Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Sudoku of Surnames.

The most popular Japanese name among the Tamil Diaspora is not Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha or Mitsubishi. It’s Nikumo Nikado. In case you’re wondering what that means, all I can say is it’s a vintage mokkai (Tamil for PJ) conjured up during the times when the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ (not to be confused with the real estate owned by DMK) was dominant enough for some droll Dravidian to pop the question: what’s Jap for the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’?

Jokes aside, now that we’ve got you thinking about ‘Made in Japan’ names, it’s perhaps the right moment to slip in a neat piece of trivia. Did you know that it was illegal for 90% of Japan to have a surname, for almost 280 years, between 1587 and 1867? Things changed when the Meiji government passed a decree on Feb 13, 1875, ordering all citizens to compulsorily register their surnames!

The result was a mad name rush. Everyone from the geisha girl next door to the ninja turtle in the sewers, rushed to their local priests, seeking help. The harried men of god donned the role of wordsmiths and minted thousands of rustic sounding surnames by investing as much time as it takes to make Top Ramen noodles.

The hastily cooked names would amuse you if one dissects them. The 'Kurusawa' in Akira Kurusawa does not mean anything poetic. It just indicates ‘the black swamp’ from where his forefathers originated. The fashion brand ‘Yamamoto’ just means ‘mountain base’. Likewise ‘Suzuki’ is ‘rice ear’, ‘Matsushita’ is ‘below pine tree’, ‘Kawasaki’ is ‘river peninsula’, ‘Honda’ is ‘rice root’ and Toyoda (which gave rise to Toyota) cues ‘abundant rice field’.

The obsession with rice and paddy was largely because farming was the lead occupation. And you can’t blame the priests for their pedestrian choice as surnames are by definition meant to answer the ‘where are you from?’ question. Given that framework, they picked the likes of ‘Fujimori’ (Wisteria forest) and ‘Kobayashi’ (small grove). But now that Nippon has evolved into a highly industrialised society, may be it’s time the Japanese said sayonara to their legacy names and konnichi wa to modernity.