Names are important. You have them from the moment you are born until the day you die. That is, unless you change it to "Cary Grant" or "World B. Free" along the way. Yes, names are important—especially in Japan.
Japanese fashion model Hikari Kamikawa recently gave birth to a happy and healthy baby boy. She named the child "Ace"—a fine name. But not a very Japanese name, and a name that has some in Japan already feeling bad for the kid.
Unlike in the West, Japanese people legally cannot have a middle name. People have a first name and a last name. You can call yourself whatever you like in Japan, but Japanese legal documents do not have a space for middle names or middle initials.
And until the 19th century, unless you were nobility, last names just didn't exist. As adults in the workplace, people only refer to each other by their surnames. That is, unless they develop a friendly—informal, even—relationship. Thus, the first name is extremely important.
When naming a child, parents pick names that represent their aspirations for that child—whether they want the kid to become beautiful or brave. The kanji characters parents select have meaning. Often, parents will even count the number of strokes in the kanji when deciding which to use.
Against this background, fashion model Hikari Kamikawa gave her son a very unusual name: "Ace". In Japanese, it's written as 瑛磨. When announcing the kid's name on her blog, Kamikawa immediately wrote how to read that kanji in parenthesis (エース) or "Ace". It's a highly unusual name.
"The origins of the name?" blogged Kamikawa. "That manga I love so." The name "Ace", of course, is from One Piece character Portgas D. Ace.
Some of Kamikawa's fans were excited about her choice, saying it was "wonderful" or "very cool". Others on her site and bulletin board 2ch were less than enthused, writing that the name was "problematic" or that it's actually going to make the boy's life hard. The name isn't easy to read, and "Ace" isn't a Japanese name. It sounds strange—like a company's name. Some even indicated that Kamikawa's choice seemed to lack class.
Kamikawa is a model for Koakuma Ageha, a popular fashion magazines for hostesses. Koakuma Ageha models regularly appear in Sega's Yakuza games. Many of them also work as, well, hostesses, Kamikawa included. The most recent place she worked at in Tokyo's Roppongi charged patrons between ¥8,400 to ¥12,600 for sixty minutes of chit-chat. That doesn't include the ¥3,000 to pick the girl you want to talk to! While often lumped in with the sex trade, hostessing isn't actually sex. It's flirting, talking, and drinking, but has been called psychological prostitution. Many of the Koakuma Ageha models and readers, for that matter, are working class. So naming your kid after a comic book character might be totally fine. Yet, that's exactly what her choice was—totally fine.
Japan does have a list of banned names, names that you legally cannot use. For example, it is illegal to name your child "Akuma" ("Devil") in Japan. Sorry Street Fighter fans!
Kamikawa's choice, as odd as it sounds to many Japanese, doesn't violate any of the governments rules regarding children's names. What's more, this style of naming—picking something simply because you like it—makes total sense to Westerners. So many Westerners are named after characters or famous people. Heck, Robin Williams named his daughter after "Zelda", and that didn't cause an uproar. Zelda is a nice name. Ace is too.
More and more, there are Japanese kids with names that only a few years ago would have been thought totally unusual, but today are increasingly becoming commonplace. More and more, people want to give their kids unique names. Last names are changing, too, with increasing numbers of Japanese married to foreigners now willing to legally change their married names to very foreign sounding ones like "Ashukurafuto". Japanese names are changing. Japan is changing.