Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Sometimes you read a book for one reaon before being confronted with another. That Japanese paperback I mentioned a few posts back, the one where the dude is trying to convince his audience of the moral superiority of the Japanese people to their Chinese and Korean Asian counterparts, took a momentarily odd turn when the author revealed at the start of a chapter that he happened to be the first cousin of Ms.Yoko Ooo.

Ah. Hm. Okay. He went on to explain that her beau, John Lennon, was a diligent student of Japanese, and that his favourite word was 'okagesamade', which roughly translates as 'thanks to you', used when you want to convey a notion of gratitude to an individual or gorup (or quite often, it seems, to some invisibly generic group of societal benefactors). Above and beyond this little bizarre textual interruption of familial connections, I found it curious that, similar to most other Japanese publications, Yoko Ono's name was written in katakana, the script usually used for foreign words that have been transformed into Japanese. Japanese names are usually written using the Chinese characters of kanji, which makes it doubly odd to see a famous Japanese name rendered in such a a 'foreign' way.

So what's the deal here?

A few years ago in Japan, browsing around a bookstore in the boonies with a Japanese supervisor, I noticed for the first time that Yoko Ono's name, in the title of a book, was rendered in katakana. I asked my boss why this was so, given that she was not only Japanese, but from a rather prominent family at that. My supervisor looked puzzled, muttering words to the effect of: "Well, she left Japan a long time ago."

I understood that many Japanese who live abroad for most of their lives are often culturally ostracized (to varying degrees of exclusion), which I could sort of understand, given that it's hard to stay prominent in a group-oriented culture when you're away for so long from the hub of that group, but I couldn't quite figure out why that should result in one's very name being depicted in characters usually chosen for distinctly foreign concepts.

I didn't get that much of an answer, and it's a phenomenon that I've occasionally noticed now and then in the Japanese media. Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, noted literary author of REMAINS OF THE DAY and WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS, also has his name depicted in katakana, despite his Japanese roots (and very Japanese name). However, he left Japan by the age of seven, was raised in England, speaks little Japanese, and cannot read or write it at all. That his name is not written in Chinese characters sort of makes sense, since he is truly, for all intents and purposes, a foreigner. And sometimes in the Japanese press katakana can be used as a stylistic device, to look 'cool' or 'offbeat', but such an advertisint gimmick is usually limited to pop stars or facile media 'idols'. So what's the deal with Yoko?

Maybe it's because, long ago, decades ago even, Yoko Ono became much larger than her roots, even exceeding internationally her own esteemed clan. As a romantic partner of one of the Beatles, who were, and remain, extraordinarily popular in Japan, she sort of transcended the noble family background that she emerged from, and as voluntary exile in America for decades, the media must have at one point decided that she was jow less of an ordinary Japanese person, and more like a symbol, a representative of a particular time and its mores.

In that context, from that point of view, abandoning her kanji makes some sort of sense. 'Yoko Ono' is a familiar enough Japanese name -- both the first name and surname are not all that uncommon -- but written in katakana, her name takes on a heightened, even eccentric flavour, a traditional Japanese moniker is now depicted in a script that accenuates the foreign flavour of her life.

That's what I'm guessing, anyways. Pure spitballing. I actually don't have a clue if I'm right. It' simply fascinating, to me, that the very nature of the Japanese language contains the innate capacity to alter the visual means by which one's own given name comes across in its linguistic form. Katakana, a phonetic script crafted to deal with the influx of foreign words from afar a few centuries ago, is not nearly as old as kanji, whose history dates back to ancient China, but it still strikes me as bizarre that the language can readily be adapted to alter the most basic representation of one's own self-expression. English as a language doesn't have such mutant powers.

And this whole discussion (or monlogue?) came about purely because of an anecdotal offshoot in the book that I'm reading. It's strictly tangential to the author's main thesis, but I'm gradually learning, and appreciating, that it's the backroads and dead-ends of life that allow one to stop and assess.


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Martin said...

Kazuo Ishiguro also naturalized as a British citizen. Japan (basically) doesn't allow dual citizenship, so I assume he renounced his Japanese citizenship. Meaning he is no longer Japanese by definition.
From what I gather he didn't particularly identify as a Japanese person anyway, as he was raised in England.

I have been trying to find out about Yoko Ono too, and this is the reason I stumbled across your blog.
I found a comment saying she had naturalized as an American Citizen, but couldn't find anything concrete..
My feeling was that as she is an artist, perhaps she wanted to be 'different' and she chose to use katakana, not totally uncommon in certain circles. Just my feeling though, I don't have any evidence. I would love to know though.