What Does It Take To Name A Baby (When You Serve in a Foreign Country)?
"Behold, children are a gift of the LORD. The fruit of the womb is a reward." Psalm 127:3
Well, well, well. Turns out two kids are more than one. I’ve been home now for about two and a half weeks. It’s been… busy. I’m not sure how any moms get anything done??
One of the challenges since we’ve been home is in the actual name of our new daughter.
I know, right? My husband and the pastor of the church took our paperwork, including the birth paper issued by the hospital, to the city hall to get her birth registered and get health insurance, etc. More on all that later. However, the gentleman at the birth register desk insisted that the Japanese way to write her name was not the way that we wrote it.
Let me explain, using initials for discretion. Her initials will be E V A, according to how we’d write it in the States. In Japan, using the format of our passports, her name would be written A E V or, more rarely A, E V. That’s the way each of our names - mine, my husband's and our older daughter's - is written for all of our paperwork.
Well. Gentleman-behind-the-desk didn’t care about that. He insisted (and refused to argue) that it should be written A V, E. So, that’s what her Japanese birth certificate shows. Though this made me very frustrated over the phone when I heard about it, it’s not a super big deal because we can change her name for US stuff. The problem comes in that all of her paperwork here will have to reflect her passport, which means we’re going to have to go back and file a name change here after we receive her passport. (On a side note, after the unexpected trip to the embassy, the staff there wondered why the city hall staffer wrote her middle name in the last name box!)
Speaking of names though, something that stumped me when I was at the hospital was how many of the sore and exhausted moms I’d talked to had still not chosen a name for their baby. I was flabbergasted. With our first daughter, we had her name chosen even before we were planning to have kids.
I made some inquiries over breakfast with the other postpartum moms and learned much in the process! You think choosing a name in English is difficult? We’ve got nothing on the Japanese.
Japanese obviously use kanji (Chinese characters) for their names. Every kanji has one or more meanings and sometimes numerous pronunciations. And every kanji has a stroke order and a stroke count (that’s how you look it up in the dictionary).
For the Japanese, the number of strokes in the kanji chosen for their name can either be lucky or unlucky. Certain numbers are lucky and others are not. In fact, there are about five different categories (for example, love, job, money, etc.) that have to be determined, and while a name you’re considering may be lucky in 4 of the categories, parents want it to be good in all five.
It gets more complicated. The kanji of the last name have to be taken into consideration as well, as it’s the total number of strokes in a name that matters. Apparently, the combination of kanji (first and last, first kanji of both names, second kanji of both names, etc.) matters too.
Then you want to be careful that the kanji of both names make sense together. You wouldn’t want to have a mix-up of number kanji, or seasonal kanji or recurring syllables when you write/say it all together. And, of course, too many over-all strokes will be time consuming for your child.
Parents these days use online dictionaries to investigate potential kanji for their child. Once they find a number that will work for them, they can get lists of kanji and start piecing together their child’s name.
Of course, then both parents (and often grandparents) have to approve of their name and it has to feel right for the child too.
(Apparently, some women who have gotten married changed the kanji for their first names to maintain a lucky balance with their husband’s last name)
It had always been a mystery to me why none of the Japanese pregnant moms I’d met had revealed the name for their child before birth. I wondered if it was a bad omen to say the name before the birth or if it was a secret or just not their custom. We announced our daughter’s name when we confirmed the gender, but none of the Japanese thought to ask the question (whereas for our American counterparts, it was one of the first questions!).
But now I know…. it’s complicated!
By Janine Alvarado, Missionary to Japan