Is it cultural appropriation if I give my white, American baby a Japanese name?

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Admission Stamp When I was pregnant with my first child, I had my heart set on a specific Japanese name (Sakura) for my child. Her father dismissed the idea because the baby wasn’t Japanese, and we ended up naming our daughter Evelynn.

He and I split, and I’m married to a wonderful man who fully supports this Japanese name as we await a baby of our own.

Here’s the thing: we’re two white Americans of European descent, and thanks to my ex I still have this sickening feeling in the back of my head about using the name.

Have any of you used baby names that aren’t from your culture and ethnicity? How do you feel about it?

-Laura

Comments on Is it cultural appropriation if I give my white, American baby a Japanese name?

  1. If you’re not sure about this name, think about how your child will feel carrying the name. Maybe adopt the name for yourself for a few days, and practice giving it to people you don’t know (like when they ask you for your name at starbucks or for a table at a restaurant). That way you can see how people react to a White person being called a Japanese name. What ever reactions you experience, your child will experience for their lifetime. I’d also second the option that you consider giving the name to your child as a middle name. You can still use it on a day-to-day basis (several of my friends are known by their middle names) but it gives your child the option of using a different name if they want to later in life.

  2. As an American living in Japan, married to a Japanese man, I can tell you that I’m facing down the same problem – even with half ethnically Japanese kids.

    Yes, names are incredibly important, and choosing the one that speaks to you is probably the most difficult criteria to measure up to. But there’s also the consideration for how the name will affect the child it’s attached to. And here are a few of the things holding me back, just to put them out there:

    I’ve actually encountered a few white kids (no Japanese roots, family, nothing) with Japanese names here, and they are universally ridiculed, at least upon first introductions. Small sample size, mind you, but every. Single. One.

    Japanese people are fully aware of how asian cultures (and specifically Japan) have been popularized and romanticized by western cultures. With these kids whose parents gave them Japanese names, a lot of the Japanese friends they made had a good long laugh over it, assuming that their parents were either part of the otaku generation (fanboys and fangirls sucked into the influx of manga and anime) or just Americans who “ooh” and “ahh” over the exotic mysteriousness of Japan. And they are often teased and met with the Japanese equivalent of eye-rolling. Especially with stereotypical/historical Japanese names, like “Sakura,” (number one!) “Musashi,” “Haruka,” or any girl’s name that ends in “-ko.” Or anything that was ever the name of a famous ninja. (I met a kid once named Samurai. I’m not even joking – I’ve never seen someone so humiliated by their name in my entire life. He was getting it changed, but just went by “Sam” until then.)

    One other thing to consider is the mixed-Japanese stigma. In my area, there are a fair amount of mixed American/Japanese kids, and they more often than not look 90% foreign. A lot of these kids are discriminated against because the most common pairing is Japanese mother x American father, which leads to the following assumptions:

    a) The father is military
    b) The mother moved to America, but took the kids back alone (a form of kidnapping that Japan stands behind, a whole other can of worms)
    c) the mother is/was an AmeriJou (portmanteau colloquialism meaning “american-chasing girl” or “american-loving tramp,” a highly derided subculture of young Japanese women)

    As you can imagine, those three options, while not always the case, are met with prejudice. And so seeing a white-looking child with a Japanese name might invite a lot of unwarranted and untrue assumptions.

    Again, these are just the reactions I’ve seen from Japanese people, and problems with white kids with Japanese names *in Japan itself.* There’s no guarantee that your child will ever visit Japan, so this may all be a moot point. For me, however, I’m wrestling with the issue myself and wanted to share some of the things giving me pause. I get stared at when people hear my Japanese last name, like they’ve never heard of a foreign woman marrying a Japanese man. I can only imagine what my child would be met with, and I would want him/her to be proud of having Japanese heritage, spend time here, meet family, etc. What I might do (and is common practice in many mixed families) is choose a western first name, and a Japanese middle name to be used with relatives here.

    Japanese people living in America might be more used to it, though, and you probably won’t get the same reactions as someone who lives here. So I guess it’s down to what the name means to you! =) It seems to be special to you, and you likely won’t have the same set of issues I will, so you have a bit more leeway.

