing in recent years.
Writing Japanese Names in English
Unlike Chinese and Korean names, Japanese names are often switched into the Western order when written in English.
The history behind why Japanese name order is flipped in English goes back to Japan’s “westernization” efforts back in the Meiji Era that started in 1868. (source)
But in recent years, there has been a push to change this. The Japanese government has taken some steps to enforce the original Japanese name order when Japanese names are written in English.
The Japanese government now wants Japanese names to be treated like Chinese names when written in English: The original order (surname first) should be preserved.
The magazine The Economist has gone ahead and adopted this change since January 2020. But it seems like many other big publications have been slow to follow suit.
Scholarly works about Japan are one of the few places where the original Japanese name order has been commonly used in English for decades.
When Do You Call Someone By Their First Name in Japan?
In Japan, given names (“first names”) are used less than in the West. Given names are mostly used for children, casual settings with close friends, and when speaking to someone younger than you.
When referring to someone you’re not very close to, you often use their family name followed by “-san” (さん). It’s kind of like saying “Mr. ______” or “Ms. ______.” (You don’t use “san” when saying your own name.)
In very formal situations, you could use their family name with “-sama” (様) instead. This is the more polite version of “-san,” typically used for business, politicians, and when staff is speaking to customers.
When speaking to someone senior to you, it’s common to use their title instead of any name. We sometimes do this in America, too, calling our parents “mom” or “dad.” But in Japan, they also call teachers “sensei” (先生), for example.
When the given name is used, you will sometimes hear “-chan” (ちゃん) or “-kun” (君) at the end. Usually, “-chan” is for girls and “-kun” is for boys. (But there are exceptions to these rules.)
Many Japanese nicknames also use the suffix “-chan.” Sometimes it will be the person’s full given name + chan (e.g., Tarō-chan). Other times, it will be a shortened version of their given name + chan (e.g., Ta-chan).
Generally, those shortened nicknames with “-chan” are the most informal.
What Does It Mean to Call Someone By Their First Name in Japan?
So, is it a “big deal” to use someone’s first name in Japan? It depends on the context.
This post from Gaijin Pot tells a story of a foreigner named John Smith working his first day as a teacher in Japan. John gets confused when he is called “John,” “Smith-san,” and “John-sensei” in different settings.
In some cases, calling someone by their first name could be disrespectful in Japan. In general, it’s safest to only refer to Japanese adults by first name when you’re asked to.
There are various examples you can cite in Japanese media where someone is shocked to be called by their first name—even when it’s a close relationship.
But in some cases, using first names is a matter of practicality. If you’re working with a team where multiple people have the surname Sato, they can’t all be called “Sato-san.” It would get confusing! So they may use first names.
There are also neighborhoods or schools where many people have the same last name, so first names are used.
Some workplaces that do international work and use English may also have more use of first names. It’s kind of an extension of using English and interacting with foreigners in the work.
Gender and age are also factors. Women seem to be a bit more comfortable going by their first names than men. But it may still be appropriate to be more formal and stick to a last name basis with older women.
Another big factor is that it may be an exception they’re making for you as a foreigner. So let’s talk about that now…
How Are Foreigners Addressed in Japan?
If you’re a foreigner, Japanese people will understand you’re not fully accustomed to how they use names. They won’t expect you to follow all their conventions—and they may not treat you the same as other Japanese, either.
Many Japanese people will cater to how you use names in your own country. So if you’re American, they may address you by your first name, as they know that’s common in the U.S. You may also hear “-san” added to your first name.
This is actually a point of frustration for some foreigners working in Japan.
Some foreigners come to feel upset that they’re introduced by first name, while all their Japanese co-workers are introduced with their last name + san. It can make you feel singled out, or like you’re not taken as seriously.
Japanese people may explain that they’re using your first name because they want to be friendly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should use their first name back.
Long-term, you will become accustomed to the various ways that Japanese people use names. Luckily, as a foreigner, you will not expected to understand it all from your first days in the country.
Do Foreigners in Japan Say Their Last Name First?
Some foreigners living in Japan may adapt their name to the Japanese name order (“last name first”) when introducing themselves. But most people in Japan write and say foreign names with the order that is customary in the country the name comes from.
So if your name is American, typically your name will be written in Japan in the “first-name last-name” order that you grew up with.
Foreign names are also typically written in the katakana script in Japanese. So, for example, “John Smith” is typically written as “ジョン・スミス” (John Smith).
Or sometimes, your name will even be written in English in an otherwise Japanese sentence. For example: Johnさんは元気ですか？ (“How are you, John?”)