As I’ve said before on this blog, my goal in this country is to love the Japanese people. One way I can do that is by learning their names. Therefore, this is an endeavor I have spent considerable time pursuing. It is by no means an easy feat.
This is Japan. So take all of the usual difficulties you might have in learning a person’s name (there are a lot of names to learn, they didn’t speak loudly, they slurred their words, etc.) and add to the fact that 99% of the names you have never heard before. When I arrived in Japan 18 months ago I knew one Japanese first name: Mariko. Because I went to high school with a Mariko. Last names? Well, I knew the car companies: Toyota and Honda. I had heard of the actor Ken Watanabe, though at the time I couldn’t have told you he was Japanese. I also was familiar with the Suzuki music course. Ironically one of the teachers at my school is Mariko Suzuki, but that is another story.
Last year one of the seventh grade classes at my principal school had 17 kids in it. Among these 17 were Ryu, Ayu, Yuga, Yuya, Yuna, and Yuka. You know which names I learned first? Chotaro and Marina. Last names are no better. That homeroom had 11 Satos, I think. The other seventh grade homeroom contained six Yoshidas and a Yoshita. This year I teach an adult conversation class at the community center, and of ten students I have two Mrs. Satos, a Mrs. Watanabe, and two Mr. Watanabes. None of them are related to each other or married. Those names are just that common.
Most of my days are spent at junior highs. Twice a month, however, I teach at an elementary school. Being there so rarely has made learning names difficult, but last month I got the third graders names written down over lunch, and I’ve been reviewing them most nights before I go to bed. Today we had English camp and the sixth graders from my school were there. Today, ah, today, today they all wore name tags.
I started by learning the two who were in my group. During breaks I would talk to the others. Here is what I discovered: In this class of ten, there is Yu, Yu, Yuka, Yuka, Yuta, Haruka, and Haruki. Jun, Fumiya, and Mahiro round the class out. I commented to their teacher about how their names are all so similar, and he said he has to be careful when typing grades into the computer. These kids are brilliant. I just wish that town had been a little more creative 12 years ago.