    (EDIT: Also, for what it’s worth, if it’s just *any* Japanese name you have your heart set on, rather than that specific one, I’d encourage you to do a bit of exploring. There are many beautiful names out there. I have two half-Japanese friends whose American parent named them Sakura, and both have changed it because they found it embarrassing. Though they both live here in Japan, so that might be a completely different case.)

    • I was going to post something similar, as my husband was an eikaiwa in Japan for two years and this was also his experience, but you beat me to it with a much more thorough explanation!

  3. I see it this way: how would you feel if a Japanese person named their child Evelynn, Michael, Ashley, etc.?

    I personally think we overdo “cultural appropriation” sensitivity. There are particular customs and traditions that need respect. For instance, I would be uncomfortable if someone took a communion ceremony out of its religious context. But does that mean every aspect of introducing another culture into our lives needs to be avoided and/or researched to death if we’re not directly tied to it? I personally don’t think so.

  4. I am a white, middle class, half catholic, half protestant English woman born and bred, the poster child for oppressor short of a penis. I have lived all over the world and am now living in Canada. I have to say I have often been frustrated while in N.America by people using names from the various parts of my homeland as a sort of shorthand way of claiming an affinity or connection for something that is now seen as exotic, interesting, victimhood. People saying “I’m Irish/Scottish” etc when they are in fact many many generations of Canadian and have never engaged with the complex and tragic history of all of the peoples involved. Often it comes across as a middle class guilt distancing itself from its privilege by claiming close ties to an oppressed people.

    My son has a very old english name Jago (Jay-go). Most people think he’s called Diego! He gets frustrated sometimes telling people how to say it, it never occurred to me that people would have much trouble with it and he’s okay with the struggle. Thanks to my husbands northern scottish ancestry (he’s a Canadian) my son is as white as the day is long, he’s almost blue in winter and Diego seems like such an odd guess but we are in N America, it’s a far more familiar name here and that is wonderful to me.

    On a light note my Brother-in-law and I play a game as we travel around the english speaking world collecting names. Perhaps you should check that in Japan the combination of the first name and your surname are not ludicrous or hilarious. N.America is a wonderful place for collecting these names as the words have different meanings here than in UK english, the first name Randy is relentlessly entertaining to our childish game and combinations such as Randy Bishop, Randy Goodnight and Randy Kamp are great. Chip Sarnie III has kept my brother giggling for ages (it’s a common snack in UK, a sandwich made from fries) and Roger Roughly still has the crown. He’s a brit and when he introduced himself he actually commented on his name saying that Canada was about the only safe place for him to live as it’s just a name here.

    • No, there cannot be three entire person called Chip Sarnie. *fits of giggles* I agree, though, Roger Roughly definitely wins.

      • I know! That was the cherry on the top, you get a whole picnic full of sarnies in one family! Awesome! I also had to sit through a meeting with these super senior guys where they kep referring to a woman called “Fanny Humplick”! My boss was giving me the “be quiet or I will lose it too” eyes! A great name, should be in James Bond film! I hope she had the personality to pull it off!

    • Alright, my dad’s name is Randy, so I’m used to hearing it, but I’m pretty sure I’m missing something. Why is Randy funny?

  5. Just echoing what others have said so it doesn’t get lost: how will Evelynn feel about this naming? Will she wish it was hers? Will she feel hurt and/or left out of your combined family, because you “finally” got to use your “dream name”?

    (I say this as someone with a “normal” name whose sister is much more exotically-named)

  6. I read this and laughed out loud! I too went through this when I decided to name my daughter Sakura! I love the Japanese culture and I met her father during the cherry blossom season out in Washington D.C. So cherry blossoms have always been magical and special. When I shared this name with both families I got HELL! How dare I name her a foreign name. She’s biracial and she’ll be more confused! I can’t say the name! She’ll be teased! etc etc… Guess what? Four years later and happy little girl with a fabulous name is thriving just fine and I get compliments on her name all the time. 🙂 My advice? Don’t tell anyone the name of the child until it’s already on the birth certificate. It’s your child, your choice. No one elses.

