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PPFF #141: names

Good morning,

In January a colleague wondered out loud why so many Jewish people in the US have German sounding names. The answer was of course the 1787 Austro-Hungarian law (Universal Decree by Emperor Joseph II). The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled over a substantial part of Europe at the time, was the first country in Europe that required all persons of Jewish decent to register a permanent family surname (most of whom didn’t have a constant surname), and they required that this surname be German.

Why am I recycling this fact? I’m not. But I’m trying to create a past reference point, from which to launch a related fact in the same theme because that obviously gives it a sense of legitimacy (it really doesn’t); otherwise it would be too random to bring up this morning’s topic – Japanese surnames.

In 16th century Japan, surnames were actually outlawed for all non-samurai (you know, people with swords) but people used them anyway – illegally. By the 19th century, impoverished feudal lords started selling surnames to wealthy commoners (people without swords but money) –again illegally. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, these surname-bootleggers probably all went out of business when the Meiji government passed a new law requiring everyone to register surnames. The new government wasn’t being generous with this previously coveted privilege; in fact it was the opposite because it just made conscription and taxation difficult to evade for their subjects. I’ve read that there are over 100,000 surnames in Japan and batches of arbitrary names were pretty much given out by village temple priests when this law came into force.

I realise that no one asked to know any of this. But it makes me feel better to know that I have a friend who is just about Japanese and I thought he might like to know and also there’s a Japanese guy who comes into my office to water the plants. Maybe he’d be delighted to know his surname was randomly generated by his great great grandparent’s village priest. Or not.

Have a good Friday.

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