A peculiar thing sometimes happens when I enter restaurants in Japan. The staff lose the ability to read. It happened again on Sunday.
I popped out with the wife for a cheap and cheerful lunch at a local steak restaurant only to find that quite a few others had had the same idea. There was a queue and, as is often the way here, there was a little lectern-style stand with a sheet of paper on which hopeful diners could write their names before taking a seat in the waiting area. My wife added our names to the sheet and we too began our wait.
Every few minutes a waiter came and looked at the sheet and called out the next name on the list. He was on fine reading form, barely hesitating between glancing at the sheet and calling out the names. Suzuki, Watanabe, even a lengthy Sakakibara were enunciated with confidence and clarity. And then he got to us.
Now, you might be thinking, ‘Well, you’ve got a foreign name. It’s understandable that it’s hard to read. I’d like to see a waiter in England or America trying to pronounce a Japanese name correctly. What do you expect, you condescending fool?’ and I would agree with you on all of that but for one thing that I feel negates those excuses. My name was written in katakana and therefore if the waiter could read (and he had already demonstrated that he could) there was only one possible way he could read my name. For readers who might not be familiar with katakana, allow me to explain a little further.
Katakana is one of the Japanese syllabaries. Each of the characters can be read in one way and one way only. For example, カ is read ka. There are no weird combinations which could be read any number of ways. There are no equivalents to an English ‘ough’ as in ‘tough’ or ‘cough’ or ‘though’ or ‘through’ or ‘bough’ or ‘ought’. In kanji there is plenty room for alternative readings; in katakana there is none. It is a basic script, easy to learn and once learned anything written in it can be sounded out without much difficulty. Indeed my name has an irregular spelling that sometimes causes English speakers confusion. Katakana eliminates that confusion. There is more than one way people could read it in English. There is only one way it can possibly be read in katakana.
One of katakana’s functions is to represent foreign words which have entered the Japanese language. Those words might not sound exactly like their original version, and that is also true with foreign names. They are rendered into katakana and usually their pronunciation changes somewhat. That is fine and perfectly acceptable. I do not expect my name to be pronounced as it would be in my own tongue. I expect it to be pronounced as it sounds when transcribed into the nearest approximation that katakana allows. I even expect a little pause as the waiter looks at it and recognises that this is an unusual name. I have become accustomed to a slight hesitation, a mild flinch. I don’t mind that. But what I do find weird is when a waiter looks at my name and just stops or begins squeaking as though it were written in morse code. It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened before and it happened on Sunday. He looked at the name and just kept looking at it before finally looking up and sighing with palpable relief when I said, ‘I think that’s probably us.’
And here’s the thing: my name in katakana has three characters. It should be as easy to read as the Suzukis and Watanabes that the waiter had managed with such ease. For a Japanese person not to be able to read my katakana name aloud would be equivalent to a server in Britain seeing the name Kan and being so flummoxed that he couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how to pronounce it.
It’s a trivial matter but a perplexing one. It can easily be nullified by just writing my wife’s maiden name, but sometimes I think it might be more fun to take my friend’s advice. ‘Well, it’s a foreign name,’ he says, ‘so you could just write anything. Amuse yourself. Write “Man with Longwilly” in katakana and wait till he calls you.’