  7. I think it is fine. I am Puerto Rican, my husband is Jewish and our daughter has a totally Irish sounding name. Go figure!

  8. You might want to reconsider giving your child the name Sakura. Asian cultures have been co opted by white people. Ask yourself why you like the name so much. Is it the exoticism of japanese culture? Does the cherry blossom have signifigance to you?

    I know you will name your baby whatever you want but this is a little close to home as my husband is chinese and talks a lot about apropraition. It is a cute name… I liked the name Devi which means goddess in hindi but later decided to go with as italian name and a chinese name.

  9. I am a Canadian mother of 2 girls and we used a Japanese name for my oldest, and she LOVES her name. She takes great pleasure in sharing it with people and is very quick to correct anyone who pronounces it incorrectly. Although some people in my family (they are all very traditional…except me!) had some difficulty with the name at first (my poor grandmother actually wrote in on a piece of paper and carried it with her for months…giggle) it has been accepted. As for children teasing her – a bully will always find something to tease about whether it be your name or something else. I did take into consideration the meaning behind her name before using it, as I also did with her sister who has a Latin name. In Canada we are a melting pot of different cultures all living together and while my entire background is Acadian French, I was given a Greek name. Although my name was very unusual for my small town, I would still rather have a unique name then suffer through having a common name and being assigned a number like some of the kids that i used to go to school with 🙂 Just remember that a name is what you make it – if you raise your child to cherish their name, then they will!

  10. What is ironic and interesting to me is that the Japanese are all out expert enthusiasts when it comes to cultural appropriation, they LOVE taking up other culture’s phenomena, and creating whole lifestyles and subcultures around them (check swing dance, brazilian samba etc etc) I think the question is whether a Japanese American would take issue, those who have been subject to American style white supremacy , some of whom identify as people of color- and would probably take issue, some don’t and probably wouldn’t, I personally think its a little strange to use a name that is not from a language that I speak or that doesn’t have deep spiritual significance for me or my family personally, but there are far more important things to worry about- if you love the sound and meaning of it and it will make you happy to say over and over as your child is growing up, use it!

  11. WOW thank you everyone for the feedback! I had no idea my question was posted, so I missed all of these conversations! My original question was re-worded and I think some things have been omitted or lost in the translation: The sickening feeling is not an association specifically of the name Sakura with my ex…meaning if I used the name I would think of him. I meant it more that when I think of giving a name like that, I have his haunting image in the back of my head simply in regards to him telling me the name would be cruel and inappropriate, and then I feel like I am being cruel and inappropriate to my child.

    Also, I have done a great deal of research on the name. The name means cherry blossom, and ironically I have always admired and collected Japanese art with cherry blossoms growing up. I never knew the Japanese word for it, though. Several years ago I first heard the word on it’s own without the meaning and just thought it sounded like a pretty word. When I found out it meant Cherry blossom, I was floored, almost like it was meant to be.

    I have never told Evelynn that her original name in my head was Sakura, so I don’t think she would be offended, and I honestly don’t foresee myself loving this child more simply because of the name. I have gotten wonderful feedback on Ev’s name and I have grown to be quite proud of it, but I could never fee favoring a child because of a name. I would just have a warm feeling in my heart that I actually got to use it, is all.

    I appreciate the information and feedback, everyone! Thank you!

    • PS I do have a vast respect and love of Japanese culture, this isnt just about a pretty name…in fact I try and be diverse in learning about and understanding many cultures. If I ever get to travel, my destinations in mind are not the typical tourist spots, but rather places like the back alley markets of India, etc. That is the type of culture I love learning about. My dad is a huge history/culture buff and has been all over the world and in some of the most remote places. I find his life and learning about the places he has been fascinating. I think this is also part of my interest in foreign names and cultures, as I am extremely close with my dad.

  12. As a frequent visitor to Latin America over the last 10 years, I have watched as American names have become more an more popular in the Spanish-speaking countries. Sometimes they’re spelled a bit oddly, but I’ve never found it offensive or anything. So I don’t think going the other direction would be a bad thing. The world is getting smaller, and cultural sharing is inevitable.

    You just want to make sure the name is appropriate, and be aware of any cultural or religious baggage the name might carry.

