Name and Language- What’s Her Choice?

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Linguistic imperialism
What's her choice?

1.

At my high school in Kyoto, among our English teachers was a French-British lady. Her name sounded French but her mother tongue was English. She could speak Spanish as well.
But she didn’t understand Japanese at all.
Neither was she familiar with Japanese girls’ names, though it was a girls’ high school. Worse, she just had no interest in any Japanese name.

As expected, she didn’t lift a finger to remember our names. It seemed that she didn’t want to be bothered by Japanese names which must have been difficult for her to pronounce properly. So, she decided to call us by English names.

I was called “Mary,” an English name she imposed on me.
Yes, it was imposed — not given.
Arbitrarily, randomly, and even callously,
She branded all of us with English names.

Some students were overjoyed though, because the names she put on them were, fortunately, their favorites. 

However, most appeared to have resigned themselves to being named as she desired.

But I hated it.
I hated her attitude.
I hated her as a teacher.
I quit her English class very soon.
Strangely enough, nobody forced me to attend.

Her mother-tongue was English

On the other hand, my Japanese class teacher taught us English grammar, and his graduation thesis was the literature of James Joyce, Ulysses. (Since my teacher’s major was “English literature”, I thought Joyce was British — and not Irish. It was only many years later, when I visited Dublin, that I truly recognized him as an Irishman.)

Besides being our teacher (in our high school that was integrated into the university), he was also in his second-time college life as a student of French literature. And he struggled with the very tough text of Marcel Proust.
He ardently talked about literature in his English class.
He was one of the teachers who showed his passion to us and tolerated my chronic absences as long as I kept daily contact with him.

It was the early 1970s.
I’d learned a little about imperialism and its relations with languages and names by that time.
And I was well aware of what we had done in the Korean peninsula during the war.
(The Japanese imperial government forced Koreans to change their names into Japanese ones, and to speak Japanese instead of their mother tongue.)

2.

Much earlier, as a small kid, I knew some English names, but for me they were not British but American because of various popular American TV drama series I’ve watched. My grandmother kept two dogs at her house named Joe and Jack. I loved (and still love) dogs and cats, so I importuned my mother for months to keep at least one with us until she relented. We named him “Jack” after the English fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

We named him “Jack” after the English fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

One day, in the backyard of the elementary school, I happened to see two classmates pretending to be American girls, as if they were actresses in a play.

I felt embarrassed for them, witnessing them call each other with English names, probably because I thought that English names were acceptable only for pet dogs and cats, but not for us humans in Japan.

There was a girl in our class who had transferred from another school, I believe from another prefecture, and she was rumored to be from Okinawa.
Her name might have sounded differently to us.

Okinawa was still under American rule, and not yet regarded as being on equal footing with mainland Japan.

3.

One of my high school friends was a Japanese-born Korean.
But for a long time, she kept it secret that she was a Korean national and had a Korean name aside from her Japanese name.
In those days, it was common for Koreans to hide their Korean identity.

She was brought up in a rather wealthy family that kept a Japanese (not Korean!) woman as a housemaid. (Keeping housemaids at home was not common in Japan.) I was shocked to witness their behaviour towards her; it was very arrogant and even harsh, similar to how Japanese treated them during the war.

They had a swimming pool in the residential compound they owned, and I saw her mother enjoy swimming when I visited her house to spend the night with her.
Her parents appeared to have resolved to do everything possible to ensure that their children were never at a disadvantage in Japanese society.
But it was only possible financially.

She never disclosed her Korean name before leaving high school. Then, she became the wife of a Japanese doctor, adopting his family name.

She accepted the English name given to her by our British teacher, but I refused the one she put on me.
Now I am aware that she might have even preferred an English name to a Japanese name.
It may have been her choice.
Likewise, English must have been her choice of subject to learn.

Minae Mizumura was raised in the US, majored in French and writes in Japanese

4.

After several years, I read an article by Minae Mizumura regarding her choice of French as her major. 

She was raised in the United States against her will, despite being a Japanese national and patriotic lover of Japanese language and literature.
So, she indulged in reading Japanese literary books at home and resigned herself to dealing with English at school.

She confessed the reason why she majored in French language and literature at university. That is because Americans acknowledge French superiority to English. Knowing French, she could avoid being looked down upon by Americans, though she was Japanese.

Now, as a successful writer as well as an academician giving lectures at several universities in the US, she writes only in Japanese. 

Illustrations are by Kaori Usui. Kaori Usui used to create greeting postcards with her drawings in her childhood, as favour to her mother, and that activity cultivated her original artistic taste. She is now a lawyer by profession, and sometimes creates her drawings on postcards for her family and friends.

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  1. Quite an interesting and inspirational essay as well. I believe each personal name is an important individual identification and cannot be changed by any force. Looking back to the time 70’, however, we witnessed several unreasonable “impositions” on campus and in society as a whole. After a half-century, I wonder how much comfortable life we live without them.

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