First or Last Name

In her introduction to the excellent book The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration Anne Walthall notes that the Japanese historian Ichimura Minato always referred to Matsuo Taseko only by her first name “Taseko.” Walthall notes that this is following “an almost universal custom” in which “Jane Austin was sometimes Jane, but John Milton was never John.” (she is quoting from Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwomen in the Attic).

Walthall resolves in this book to call not only Taseko, but also Japanese male figures by their first names. “I am certain it will jar the sensibilities of many readers knowledgable [sic] about Japan. I do so deliberately, for practical reasons in that many of the men I discuss shared a common surname, and for political reasons in the name of equality.” (15)

I found this a very interesting little passage, and interesting as a practice for historians. I guess some people would indeed find it a bit jarring. Imagine if Najita Tetsuo always referred to his supreme master of political compromise as simply “Kei,” Marius Jansen refered to the famous revolutionary only as “Ryôma,” and Dower referred to his stubborn realist “One Man” only by his first name “Shigeru.” Part of the reason for this, especially in the Japanese case, is that it is so at odds with how contemporaries not very intimate with the figures would address them. Walthall, however, would probably argue that this is part of the point. We are simply replicating and perpetuating these practices in our scholarship.

Another solution, however, would simply be to always refer to female figures by their last name. However, as she mentions, this runs into the problem that the female connection to a last name is a “contingent” connection which in many cases (especially after this was dictated by law in the Meiji period) changes with marriage (thus Taseko is a Takemura before she became a Matsuo).

I am totally sympathetic to Walthall’s “political reasons” but confess it is the first time I took notice of the fact that we sometimes see female historical or literary figures referred to only by their first name in genres of books which usually refer to people by their last name. I don’t have any numbers on this, but I wonder how common this habit, of referring to women by their first names, is in the field of Japanese history, and then the field of history as a whole?


  1. One of my students pointed out that even “Taseko” is something of an abstraction, as Walthall’s evidence indicates “Tase” to be the name by which she was most frequently referred.

    I suppose I haven’t read enough non-Japanese women’s history to have a strong sense of the standard practice, but I do see in my students a decided tendency to refer to female characters, authors and historical figures in more familiar terms than they do males.

  2. Walthall’s bio does note quite early that she also referred to herself and usually signed her letters as “Tase” (the Forward also mentions this). It also says on p64 that her contemporaries knew her as “Takemura Tase” Here is what Walthall says about the “ko” ending:

    “Only in the modern period is she always assigned “ko,” the suffix meaning “child” attached with monotonous regularity to women past and present until the last decade or so. Thus modern naming practices serve a double duty: they attach a woman to her husband’s house [by requiring them to do so in the Civil Code of 1898] and belittle her maturity.”

    -David Tily: thanks for the comment. It is interesting that you also seem to not mind the jarring effect of Bert.

  3. The he’s Dickens but she’s Jane aspect of some historical writing is annoying. I don’t know what the answer is. Particularly as in Anglo-Saxon cultures where the woman takes her husband’s name you could say it’s not her surname anyway.

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