    Also be careful if you tinker with spelling. I’m a female with a French middle name, which my parents didn’t research thoroughly, and it is spelled the male way, Rene, vs the female way, Renee. I’ve made peace with it.

    • I work at a hospital that is situated in a large Hispanic neighborhood, and had a young patient named “Meleny” today. Your post just made me think of it.

  13. I think what it really boils down to is your gut feeling. If you are comfortable with the name in your heart of hearts than by all means name your daughter that! If you know that deep down you will always have insecurities about the name then pick something else that you won’t worry about. My personal solution for names that I love but just don’t feel 100% okay with giving to my children, I give to my pets!

  14. I’m not Japanese. I am a mixed woman raised in a family that had put so much effort into passing for white for so long that we’ve lost most of our language and culture in trade for more open doors.From where I sit, a respectful, appropriate use of a well researched name by a family that feels it is special to them and right for their child is a beautiful thing. Maybe, just maybe, more of that in the USA will ultimately see us to a point where having a name that falls outside of Western European tradition doesn’t automatically lower your chances of getting a job interview.

  15. This is a fascinating discussion, and I’d like to add some thoughts of my own.

    I slightly disagree with the notion that “The only thing that matters is whether you and your partner love the name…if you do, then go for it!” My belief is that with naming, you need to consider what other people will think, much more than what the parents would think. Presumably, you would love the child just as much if she was called “snot” or “fart” or something ridiculous, but her name is going to be one way that people will make superifcial judgements about your daughter (NOT saying that’s a good thing) throughout her life. You and your partner will always understand the meaning behind your daughter’s name, but she will be the one explaining it to people she meets in her life. I therefore think that it is important for parents to know that their child’s name will be one element in how they are perceived by others in the community, and therefore some thinking about how it will be perceived by others is a good thing…which is precisely what you’re doing by writing into offbeat families and getting tons of great feedback!!!

    Having said all that, I like the name Sakura! Another thing to consider though, do you think there’s a risk that she might feel ‘different’ from the rest of her immediate family? If, for example, you’re signing a Christmas card and it says “love from Michael, Laura, Evelynn and Sakura Brown” will she feel like her name doesn’t ‘fit’ with the rest of the family? Will there be a jarring disconnect between the ethnicity of her first and surnames? I have a lot of mixed-race friends who would have a name like Mei-Lin Cooper, but it’s fairly clear from their appearance that they have one asian and one Western parent. Might people make the same assumpion about Sakura Brown? Does that bother you?

    And no matter what you name future children, I’d check that their initials don’t spell out a rude word :p

  16. I had a nice, long, explanation-filled comment, then Safari ate it. I focused more on the ‘name originally picked for first daughter’ part of the question, since I don’t have anything different to say about cultural appropriation and/or appropriateness.

    My parents, having picked out a different name for me and changing their minds immediately upon seeing me at birth, had no idea that ALL THE MEGANS were born in 1984 or 1985, too. They didn’t try to pick an unusual name — especially given both their Irish-American backgrounds (in that neither Megan nor Kevin for my brother was a rare name among people they knew and/or were related to) — but they had no idea how popular it would be, nor how many different ways to spell it there are.

  17. I don’t even know what to say to this beyond the fact that our super Caucasian child is the one carrying this name for the rest of her life. She is not an object. Cultural appropriation is real, and making “cases” for Anglicized “white” (Greek, Irish, British, Dutch, white Euro) names is ridiculous, seeing as those names are part of the cult of whiteness. When groups of immigrants from these countries came to America or Britain, they assimilated, and changed the spellings of their traditional names. And a lot of those names are popular. And they are seen as proper, “white” names.

    I’m sure you did whatever you wanted. But the fact that you had to even question it should have let you know right there. But white people are forever looking for ways to assuage their “guilt” at ripping off other cultures and wearing our “exotic” names on their snowflake skin. Whites will be praised for exotic names, while blacks, Asians, and traditional Jews and Muslims are seen as backwards. Unless you have an Asian husband, or a personal connection to Japan or the culture (such as white female author Catherynne Valente who spent many years in Japan and wrote a collection of stories inspired by it), I call appropriation.

