Women's name in Taiwan and Japan

 Since I am moving to Japan for work, my wife is also moving with me and I found I have to figure out the appropriate way for us to introduce ourselves.

Before end of WWII (1945), Taiwan was Japanese Empire's territory since 1895. Married women, such as my grandmother who was born in 大正 period, was used to add her husband's surname as a prefix to her name. For example, her original name is 林專。My grandfather's surname is  吳, she'd be 吳林專。Since most Chinese or Taiwanese name is a three word combination in Kanji, most would name their daughter with shorter name with only 2 kanji or simpler spelling, so after they are married they'd have a 3 kanji name. In many cases, if the lady got a 3 kanji original name at the beginning, she'd have a 4 kanji name after she's married. Those ladies with 4 kanji names are mostly above 70+ in 2023. But it doesn't make it look like an ordinary Japanese name, just a weird direct combination of two surnames. This tradition still exist in some areas.

When I was a kid, I often wonder why my grandma has identical surname like my grandpa. The law and custom has changed after WWII, it's not imperative to add or replace surname for married women. 

To simplify the discussion, let's say a woman whose original surname is Y, and she married to a man whose surname is X.

People start to call ladies, no matter their age or marital status with their original surname. This is a way to show that they fully respect ladies as an individual. Only when a lady is married to a well known or prestigious man, she'd be call Ms.<X>. But she would always sign or introduce herself with her original surname Y, while the others insist calling her Ms.<X>. Those are the ladies like my mother's age. (born after 1960s). This makes children like me feel confused...

Also, there's a superstition in Taiwan that if both parties' surname is <X>, they can't be married otherwise there will be misfortune. This is one of the reasons why I am confused that my grandma has the same surname as me. In most cases, ladies in Taiwan nowadays (born after 1980-) identifies themselves more with Miss <Y> no matter if they are married.

When I was learning German, I was taught that in Germany, even when a lady divorce, she can't change her surname unless she's married to another man again. When they pick up a phone, they have to identify themselves as "this is X". Legally speaking, a married woman is seen as a part of a family unit so it's imperative to use the same surname from the husband. If she never get married again, she'd have to carry that surname X from her ex-husband to her grave.

In Japan, I knew that if a women is divorced, she could apply to change her surname back to her original one. We can read it from star news.

Back to Taiwan again, it's subtle when to be identify as Miss or Ms. in daily context. For most cases, women identify themselves as Ms.X after they give birth to a child. Otherwise they'd be Miss Y no matter they are married, divorced, single, or aged ladies.

I think to some extent, Taiwanese people still consider that a married woman is Ms. X only after she gave birth to a baby. Otherwise they would be girls, big girls, even they are at age 70 nowadays. We are more incline to identify with Miss Y rather than Ms. X since this is who she is from the beginning.

So in that sense, most young women in Taiwan would use their English name as a regular identity for most occasions --- to avoid the awkwardness of naming and identity crisis as their life goes on. The identity shift and awareness is always a subtle yet common topic for ladies around the world. English name was generally chose by the girls themselves as they grew, before that, this is when the divergence began. Some girl would prefer a Japanese spelling. (For example, Mizuki Lin リン・シャン  , 林襄 ). She'd definitely be called Ms. Mizuki even after she got married in the future, or give birth to a child....probably because she's young and very famous now.

Other girls might prefer a western name that has a syllable similar to their original Chinese given name. It could be English or any western language, or even a rarely known language, as long as the implicit etymology, philosophical meaning or sound conveys her character. This is one of the reasons westerners wonder why Taiwanese girls pick a English name, while Taiwan was not colonized by the British Empire like Singapore or Hong Kong.

In my wife's case, she chose Sunya (サンや). A word from buddhism Sonya (空, voidness), but the pronunciation is not the original su-nya or so-nya. (She's a programmer thus the name is interesting if you know a little about programming and the huge differences among concepts like zero, null, void or undefined.) 

