On this page, I talk about why we're doing this project. Then I give some information how Japanese people choose names. This page ends with a description of how we created this project. (To see how we went about choosing the font for the project, jump over to the Kanji Survey report.)
Why do a Kanji Names Project?
When I was an EFL teacher for homestay students in Boston, the European students and I were fascinated by the look and shapes of the Japanese students' names in kanji. Now, even though I'm living in Japan, I still remember those feelings of fascination. That's how I came up with the idea for this project.
Throughout the year, my students will have frequent contact with non-Japanese via e-mail and other collaborative projects. I feel that the people my students communicate with via the Internet would be interested in seeing the students' names in kanji. Furthermore, this might be an item of interest to cultural studies teachers and students in other countries, as well as to non-Japanese who are studying Japanese.
As a teacher, I like the idea that my students have the chance to share information about something they know much more about than I do. I give them help when needed with the code (the English language), but the knowledge is their own. By sharing this knowledge with me, the roles are momentarily reversed. The learner teaches, thereby becoming the expert. The teacher learns, thereby becoming the receiver and processor of the knowledge. Furthermore, outside of the context of our classroom and inside the context of these pages, the students are not students at all when someone from outside of our world reads their pages; when that happens, there is nothing temporary about the reversal of roles.
In short, we are doing a Kanji names project because it is potentially appealing to those outside of our classroom. The content of each student's contribution is a description of something uniquely personal. By putting it up on the world wide web, the students are addressing an audience larger than one teacher, and within that relationship, they are the experts.
Choosing a Japanese Name
The traditions involved in choosing a name for a child are different from the traditions involved in my own cultural background. For instance, my name is "Bill" because I was named after my father; my brother Tom is named after an uncle. My students find this interesting, because Japanese generally do not name their children after themselves or after other relatives. If Japanese wish to name a child after somebody, instead of giving them the same name, they use one of the kanji characters from that person's name. The pronunciation of the character may be different or it may be the same -- this doesn't change the fact that the child is "named after" someone. (See, for example, Emi Nunokawa's page.)
One of the criteria often used in my own culture's name-giving tradition to determine if a name is "right" is to see how it sounds. In Japan, that is overridden by a concern for how many strokes are used in writing the name. While I don't know enough about this to give a detailed account, I know enough to say that certain numbers are considered bad in Japan, and certain numbers are considered fortuitous. As a general example, the number 4 is avoided, as it sounds like the word for "death" ("shi"). In choosing a name, the number of strokes used in the first name must be compatible with the number in the family name. (See, for example, Aki Fujiwara's page.)
One last difference worth mentioning is that Japanese people do not use middle names. My students are curious as to why the people of my culture do. I'm equally curious as to why Japanese people don't. Mutual curiosity without judgement is a healthy start for cross-cultural dialog.
Truely, there is nothing more central to one's identity than one's name. To find out that the practices and traditions entailed in choosing names can differ dramatically from one culture to the next has an interesting effect -- I believe it expands our acceptance of different cultural norms. It would be foolish to condemn a name-giving practice as "wrong" -- once that is realized, I believe it opens people up to looking at other cultural differences in a more open light.
I decided that splitting the image into two images, and then putting it into a table format, would make it clearer. This way, the explanation of the first name (which, recall, is the bottom one) would begin alongside the name itself. Rather than have the students repeat their earlier efforts while learning tables as well, I opted to do the work myself, using their code for the text only. We will learn tables at a later date.
This is when I realized that the students should make two images, one for the top and one for the bottom, from the start, which is what we did the subsequent year.
modified June 15, 1997,
and July 6, 1999