Scroll down for a list of all the kanji mentioned in this column.

Kanji Clinic #62 The Japan Times November 4, 2004
"Thinking about naming your baby 'Spiderman?' Think again"

Unlike that of many countries, the Japanese government has the legal authority to prevent parents from giving their children certain names-- say the kanji incarnation of "Spiderman.".

In order for the birth of a baby to be registered with local authorities in Japan, all the kanji in the childfs given name must be chosen from characters approved by the Justice Ministry. Parents are allowed to select from the 1,945 general-use (jouyou) kanji and a list of gnameh (jinmei) kanji, or, alternatively, to write the name in kana.

Last June, the ministry announced that the 285 jinmei kanji list would be expanded, and, citing increasing diversification of values in Japanese society, that the public would be allowed to have its say in the matter.

A ministry working group first drew up a proposed list of 578 characters, based on frequency of use, and then gave the public one month to submit feedback on the would-be inductees. By the time the final list of newly allowed characters was announced in September, approximately 90 kanji--including gspiderh-- had been axed.

Soon after the deadline for responses, the ministry proclaimed that nine god-awful proposals-- gfeces,h gcorpse,h gcurse,h gcancer,h gwickedness,h glewd,h gbear a grudge,h ghemorrhoid,h and gmistressh would be the first group of kanji to be expunged from the list. Each of these highly unpopular candidates had been given the nix by over 100 respondents.

Anatomical-kanji such as gbuttocks,h gcrotch,h gjaw,h gknee,h and gthroath were later stricken from the list, as were unsavory body fluids gpush and gspittle.h Kanji painting pictures of violent death-- gto drown,h gto crush,h and gto hangh-- were given the ax, as were several characters related to criminal activity: gjail,h gprostitute,h gto bribe,h and gto peeph (as in gpeeping Tomh).

Several animals with image problems-- grat,h gfox,h and graccoon-dogh (tanuki, that pudgy animal with the jumbo-sized scrotum you see in ceramic form outside of Japanese drinking establishments), for example-- were banished, and so was gfemale animalh (the second character in the kanji compound word gbitchh).

Regarding the elimination of animal and insect characters, there were, from my perspective, a few surprises. The industrious ganth got stamped off the list, but the pesky gbeeh managed to avoid a death sentence. gFrog,h whose gero-gero croak features in a traditional childrenfs song about the onset of summer, was exterminated, while the predatory gcrocodileh was spared. And why, after all the complaints heard from Tokyoites about crows breaking open garbage bags-- not to mention fears of their spreading avian flu-- was gcrowh not shooed away?

Unlike their jinmei counterparts, the joyo kanji have not been vetted for appropriateness of use in personal names, and there are some real stinkers among them, too: gPig,h death,h gurine,h gpoison,h gmosquito,h gtears,h gdirty,h and ghatehare just a few of the over 300 general-use characters that name guidebooks for parents counsel steering clear of. So why doesnft the Justice Ministry give the public an opportunity to disqualify joyo characters it considers distasteful, just as it did for the new jinmei characters?

This begs a larger question: Are disqualifications of any frequently used kanji really necessary? With few exceptions, Japanese parents can be counted on to give their children inoffensive-- if sometimes difficult to pronounce--kanji names. Besides, universal agreement on the appropriateness of several thousand individual kanji for use in names is impossible. As a demonstration of this problematic fact, take the quiz below with a friend or spouse and see how your opinions differ.

In each pair below, one is the English keyword for a new jinmei kanji, the other is the keyword for a kanji eliminated from the Justice Ministryfs original list. Identify which of the two, if either, you find more inappropriate for use in names. Those actually eliminated are given at the end.

3.jealousy/gloom leak/to get wet
5. to kick/to scold
6.turnip/animal feed bark/to give off a smell crawl/to shave
9. mother-in-law/old woman
10.male animal /old man

Answers: 1.spine 2.lie 3.jealousy leak scold 6.animal feed bark 8. to shave 9.mother-in-law 10.old man

To view a complete list of jinmei kanji, go here.

Kanji mentioned in this column:
spider w
to bear a grudge@
to drown M
to crush@
to hang

to bribe G@
jail S
to peep `
female animal
ant a
bee I
frog ^

Kanji in the quiz:
armpit e
lie R
to leak@k
to get wet G
to kick@R
to scold@

animal feed a
to bark@i
to give off a smell
old woman W
to shave@
to crawl
male animal
old man@

Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links