Photo/Illutration Members of a committee under the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council meet Feb. 2 to discuss readings of first names. (Kosuke Tauchi)

Proposed legislation to impose restrictions on how names written in kanji characters can and should be read concerns all Japanese whose names are registered with the authorities. This is an issue that must be built on broad public consensus.

A committee of the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council on Feb. 2 unveiled its recommendations for revising the Family Register Law to introduce the requirement that the intended readings of names written in kanji must be indicated in the family register.

Currently, no information about how to read names written in kanji is provided in the register. Local governments ask for the information when people register a birth for the purpose of paperwork, but there is no legal basis for making the request.

The committee’s move is related to the digitalization of administrative procedures that will allow for the use of the Individual Number Card, commonly known as My Number Card, outside of Japan from 2024 through romanization of the carrier’s name.

The proposal is controversial because the envisioned revision would impose restrictions on the readings of names written in kanji, which until now have been left, in principle, to parents. Only readings of kanji that are generally recognized by the public will be allowed, according to the committee.

Naming a child is a very personal thing that relates to the parents’ thoughts and feelings. Social recognition is another aspect, which is why public intervention is required when a name threatens to undermine the interests of the child.

Still, we find it questionable to decide whether to reject or accept specific readings under the vague yardstick of whether they are widely recognized in society.

The panel’s recommendations include a supplementary explanation stressing the need for flexible implementation of the rule in light of the “naming culture,” which has allowed diverse readings for names written in kanji.

This seems to be inconsistent with the panel’s overall proposal. Unless the system is designed to be clear and accessible to anybody, confusion at municipal government counters for registering births will be inevitable.

The reading of the kanji used for the first name of Hayato Ikeda, who was prime minister in the 1960s, was not generally recognized at that time. But the reading came to be accepted widely because of the politician. The reading of one of the popular kanji for the name “Himari” was initially not very common. Names and readings of names written in kanji, like words in general, change with the times. Restrictions on the readings of names should be limited to the absolute minimum.

Initially, a majority of the panel members argued that the general principles of banning parents from abusing their naming rights and rejecting names that offend public order and decency would be enough. In recent years, however, a growing number of parents have come up with unusual or “bizarre” baby names, referred to as “kirakira nemu” (Literally, shining names) in Japanese. A national conversation is needed to draw a line of acceptability for legal restrictions.

The proposed legislation would also require people whose names are already on a family register to submit the readings of their names in kana script to their local authority.

The committee’s proposal includes a provision to permit readings that are not generally recognized if they have been used by the individuals since birth. The readings of names written in kanji should naturally be based on the individuals’ personal histories.

If an individual fails to submit the reading of his or her name within a year, the municipal government will determine the reading, notify the person of its decision and register it by virtue of its authority.

But there is no guarantee that readings chosen by the municipal administration will always be accepted. It is easy to imagine that this process, including hassles involving people who want the readings adopted by the municipal governments to be changed, will involve huge amounts of paperwork.

The government’s plan to include the readings of names in personal information provided by the My Number Card has set the tone for debate at the committee.

But some important questions remain unanswered, such as whether everybody should be required to register the readings of their names and whether it is enough to have the readings of names in resident registration to meet social needs. Answering these and other questions requires cool-headed debate that also pays attention to the social impact of the decision.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 4