What’s my mothaf@*&!’n name?

K-A-T-E
(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 “” 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 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”!!!

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4 thoughts on “What’s my mothaf@*&!’n name?

  1. You might find this interesting, Kate http://bit.ly/euVJrE

    Incidentally, the one that gets me is the Sh/Sy interchanging. Mostly because native speakers will tend to pronounce Sy as Psy instead of Sh. :( No wonder the poor kids are so scared of English.

  2. You’re kana chart isn’t what they use to teach Japanese elementary school kids how to use computers.

    This is the type of chart you usually see in computer classrooms at elementary school. To get the last name 大城 (Oshiro) you type ‘oosiro’ and as Kelly’s article mentions if you type ‘osiro’ or ‘oshiro’ you can get a completely different word. On top of this they play the same type of WPM speed typing games we do in the US so its easier to type in oosiro than ooshiro. The kids think since they’re hitting Roman letters it must also equal the English spelling. They learn this way of spelling in the 3rd grade so its pretty ingrained by the time they get to 7th grade and basically have to re-learn the spelling of their own name. It can get even more confusing than that like the 2 students who are named はずき and はづき in one of my classes.

    I guess its kinda like how we learn how great Columbus and the pilgrims were when were young only to learn they were actually assholes later on in school.

    • That’s a really good point about the keyboard that I hadn’t thought about. I definitely wasn’t ruling out that there are a lot of factors explaining why romaji spelling often doesn’t reflect the way Japanese words/names are pronounced. Clearly a seamless standardization across so many languages and writing tools is difficult (but hopefully we’re working towards it). All I can do for my part I guess is to be patient and show the kids how their writing gets interpreted outside of their culture. Oh, and to not judge them too badly when they really don’t believe me that Kentucky Fried Chicken is from America, not Japan.

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