Let’s talk about Natsume Souseki 夏目漱石.

Natsume was a brilliant Japanese novelist, teacher, and poet. He is best known for his novels such as I am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro. Oh, and until recently, he was the face on the 1000 yen note.


As I write this, a question came to mind. Should I say “Souseki Natsume” or ”Natsume Souseki”?

In most (all?) English-speaking cultures, the first name comes first, and the last name comes, well, last.

ご存知の通り (gozonji no toori - as you know) Japanese is opposite. 夏目 (Natsume - Family “Last” name) and then 漱石 (Souseki - first/given name) is how it would be written in Japanese.

* But I’m writing in English. Therefore, it should be "Souseki Natsume."

* But I learned it as “Natsume Souseki,” and, darn it, I like it that way.
)

My gut feeling, as someone who loves the Japanese language, is to say Natsume Souseki.

“Souseki Natsume” just sounds funny to my ears. But that is only because I first learned his name in Japanese as “Natsume Souseki.”

I also learned 三船敏郎 Mifune Toshiro’s name as “Mifune (last name) Toshirou (first name)” (Mr. Mifune was 黒澤明 Akira Kurosawa’s star samurai actor).

Hold on, Clay. You said “Akira” first and that was his first name!

Yes, yes. I’m not consistent here.

“Akira Kurosawa” sounds better to me than “Kurosawa Akira” (as does “Yoko Ono” instead of 小野洋子 “Ono Yoko”). This is because I learned Kurosawa’s and Ono’s names before I started learning Japanese, but I learned of Mifune Toshirou and Natsume Souseki after I started learning Japanese.

Yes, it is a mess.

I have to stop myself when I’m speaking Japanese and make sure I get the order of a famous Japanese person’s name right.


THE SOLUTION

I’ve thought about it more than I should, but I think I have a solution.

Consistency is important when doing anything. I propose learners of Japanese should always learn Japanese names the Japanese way with family name first to make it easier to recall when speaking Japanese. When speaking English, you can simply reverse the positions. It’s easier to make changes on the fly in English (if you are a native speaker, that is) than when speaking Japanese.

Problem solved!

While most Japanese write their own names using the Western naming order when using romaji, more and more Japanese are opting for the Japanese ordering. NHK World-Japan now uses the Japanese order in their English news broadcasts. Some Western news outlets are also following the Japanese order.

Will Akira Kurosawa one day become Kurosawa Akira on IMDb

Only time will tell, but I suspect it will be like the metric system in the US. A pound here, a gram there.

あれ?なにしゃべっているんだったっけ?  Ah? What am I rambling on about?

すみません. Sorry...

That's right. This letter is supposed to be about Natsume Souseki (no apologies for the order).

As I mentioned earlier, Natsume Souseki is most famous for being the face on the old 1000 yen note and for writing novels such as Botchan and I am a Cat.

But he also wrote short stories (as well as haiku!). One collection of short stories is called 夢十夜, Yume Jūya or Ten Nights of Dreams. Ten stories represent ten dreams he may or may not have had.

They are weird but strangely compelling. Kind of like Salvador Dali or Franz Kafka. You can't look away.

The language is a little old fashioned and would be difficult for beginners, but if you are an intermediate, I would recommend working through these stories.

If you are a beginner, don't worry. Today's video is a sleep story which means it isn't designed for studying. While I can't say it will improve your Japanese in a measurable way (metric, please), I do believe the more you hear the sounds of a language, the more your ears will feel comfortable with it. Individual words will become easier to pick out, and the peculiarities of pronunciation become easier to catch.

So, here is Yumi reading the first five nights of dreams by Natsume Souseki set against a light rainfall. Tonight, why not play it as you go to sleep? 


  • We already have systems that organize by Last name so putting a comma in the romaji transliteration makes it understandable to western audiences. Hebrew names are referred to in their English counterparts in wider English audiences for understanding.

    I get annoyed when English subtitles have the name First name, Last name over Japanese dialogue saying Last name, First name. Especially when there is no English audio or alternate CC subtitles.

    It seems that Western names are understood to be reversed when given in Japan. Is this true?

    In the new anime ‘Genjitsu Shugi Yuusha no Oukoku Saikenki 現実主義勇者の王国再建記’ the main character Souma, Kazuya is in an isekai country and has his name westernized as Souma Kazuya because he didn’t correct his name to properly be Kazuya Souma.

    • I never thought about it, but when I taught English in Japan, I was “クレイ先生” and not バウトエル先生. Maybe it was because Clay is shorter than Boutwell, but it seemed to be the convention when speaking of foreign teachers.

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