In general, the girl's Chinese given name is used for close friends or parents. The title, job title, or surname is not considered as something critical in Taiwanese society. A woman is not an adjunct to a family, but she would always be her mom's daughter, and herself. For women in my mom's generation, they suffer most from the ideological conflict. They are the given generation of new woman, but also the last generation of old time woman. They feel like belonging to no group even they are married, and they became the only person who doesn't have the same surname in their family (after marriage). I definitely felt the pressure and lost from them. In fact, this caused some social and mental problems in Taiwan. Mothers become "the other" in a family for kids, even they spent the most time together.


On the other hand, when we move to Japan, there's a mandatory rule for us to denote our legal names and Japanese spelling. It's a fixed thing and you can't change it afterward. For example, my surname 吳 can be directly translated to 'Wu' in Mandarin Chinese (northern dialect). In Southern Chinese dialect (ミンナンご) , as my grandparents would use in daily life, it would be translated to 'Go'. If it was spelled in Hakka or other dialects, it is certainly something else but none would be surprised. Everyone understand it's the same referent and the sound is not important. The identity is not attached to the sound, but the words (kanji).

But this is not acceptable for daily Japanese documentation, delivery system and formal legal system. I am not sure if this is acceptable to be shifting in daily conversation. But I guess it's not. People in Taiwan are used to "sound" differently all the time, being called in different names, or shifting smoothly among the identities or pronunciations. In Taiwanese culture, it's normal that all these different sounds are pointing to the same person, as long as a written form is recorded it would be ok.

What interested me most is that the Japanese doc can specify how you would be formally called, on your own will. In most cases the spelling that sound most close to your native original pronunciation is chosen. So the same name for English or French, would be spelled differently in Japanese doc. You may even specify furikana for Kanji or vice versa. Kanji don't even have fixed furikana for names, so it could be a totally different sound from regular hiragana. In that case, I could log my official name as my English name pronunciation....for example, I can be

  • 吳 浩民 (Howard Wu)
  • Go komin
  • Wu Hao-min
  • Wu hawado (ウ- ハワト)

I haven't really decided yet, but this is something really new and crazy to us. It feels like creating a new character, an avatar, or new profile in an online game. Just because they sound different, they are not the same referent. I even made call to my dad to make sure his thoughts on this. But he can't grasp the meaning behind it, and I then realized it's a new period for our family and society again. It is good to have through documentation and explanation, this is part of my profession too

I am a technical writer who has to write complex doc for concepts and record the critical changes, subtle improvements in a huge software system. Things are always in endless evolution so what we can do is to record its status and compare it with our original design. We are like doing snapshot and slices of time, it's a huge forest with some supervision and detail planning.

But it's interesting to see how respect is combined with legal documentation and identity. In Japanese, the identity is bound to be a fixed sound, or marital status. It feels like one is born to be like that or certain profession at the beginning of their life. It feels static, not very organic. Or at least, it's restrained to a bonzai like life-form that does not encourage over growth or changes. Even if there are millions of bonzai, putting them together doesn't make people feel they are very organic. 

Maybe it's the sounds and minimal definition (in Linguistics, it's called morpheme) that made its way to the contextual meaning and this is how everything is in place. It's a very practical bottom-up process effort in response to top-down goal in Japanese. It feels like Kanji is used as a container to hold the syllabic (furigana) bonzai with-in a well maintained system.

As a technical writer, I admire and love all the differences because it is enjoyable to record and make new thing better by previous analysis and new discoveries. I would like to strike a cultural balance in the next few years as I work and live in Japan. This is why I chose to work remotely for Mercari, and moved to Fukuoka in Kyushu. 

PS: In a post (臺灣女性受重用嗎?職員錄也查得到) documenting the Taiwanese women in Japanese colonial period, it denotes that the government require the women to register their surname appended with '氏'. But it looks like only those who works in government will have this mandatory registration. At that time, most women can only be hired as contractors (雇), thus their salary is lowered than (正社員、職員) average workers in that sector.

This is similar to the modern Japan. The employment and welfare is not equal for women.