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In their comment to an answer on the question "Are foreign personal names usually written in katakana rather than Romaji?", user sawa says:

... Chinese names should be written in kanji rather than katakana and read by the Japanese pronounciation. For example, 金大中 is キムデジュン, not きんだいちゅう, but 毛沢東 is もうたくとう, not マオジードン. ...

This got me wondering, since each Japanse character generally has at least two readings is there always one clear reading for pronouncing such names?

I expect of course that the "on" readings would be used, but often there is more than one on reading for the same character.

From the comments so far (no answers yet) this is indeed very interesting, and on Zhen Lin's prompting I would like to include Korean names as well despite their being discounted in the older linked question.

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+1 interesting question. i never asked myself that. –  ixtmixilix Sep 5 '11 at 13:21
In my experience, non-historical figures tend to have readings in line with contemporary Chinese/Korean pronunciation (compare "オン・カホウ" vs "ウェン・チアパオ" for 温家宝) -- not sure when the dividing line between "historical" and "non-historical" is, though, 'cause it's true that Mao is もうたくとう. Will be interested to see answers here. –  Matt Sep 5 '11 at 13:34
@sawa: “Furigana is usually given in hiragana, not katakana.” Your argument is begging the question. I do not know whether the parenthesized “ウェン・チアパオ” in the Asahi article is intended to be a furigana or an alternate notation (I would guess the latter), but if one wants to write ウェン・チアパオ as furigana, no one would write it in hiragana. So ウェン・チアパオ being in katakana is no evidence that it is not a furigana. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 6 '11 at 14:27
@TsuyoshiIto The fact that no one will write ウェン・チアパオ in hiragana is the very evidence that it is not a furigana. If it is furigana, what is the reason no one writes it in hiragana? I don't see any reason other than that it is not furigana. –  sawa Sep 6 '11 at 14:45
I have a friend from China whose family name is 楊. Some call her ようさん and others やんさん. I also know 沈san, and some call him ちんさん and others しんさん. –  Choko Jul 6 '12 at 23:05

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

According to Wikipedia,





Here is my translation, additions in square brackets:


On the other hand, the Asahi Shimbun prints Chinese names with ruby annotation giving the Chinese pronunciation. (Asahi Television, which is in the same group, uses Japanese readings.)


As a general rule, Japanese readings [of these names] use kan-on, but in rare instances go-on and kan'yō-on are also used: for example, Kim Il-sung (金日成), Jemulpo (済物浦), and Qian Qichen (銭其琛) are read respectively as Kin Nissei, Saimoppo, and Sen Kishin. [Pure kan-on readings for these would be Kin Jissei, Seibuppo, and Sen Kichin.] Also, it is customary to call Beijing (北京) Pekin, Hong Kong (香港) Honkon, and there are cases where kun-yomi is used, such as Kaohsiung (高雄) in Taiwan, which is called Takao.

The same article also describes the corresponding phenomenon in Korean and Chinese.

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They usually convert the kanji directly with the corresponding japanese pronunciation.

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Due to a policy called mutualism (treat back the way you are treated), Chinese names are written in the corresponding Japanese kanji, and are pronounced with the most typical Japanese on-reading. Korean names are written in katakana that describes an approximation of the Korean pronounciation. There are some exceptions for readings that have been established earlier, and for academic contexts.

Conversely, Japanese names are incorporated into Chinese, being written with the corresponding Chinese characters, and read in the Chinese pronunciation, whereas Korean incorporates Japanese names into Hangul with approximation of the Japanese reading.

However, mutualism in Japanese is not consistent. Japanese has double standard, and this mutualism only seems to apply to east Asian languages. For example, English incorporates Japanese names in the given name-family name order, and if mutualism were to be applied, Japanese should incorporate English names in family name-given name order such as オバマバラク or ブッシュジョージ instead of バラクオバマ or ジョージブッシュ, but it is not done in that way. This may be reflecting some kind of bias in Japanese.

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For official things like ID and sending mail, I think Korean names are written in kanji (there might be a space provided for the reading). –  Louis Jul 7 '12 at 4:37

This answer won't be very helpful if you're looking for a general rule that is followed.

There was a Chinese girl in my Japanese class, and she asked the teacher how she should write and pronounce her name. However, the teacher replied with something that seems plainly obvious now that I know of it. The teacher told her that it's her name so it's her decision.

The teacher did explain the most commons ways to her though:

  • Write her Chinese name with the corresponding Japanese kanji and read it as a Japanese approximation of the Chinese pronunciation
  • Write her Chinese name with the corresponding Japanese kanji and read it as a Japanese name

I have no idea which way is more common, so I can't help you with that, but keep in mind that each person can decide what to do with their name. If you aren't sure, it's probably best to just ask the person.

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So you are saying that it is grammatically valid to arbitrarily assign any readings to a kanji? –  Pacerier Jul 8 '12 at 0:54
@Pacerier I don't see how this is related to grammar. A person's name is, well, a name. Maybe you could call it a word, but I don't see how the name by itself is related to grammar. Could you explain your question a little more? –  atlantiza Jul 8 '12 at 1:57
Hmm, maybe I should have used the term "linguistically valid"... –  Pacerier Jul 8 '12 at 2:43
@Pacerier: as atlantiza said, it doesn't have much to do with grammar... But as for "can one assign any arbitrary reading to a kanji (in a name)", the answer is a clear and resounding yes. This is true for Japanese as well as foreigners. I believe it is explicitly stated in the naming rules that, as long as you are using kanji from the accepted set, you can assign any pronunciation you want. It is done by parents who want their child to have a quirky name (and endless headaches dealing with administration officials later on). –  Dave Jul 9 '12 at 2:46
@Dave Cool, does this apply to names of places as well? –  Pacerier Jul 9 '12 at 10:38

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