If, like me, you have a monstrously long and difficult to pronounce German name, life in Japan can be tough. Even in my home country, it was quite an ordeal giving my name over the telephone. In Japan, it’s completely impossible.
Photo by saschapohflepp
I won’t go into the gory details, but it’s hellish. When you give out your foreign name over the phone, it’s likely to cause sheer panic. You can try to spell out each katakana symbol but this still makes things difficult, especially if your name (like mine) consists of 7 or more letters.
Japanese people actually have their own way of spelling names out loud. Even though most people in the country have native Japanese names, there are many unusual names that can cause confusion. Not everybody is a Sato or Suzuki.
How to confuse the pizza shop folks
When I order a pizza, I avoid an international incident by using my wife’s name, which is Shinada (品田). However, this still causes confusion because it’s not a common name and it’s often mistaken for Shimada.
But one day I made an amazing discovery when I happened to hear my wife give her name over the phone. She said, ‘Shinagawa no shina, tanbo no ta.’ What she was doing was spelling out her name.
If you read what she said in Japanese, it makes total sense: ‘品田… 品川の品、田んぼの田.’
People in Japan spell out names by referring to a word or place everybody knows for each character, in the same way that you might say ‘B as in boy’ over the phone. Everybody knows Shinagawa (品川 – a famous station in Tokyo on Japan Railways’ Yama-no-Te train line). and tanbo (田んぼ – rice field).
Using her name, the pizza order goes smoothly, even after I show up at the pizza shop claiming to be Mr. Shinada. It’s not questioned, and I consider that nice of the pizza folks.
Turning your name into something comprehensible in Japanese
If you don’t want to adopt a Japanese name, it’s actually possible to spell out a foreign name by referring to kanji characters. In a Japan Times article, Mark Schreiber mentions how Jack Seward humorously described spelling his name in his 1968 book Japanese in Action: ‘Suzume no su ni warabi no wa wo nobashite, tokoya no to ni dakuten‘ (雀のスに蕨のワを伸ばして、床屋のトにダク点).
I’d translate it something like this: ‘The su of suzume, a stretched out wa from warabi, and to from tokoya with the ten-ten added to it.’
Seward is being funny, of course, but you get the idea. If you want to figure out how to spell your name out loud, sit down with the katakana version of it, figure out the Japanese pronunciation, and find a kanji from a familiar word to reference.
Or just make up a Japanese name for yourself. Have some fun!