    But you’re white, you can do anything you want. Your kid is never gonna be looked at the way a child of color would. And I find it very telling and annoying that a group of white people think they can determine what is cultural appropriation and what isn’t, considering you are the dominant (oppressive) group.

    • See, normally I would agree with you here – but Sakura is not just a Japanese name. It is also a category of tree. So I would argue that intent matters here. Does the name Sakura for her child come from the Japanese name or just the specific type of tree and its blossoms. The fact that the OP had Japanese art depicting sakura around her while growing up seems to indicate that she is naming her daughter after the tree – which seems to be the etymological equivalent to naming your child Daisy or Ivy.

      Thoughts? I’m generally interested in your response because the difference between word assimilation and cultural appropriation has always been muddy to me. Since Sakura in the U.S. (And other white countries) refers to a specific type of cherry tree, I feel like it’s a good opportunity to talk about it.

      Sorry if this is old, but this discussion is fascinating.

  18. I don’t have much to weigh in here, but I recently received a lot of bad attention after sharing a story about purchasing a yukata to wear to a traditional Japanese summer festival. I am white. I have not lived in Japan, but grew up with a Japanese American best friend, and his Japanese mother hired me to work at their studio and she has been like my second mother to me. I was fitted for the yukata at a Japanese store by the Japanese staff. All of the patrons that day were Japanese and saw me fitted, and no one had any negative reaction. I actually voiced concern while I was there about cultrual appropriation, to which the manager replied “Nonsense”. But my most educated college aged friends have attacked me for cultural appropriation, and will not let it go. Even going so far as to tell me that if I share photos of me in this yukata, that they will unfriend me. I literally feel like I have been shunned over this. My friend, Taichi in Japan thinks they are wrong. His opinion doesn’t speak for everyone Japanese, but he feels he’s more offended by white Americans deciding what Japanese people are offended about than he is over me getting a yukata to wear to summer fest.
    I’m sharing this story just to say that if you’re going to ask anyone what they think of naming your baby “Sakura”, just ask your friends. If they don’t end up lecturing you, telling you off, embarrassing you, and ignoring your efforts to apologise, then you may be good. But if they’re at all like my friends, the hurt may not be worth the desire.

  19. Eh, idk it just seems weird to me. Maybe if it were common, I’d do something like that, but most people tend to have names that while they may not stick strictly to their ethnicity, DO stick closely to to their race. A name is a huge commitment too. Your child will come to notice pretty soon that they have a Japanese name (or that they don’t have an American name) and that may confuse them especially since kids and teachers at school might raise an eyebrow and ask them if they’re somehow part Asian, not to mention no one will say it right or even know how to read or pronounce it which can get frustrating.
    From other people’s POV, a white kid having a Japanese name just doesn’t make sense and seems rather awkward. SJWs can get pretty nasty sometimes too honestly, so I’m afraid your kid might get bullied and ‘called out’ for cultural appropriation, told they should change their name, and shamed over something they can’t control.
    As for the concept of cultural appropriation…I’d say it’s pretty over-hyped imo and nothing new either. People always forget the second part of the word’s definition as well and it’s the part that states the practice, belief, clothing, etc. can no longer be accessed by the original culture since it’s now more strongly associated with the culture that appropriated the thing. More often than not, modern examples of what’s considered to be cultural appropriation while at times may be culturally insensitive or especially usually just culturally inaccurate, still isn’t cultural appropriation.

  20. I didn’t read all the comments cause there’s over a hundred of them, but most of the ones I did read were from white people saying it’s okay which… they don’t really get to decide that. I’m Japanese and its not cultural appropriation if you’re appreciating Japanese culture through the name and it has some sort of significant meaning to you (like, a Japanese person did you an incredible favor and you want to appreciate them for it by naming your baby something Japanese), that’s cultural appreciation . It is cultural appropriation if you’re just like “OMG, Sakura is such a pretty name, lemme use that!!” Or “I want my kid to have an exotic sounding name, let’s choose something Japanese!” So really it’s the intent behind it that matters. And don’t lie to yourself about what your intent is, just be honest.

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