Let’s start a tradition and give your baby a Japanese last name as a middle name

Photo by Chiến Phạm on Unsplash

What do names like Harper, Hudson, Everly, Riley, and Lincoln have in common? While they’ve entered the baby name realm as first names, they were all originally surnames.

Giving a mother’s maiden name as a middle name is a practice that’s seen across the globe — it’s a minor practice here in the States, and in countries like the Philippines, Australia, and Scandinavia it’s a common practice. More often, I’ve seen women change their own middle name to their maiden name after marriage to preserve that bit of their identity. I have mixed feelings about this because the first time I heard it was in the Kardashian context, but I’m willing to let that go to make an argument for it here.

So when I saw a birth announcement come in with the mother’s maiden name as a middle name, it made sense. I just wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself.

As someone who speaks Japanese fluently, I am guilty of letting some Japanese sensibilities creep into my consciousness along with the language. One of the big ones is, “there’s a right way and wrong way to do something.” As a culture that puts a big importance on culture and tradition, this belief allowed the Japanese to preserve excellence but it also makes them rigid and antiquated. My Japanese ears heard the last name in the middle and thought, “Oh that doesn’t sound right.”

I wonder if that’s how the first grandma who heard their child was going to name the new baby “Riley” felt too.

But that’s the nature of language, it evolves. Just like we can’t stop kids from inventing slang or letting that said slang enter our lexicon and God forbid the Webster ledger, we can’t stop the wave of surnames as first and middle names. Wherever your loyalties lie on the last name debate, the reality is that last names will continue to get consolidated, so looking to that empty slot in the middle makes sense.

What’s more, in the case of Japanese names, as Japanese-American culture is going to continue to shift away from the origin of its motherland. So many of us no longer speak Japanese, nor understand the difference between the sound of the name and the meaning of a name. While we can try to preserve it, the reality is Japanese names written in the Anglicized spelling is likely the only Japanese name most of us will ever see written. It becomes detached from the original writing system where meaning is derived and will be left as an echo (literally) of just sound. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe what’s more important is not to try and preserve something that’s already being lost, and instead think of ways to pass it on that’s achievable.

So stop looking up the “meaning” of Japanese baby names on janky websites, because what you thought was “water reflecting beautiful sunlight” could be “Wednesday.”

Instead, if you are looking to preserve a bit of your Japanese culture in the form of a baby name, use the last name of a beloved grandmother. Or your own maiden name. Soon, it’s going to sound just as normal as Lincoln—and feel just as special.

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