(Or more like, K-E-I-T-O, here :). Doesn’t have the same ring to it though.)
I realized that I don’t talk about my job very often, despite it being a big part of why I even got into writing in my blog in the first place. If you know me or have read my “About Me” page, you know that I’m an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) of English at a junior high school in Okinawa, Japan. So here’s a little story about something that happened in one of my 2-nensei (8th grade) classes a couple of weeks ago.
The students were working on some writing exercises when one of the boys in the back called me over. I went to his desk, and he showed me his notebook where he had written his given name in two different ways.
The first way was: “Atuki.”
The second way was: “Atsuki.”
The correct pronunciation of his name is: “otts-kee.”
When he showed me this, I remembered that I had corrected the way he had written his name on a recent assignment. Clearly, he noticed the correction. Now he was asking me to clarify which was the right way to spell it.
There’s actually a reason for his confusion. Basically, when English speakers are learning the Japanese alphabet, they are taught that the hiragana character “つ” is properly written in romaji (the romanized writing of Japanese words/names) as “tsu.” This is the closest representation of how the character is pronounced, though the u is meant to cut off abruptly, often held so briefly that it sounds like it’s dropped altogether. This is why my student’s name, written in hiragana, as あつき, is pronounced “ott-skee” (equal emphasis on each syllable), not “ott-SOO-kee.” And DEFINITELY not “uh-TOO-kee.”
Following me so far? Well, even though it makes perfect sense for us why one would write Japanese words with つ in them using “tsu,” for Japanese people learning how to convert hiragana or kanji to roman letters, “tsu” and “tu” mean essentially the same thing. It would take me a while to do justice in explaining why that is, but if you look at a chart of hiragana syllabary long enough, you may be able to get it.
I’ve actually seen quite a few Japanese drop the s from “tsu” when writing names in English (including my vice-principal who used to be an English teacher) and it makes me wince every time, not only because I know that this one missing letter would cause any well-intentioned English speaker to butcher a Japanese name even worse than usual; but also because it makes me afraid of how many people make this mistake. Obviously I don’t want my student to go to America one day and have people call him something resembling the cousin of Rafiki from The Lion King. So when he asked me how to spell his name, I empathetically but firmly pointed to: “Atsuki.”
Atsuki’s eyes moved from me to his notebook and back, a quizzical look on his face. He finally nodded, though he didn’t seem convinced. I felt sort of bad, but come on kid… YOUR NAME ISN’T ATOOKI!
It wasn’t until later that I started to feel bad. Clearly this 14 year-old boy must have been taught from a really young age–most likely when he began to learn English–that “Atuki” was the same as “Atsuki.” Then here I come one day and tell him that he’s wrong. I know that it’s my job, but it was eating at me… I mean, what if one day someone told you that YOU’D been spelling your name wrong your whole life? What if they insisted that it was pronounced differently than the way your mom and dad pronounce it? Wouldn’t you feel kind of, I don’t know… lost in life? Or am I making too big a deal out of this?? When I explained this to my JTE (the teacher whom I teach the class with), she simply laughed and said, “No, he really should have known that by now… I think he was just looking for an excuse to talk to you.”
I mean… maybe. But still. This is a problem. Japanese people, stop dropping the “s” from “tsu”!!!