People often ask me what my first name (Shinichi) means, as it is unusual outside of Japan. But I’ve always struggled a bit in answering this simple question.
In Japan, naming a newborn is serious business. Many Japanese can tell you several reasons behind their names, and how those reasons come together in meaningful ways. So explaining a name is not so simple. It’s a story.
My name also has a little story behind it. But my naming story is not so much about my name. Rather, it’s about what my name could have been.
And a little bit about how great my parents are.
I am the first male of my generation in the extended Urano family. In the Japanese culture, that’s a “big deal.” Shortly before I was to be born, the extended family gathered in our ancestral home town of Osaka to decide how to name me.
Well, there were many opinions among the elders of the family. The men argued on and on while the women kept quiet. After the debate had gone on for hours, the patriarch of the family, my great uncle, decided enough is enough.
He declared, “We are not going to agree on a name. Let’s ask the monk to settle the argument.”
My great uncle was a local business owner. And as an influential person within the community, he had a good relationship with the local Buddhist temple. So, the head monk was summoned. After listening to the elders argue for a while, the monk raised his shaven head and intoned, “I have a great name for this boy.”
“I have a name which is truly Zen. It is simple, yet meaningful. It will serve him well in his life. We will name him…
A puzzled hush fell on the extended family. You see, the word means a state of incompleteness. (Google translate will say “less”)
The monk continued. “We will use the kanji, 九 (which means the number 9), and pronounce it Tarazu. This character represents one less than 10, the state of perfection. The boy will always be striving towards perfection which, of course, is unattainable.”
My father recalls that as the simplicity and the depth of the name sunk in, he really liked the idea, as did the other elders. But that’s when he noticed a frown out of the corner of his eyes. It was my mother.
She whispered to my father, “You must all be crazy. You know that Tarazu is a common children slang! He’ll be made fun of throughout his entire life!”
Indeed, calling someone ‘Tarazu’, is basically calling someone a dimwit. Short for ‘Nou-Tarazu’ — a brain (‘Nou’) that’s lacking.
My father did not follow his initial gut feeling. Instead, after a short discussion with my mother, he sprang to action — “No, we can not use that name. The boy will be made fun of at school!”
After some additional back and forth, I ended up with my name — Shinichi. Phonetically, it’s actually a very common first male name in Japan. The kanji is somewhat unusual, though: 晋一. My father explains that the monk got his way after all. The monk had said, “That’s fine, we’ll use the common name, Shinichi. But we’ll use the kanji which has the same Zen meaning as Tarazu.”
And that’s how my parents saved me from years of verbal abuse as a child. Looking back on it from today, with all the talk about bullying and its impact on children, they clearly made the right call. My mother describes it as obvious, but I’m sure the family elders were not thinking that way back then.
But what’s also special in this story is how my father responded to my mother’s frowning. You see, Japanese culture is a very paternalistic one, and even more so back then. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of wives of Japanese male executives demurely walking several steps behind the husbands.
While my father certainly played the bread-earner role in our family, he has always been an equal partner to my mother in our family affairs. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But for the most part, even “us kids” were listened to as major household decisions were made.
So, this story is an example of how that attitude and openness ultimately led to arriving at the right decision.
And that way of thinking has been a big influence on me. Perhaps even more so than not being called “Dimwit” all my life!