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Why are Japanese names a secret?
August 8, 2014 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Many translated Japanese novels refer to locations and companies, and occasionally even years, by their first character rather than specifying their name. What is the reason for this practice?

For example:

Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque: “And a graduate of Q University on top of it.”

Fumiko Enchi’s Masks: “I’ve been here a week, doing a lecture series for S. University.”

Edogawa Rampo’s The Human Chair: “…she shut herself up in the study she shared with her husband to resume work on the story she was to submit for the special summer issue of K— magazine.”
posted by lunch to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I suppose it's the same (probable) reasons they did it older English works:
Initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality....

Some rather scurrilous stories were also printed which were thinly veiled parodies or criticisms of important figures. So when Jane Austen wrote the __shire regiment, or the Earl of__, she was a)avoiding the pitfall of being accused of inaccuracy and b) avoiding the pitfall of being accused of criticism of some important political figures.
posted by Etrigan at 8:59 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


I've seen this in older Western novels too. Les Miserables, for example. It's something recent novel S. mimics to seem like an older work.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:03 AM on August 8


I've seen a similar practice in older English-language novels—but only for personal names (e.g., "T—" instead of "Thomas").

I'm no expert, but I've always gotten the sense that it's done for some combination of the following reasons:

1. To make the language seem more personal (because if the in-story writer or audience of the text knows who someone is based solely on their initial, they must be fairly intimate with them). For obvious reasons, this usually happens when the story is narrated in first-person, or when the novel cites passages from an (in-story) personal letter.

2. To de-emphasize the specific identity of the person, because it isn't particularly important to the story.

3. Rarely, to (sort-of-but-not-really) conceal a person's identity—not so much in a "whodunit" fashion, but more like "you don't need to know exactly who T— is right now; if that becomes important then we'll get into that later".

When were the translations you cite done? Maybe it has nothing to do with Japanese translations in particular, but is simply a convention of English fiction of the period.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:04 AM on August 8


When were the translations you cite done? Maybe it has nothing to do with Japanese translations in particular, but is simply a convention of English fiction of the period.

Grotesque was translated in 2007, and each of the examples are by different translators. I didn't know that names were also blocked out in older English-language fiction, but I'm curious why English-language novels no longer conceal names while Japanese works still do.
posted by lunch at 9:10 AM on August 8


Who did the translations, and where are they from? Maybe the practice of doing this in English survived in some places, but not others.

In what time period are the novels set? If they're period pieces, maybe it's an attempt to give them an old-timey feel?
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:14 AM on August 8


I'm curious why English-language novels no longer conceal names while Japanese works still do.

English-language authors stopped caring about offending people or getting small details wrong, I'd wager.
posted by Etrigan at 10:12 AM on August 8


I've noticed this too, in both older English novels (ie Jane Austen) and more recent Japanese novels (ie Banana Yoshimoto, and I think also Yoko Ogawa if I remember correctly?). I don't think it's a translation quirk or a period piece flourish, rather a Japanese literary custom. Unfortunately, I don't know why it is done.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:14 AM on August 8


According to Wikipedia:

The Human Chair: Written in 1925; takes the form of an epistolary novel (a form in which this conceit is particularly common). If the translation was done shortly after publication, the translator was probably just following the genre conventions of the time. If it's a more recent translation, they were probably self-consciously imitating the conventions of the novel's era.

Masks: Published in 1958; when the story is set is unclear; translated probably sometime after 1975 by Juliet Winters Carpenter. This one is a little harder to explain—my (totally armchair-based) experience tells me that the "T—" conceit was in decline by the mid-1960s, although my reading of fiction from that era is admittedly spotty.

Grotesque: Original publication date unclear; when the story is set is unclear; it sounds like your 2007 translation is the Rebecca Copeland version. This one is the hardest to account for—but it's told in first-person, which is another form in which this conceit is common.

It's also worth noting that both Grotesque and The Human Chair are crime/mystery novels—and it sounds like Masks might be in the same ballpark, as it deals with intrigue fueled by dark but unclear motives. Sometimes little techniques like this live on, or take on a life of their own, in particular genres, even after they've faded from general use.

It would be interesting to know whether this quirk existed in the original Japanese—but without the original Japanese texts (and a fluent reader of Japanese), we're probably not going to find an answer to that question.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:18 AM on August 8


I've read quite a bit of Japanese literature in the original Japanese, but I haven't read any of these texts (well, I read Masks about halfway through, but I returned it to the library and don't remember that bit) but I tend to think that the names were obscured in the original Japanese. There are a lot of obscured names in Japanese literature -- I'm thinking in particular of 'sensei' in Natsume Soseki's "Kokoro" and "boku" (I, the unnamed first-person narrator) in many of Haruki Murakami's novels.

Modern Japanese literature shortly after the Meiji restoration and into the early 20th century, when novels modeled after European models were becoming a thing, tended to be very heavily autobiographical -- to the point where you could identify characters modeled on specific people -- and initial-names were a way of neither explicitly identifying someone nor explicitly fictionalizing someone's identity. A way of saying "Yes, this is a real person, this is a real thing that happened, but I'm not going to intrude on their privacy by telling you their real full name."

And I think it's serving the same function even when it's definitely not an autobiographical novel -- kind of preserving the illusion that it's a true story by refusing to give you all the explicit details that would, in a true-crime novel, be footnoted with "names changed to protect the innocent."
posted by Jeanne at 12:31 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]


It would be interesting to know whether this quirk existed in the original Japanese—but without the original Japanese texts (and a fluent reader of Japanese), we're probably not going to find an answer to that question.

The Tale of Genji (11th Century) does not name most of its characters but refers to them in other ways. Wikipedia says, "This lack of names stems from Heian-era court manners that would have made it unacceptably familiar and blunt to freely mention a person's given name."
posted by soelo at 1:08 PM on August 8


There have been a few previous questions on this practice in English novels (this previously links to the others) and my guess then and now is that it's a playful way to occupy a space that neither ascribes "real" names nor creates obviously fictional ones which might upset the sense of verisimilitude.
posted by holgate at 2:29 PM on August 8


escape from the potato planet: "It would be interesting to know whether this quirk existed in the original Japanese—but without the original Japanese texts (and a fluent reader of Japanese)"

I can't confirm for those specific novels, but I can confirm that this type of thing is seen in the original Japanese.
posted by Bugbread at 4:32 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


This isn't peculiar to English fiction, it should be said. Pepys also used this extensively in his diaries - whether for brevity or privacy isn't always clear (and in truth is probably a bit of both).
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:19 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


I've just finished Father & Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. A few of the place names are referred to by an initial, and the main location by ***. I have no legitimate reason to believe this, but suspect it is because the novel was set in "present day" Russia at the time of writing (1962) and the author didn't want to specify a real location, but still wanted to retain the illusion of a connection to the real world.
posted by bigZLiLk at 12:22 AM on August 10


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