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Does a Name Have Any Power?

A few years ago, I was working at a company in Tokyo and had a chance to be a conversational partner of some Japanese English learners. If it had been a job at a regular English school (or an eikaiwa—English conversation—school), I would not have gotten the opportunity in the first place, mainly because of my all-too-Japanese look which would make the student feel that she is talking to a girl next door or a distant relative whom she’s meeting for the first time.

To this day, for the great majority of Japanese people, including my parents who have lived outside of Japan for more than a decade, the image of English-speaking people is directly derived from Hollywood stars. My mother in particular still reacts as if she met aliens whenever she sees non-Asian looking people on the street, and she’s always tempted to approach them, just to see if they need someone who can take them to the nearest station. Sadly the history of Nikkei is barely taught in school here, as I myself did not know anything about the experience of Japanese immigrants until after I moved to California and took a US history class in high school.

The good thing about the job was that I didn’t need to “talk” with people face to face. Instead, I was asked to disguise myself as a virtual character that existed only on the Internet. Thanks to my parents who gave me a name that’s so easy to pronounce and that doesn’t sound too culture-specific, I never felt the need to have an English name. Without giving any thought, I chose to name myself after a character from the TV series, Ghost Whisperer. I suddenly became Melinda in the world of the Internet.

What I realized, though, after having a short conversation with my “student” behind the screen, was that my name did not mean anything to her or me. It could have been any popular English name such as Emily, Ashley, Madison, or even Sam, Michael, or Joe. To her, I was simply a character that asked questions and responded to her in the chat box.

So what does a name mean to us?

Some years ago, a friend of mine had an interesting experience. She was living with her mother and sister, and her father was working abroad at the time. One day, her mother received a letter, but strangely there was no name of the sender. It turned out that the sender was her father’s secret lover, and she revealed the relationship to the wife just so that she could end the ill-fated affair in the easiest, quickest way. This woman had a name, of course. Later my friend found out that the woman had the name of a flower, though she’s not sure if it was her real name. Still, even to this day my friend is haunted by the slightest sight of the flower despite the fact that she’s never met the woman.

The question of whether or not we are shaped by our names remains unanswered. However, we all have the fear of the unknown. I believe that a name weakens that fear to the point where we tell ourselves that at least we can point our finger and label it in our own language.

This is me - what kind of name would best suit me?


© 2014 Mina Otsuka

Nima-kai Favorites

Each article submitted to this Nikkei Chronicles special series was eligible for selection as the community favorite. Thank you to everyone who voted!

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culture Discover Nikkei identity Japan languages names Nikkei Chronicles (series) Nikkei Names (series)
About this series

What’s in a name? This series introduces stories exploring the meanings, origins, and the untold stories behind personal Nikkei names. This can include family names, given names, and even nicknames!

For this project, we asked our Nima-kai to vote for their favorite stories and our editorial committee to pick their favorites.  

Here are the selected favorite stories. 


 Editorial Committee’s selections:

  Nima-kai selection:

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About the Author

Mina Otsuka is a Japanese translator and writer. She earned a BA in Literary Journalism from the University of California, Irvine. Besides work and occasional translation projects, she enjoys listening to music (of any kind) and playing the guitar.

Updated November 2014 

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