Nielsening Haydens and Haydening Nielsens

by Henry Farrell on July 26, 2007

_Making Light_ has a fairly vigorous discussion about Wikipedia policies going at the moment, which has wandered onto the topic of whether people should or shouldn’t be able to decide what their names are for themselves, or whether some other (whether it be Wikipedia, a government agency or whatever) should be able to restrict their choices. “One comment”:
comes from someone whom I presume from their name is Japanese:

Toru Ranryu: To what extent are people entitled to choose their own name? Where I come from, to steal an expression from the Flamer Bingo thread, there are strict rules for how children obtain their names, as well as for when name changes are allowed and what names are acceptable. All of this is enforced by a no-nonsense government agency. Incidentally, under these rules it would not be allowed for Patrick Hayden and Teresa Nielsen to both take Nielsen Hayden as a last name. Are these rules repressive? Do they deny some fundamental freedom or human right? I don’t think so. From birth, your name is not what you call yourself but what others call you. There are ways in which you can change your name, basically by asking people to call you something else, but in the end the decision is always made by other people.

This reminded me of a job talk that a candidate gave in my department last year, describing the politics of women’s surnames in Japan. As I remember (I may be mangling this), it’s impossible for a Japanese woman to keep her birth name for official purposes after marriage; if, say, she wants a passport, she’s obliged to get it under her husband’s surname. But divorce is extremely easy in Japan (you basically have to fill out a form to inform local officialdom and that’s it) so that women who don’t like this rule have taken to divorcing their husbands temporarily before travelling abroad, getting a passport under their birthnames, and then remarrying their ex-husbands on their return. To the extent that my memory isn’t garbling the candidate’s account completely, this suggests that Mr.(???) Ranyu’s views on names aren’t shared by some of his compatriots; it’s also a nice illustration of the lengths to which people will go to creatively reinterpret institutions so as as to undermine egregious official restrictions.