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News Navigator: Can Japanese people change their names?

The family court in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, where Akaike's name change was approved. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the rights Japanese people have to legally change their names.

Question: I heard recently there was an individual in Japan who was unhappy enough with their first name to change it. Is this true?

Answer: Yes. A high school student, 18, in Yamanashi Prefecture west of Tokyo had his complaint to change his name recognized by a family court in March 2019. The 18-year-old individual, now known as Hajime Akaike, was given the more ostentatious name Ojisama Akaike at birth. In Japanese, Ojisama translates to "prince," complete with honorific suffix. Akaike wrote about his name change, with a picture of the court's approval document, in a widely re-tweeted post on the social media site Twitter.

Q. So can anyone easily get their name changed?

Applications take about a month to process, and cost somewhere in the region of 3,000 yen. According to judicial statistics, 4,982 name change applications were received in 2017. Of those, 4,561 cases, some 92%, were approved. Akaike cited to the court the misery his name had caused him as the reason for requesting the change. Instances where the applicant wishes to change their name because they believe the stroke counts of the characters used are inauspicious, or they want to change the feel of their name using different characters, can be more difficult for courts to approve. Meanwhile, there were 1,324 name change applications that were later retracted in 2017.

Q: Are unusual names common in Japan?

A: In Japan they're referred to as "kira-kira names," or "dazzling names" in English. When choosing a first name, Japanese people are limited to using 2,136 common use Chinese characters, 863 naming Chinese characters, as well as the two phonetic Japanese syllabaries Hiragana and Katakana. But they aren't limited in the way those characters can be read. "Kira-kira names" have become more prevalent since the 1990s. Initially popularized by a number of books before spreading to the internet, the practice of finding completely original names has diversified considerably.

Q: Were these names not around in the past?

A: It seems they may have. "Essays in Idleness" (Tsurezuregusa), written around 1330-1331, is one of medieval Japan's most famous texts today. In it the author, monk Kenko Yoshida, wrote witheringly on the practice: "There can be no benefit in using characters to which others are not accustomed in names."

Q: That's quite a strong rebuke, isn't it?

A: Yes, but if a "kira-kira name" is causing trouble in someone's life, changing it after proper consideration doesn't seem so bad, does it?

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Wada, General Digital Reporting Center)

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