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More Than Just A Name: Embracing Our Names with Our Culture

When I was younger, my Japanese middle name was a source of shame, especially since I was surrounded by kids with American names. Now, I've learned how our names are innately tied to our culture.

When I was growing up, I would hate taking standardized tests. The academic challenge was trumped by the embarrassment that I felt when people would see my middle name, Hideo, on the answer sheet and make fun of me for it.

“Hideo? Like hideous?”

I would try to normalize my name by explaining that it was my grandfather’s name, or by mentioning the famous Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, Hideo Nomo, in hope of my peers being more understanding. The jokes and mispronunciations persisted, and my middle name came to be one of my bigger insecurities I faced while growing up.

Over the years, I have grown to appreciate my name and the personal value that it has in my life. When my parents named me, they kept two things in mind: how they could connect me to my Japanese heritage and how they could connect me to my family. My middle name has done exactly that; with an unusual Japanese family name, my middle name allows me to identify with my culture and embrace who I am on a greater scale. Moreover, I never got to meet my grandfather, so I cherish the connection that my name allows me to have with him.

Nevertheless, the unfortunate reality is that there are a lot of challenges that come with having unique Japanese names. For Imari Whalen, a second-generation Japanese American, growing up in a predominantly Caucasian area made her feel especially uncomfortable with her name. People would frequently question her name, and with Ashley being her middle name, there were times when she would resort to introducing herself by her American middle name, or “Ari”, a shortened version of her first name.

“Growing up, I really didn’t like my name. I wasn’t really made fun of for it, but it was more of an internal thing that I wanted to hide,” said Whalen. “It was more due to being surrounded by people who had American names and I wanted to be like them.”

With an unusual Japanese last name, my middle name allows me to identify with my culture and embrace who I am on a greater scale. Moreover, I never got to meet my grandfather, so I cherish the connection that my name allows me to have with him.

Amy Baker, a second-generation Japanese American, also had very similar experiences growing up. Her middle name, “Asuka”, constantly triggered comparisons to the name “Oscar,” subjecting her to mockery and leading her to be insecure with her name when she was younger. As a college student, she now has a greater appreciation for her name, and because she grew up immersed in the Japanese culture, she almost wishes to carry her mother’s maiden name, Kitaichi. However, Baker acknowledges that because of the racism that not only her mother has faced, but that she has faced herself, it is more convenient to hold onto her Caucasian name.

“[My mother] doesn’t want us to get persecuted because we’re Asian and she thought we would get further in life with a white name. It’s sad, but it’s definitely true and I’ve kind of seen that more recently,” said Baker.

The ignorant ridicule that we constantly face for having names that are atypical in the U.S. and the inconvenience of having names that are hard to pronounce suggest that it would be easier to disassociate ourselves with our name and just try to fit in. And yet, names are so important to the Japanese American community because regardless of the challenges that are presented with having diverse names, it is so much more than just a name, or something that people call us. It is who we are, encapsulated in one beautifully, unique word, and is something we can boast and take pride in.

Kotaro Chavez, a fourth-generation Japanese American, is half-Hispanic and half-Japanese. With an American middle name and Mexican last name, he appreciates the sense of Japanese identity that his first name, Kotaro, provides.

“[Having a Japanese name] shows a sense of your culture. I’m not saying people that don’t have Japanese names don’t have culture, but a name is something that you take pride in, it’s are presentation of who you are,” said Chavez. “That’s just for me at least, because I’m really kind of Americanized, but [my name] is still something that shows that I am part of the Japanese American community.”

Names are so important to the Japanese American community because regardless of the challenges that are presented with having diverse names, it is so much more than just a name, or something that people call us.

It is this sense of pride that allows us to really take ownership of our names and the community that we belong to. Many Japanese Americans want to instill appreciation of our culture in our children and future generations. As basic as it may seem, having a Japanese name sets a foundation for people to identify with their culture, allowing them to gain an interest in their roots and where they came from.

“When I was growing up, my mom didn’t make me learn Japanese because when she moved to the United States, she was trying to do the opposite - she was trying to learn English," said Whalen. "I wouldn’t say she was trying to hide her culture but assimilating to the United States. It was important to know English and to fit in. For me, it’s kind of the opposite. I really hope my kids can learn Japanese and become even more immersed in the culture than I was growing up. I think even if people think that their kids might not embrace their culture fully at a young age, at least having a Japanese name will help them relate to their culture somehow.”

In every sense, the shame that I used to feel because of my name has been replaced by a vast sense of pride. It's not easy to be different, to have names that clearly differentiate us from others. Be that as it may, I'm proud of everything that my name represents. From Hideo to Imari to Asuka to Kotaro, these names, and so many more, are the foundation of the pride that we as Japanese Americans have in our community and culture.

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Heritage, Heirlooms, and Hand-me-downs
May 20, 2020

Because May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we wanted to shed light on some distinct "JA" topics that allow us to explore our heritage. From heirlooms to fundraiser dances to Japanese middle names, we're celebrating the things that make us proud to be Japanese American.

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