When naming your kid…

Paul, David, Dennis, Steven, Kevin, Bill, Richard. These are nice All-American names. Indeed, these are the names of my classmates as I was growing up in LA in the 1960s at a Japanese missionary school where all the students had an ethnic make up of at least one-quarter Japanese. While illegal–and immoral–by today’s standards, up until the 70s, restricting admission based on race was not an issue. In fact, we might have considered it affirmative and empowering. Back in the early 20th century. there was a strong resistance and hatred toward Japanese immigration. This sentiment reached its peak with Executive Order 9066 when all Japanese and their US born offsprings living on the West Coast were required to move inland or be incarcerated in detention camps. Faced with a society and government that showed little love for them, it was comforting for Japanese Americans to go to a school where they could study without fear of discrimination.

Still, by the 1950s and 60s, after WWII, these sentiments had subsided if only to a modest degree. Second generation Japanese Americans–replete with memories of government mandated incarceration–felt compelled to show their patriotism in any way they could. This, of course, is a major reason why most Japanese American baby boomers speak little to no Japanese. Is there a more obvious and plainly recognizable validation of one’s alien affiliations than language? Japanese American’s looked like the enemy–be it Japanese, Korean or even Vietnamese–so every other element of their existence leaned toward emphasizing their Americanism.

This even extended to names, which is why my friends had great All-American names. Some didn’t even have Japanese middle names. Not that this is good or bad. I am simply setting up a story of my own name… which is, as I think about it into this third paragraph, rather ridiculous, because I have no intention of revealing my real name–even though many of you already know what it is. Please don’t shout it out. I call myself Ray Kanzaki here, but the name is more classically European, a name that is very rare in the US. Indeed, it would be more closely associated with a name like Maximillian or Raymunde, than Bill or Paul.

Now some may say that Max or Ray is a fine name, and maybe even a cool one, but in the 1960s in a sea of classmates with names like John, David and Steven, a Maximillian or a Raymunde not only stood out, but would be the target of endless teasing. I used to lament my name. Interestingly, that is not even my first name. Unlike my classmates whose Japanese name, if they had one, was a middle name, my first name was Japanese: Taro 太郎, which is a typical name given to the first born son because it virtually means “first son”. (Okay, okay, for you Japanophiles out there, I realize that Taro literally means the “rich/thick/large son”, but in use it means the “first born son” because it is synonymous with the aspirations a parent places in a first born.) The bottom line is that the name is totally vanilla and lacks imagination.

Why did you give me that name? I asked my mother. And the answer was pretty straight forward. As an immigrant from Japan, my mother knew little of the ways of the US. In Japan, after you give birth to a baby, you have about one month to register its birth with the local public records office. So most parents look at there baby after its born, consider its gender and maybe its looks and “personality” to come up with a name that is then registered in what would be the Japanese version of a birth certificate. This is what was in my mother’s mind as she was being wheelchaired out of LA’s Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights back in 1955. Imagine her shock and discombobulation when the nurse told her that she couldn’t be released until they had a name for the birth certificate. In such a confused state, she was bound to make a fatal mistake.

And she did. She turned to my father for help.

“What’ll we do? We need a first and middle name?”

“Okay, um, let’s see…” My father was just as perplexed as mother. When I first heard this story, I imagined a nurse, arms crossed, drumming her fingers. “He’s the first born son,” he said as if no one had yet realized it. “Yeah, that’s it. How about Taro. We’ll just change the character for 郎 (ro) to 朗 (ro) to match his Godfather’s name.”

Mother was in no condition to protest, so they let the nurse know the first name they came up with, and she duly noted it as my first name.

And for that other name?

“I came up with the first one,” father said relieved, “Why don’t you come up with an English name.”

“I don’t know anything about American names,” mother protested, and again she turned to father.

“Most of my friends are Japanese so I don’t know any good names either. Hmmm…” He thought about it for a while, but soon turned to mother with that all-knowing grin of his. “Remember the priest who married us in Kyoto?”

“Father Raymunde?”

“Yes! I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone besides him with that name. Wouldn’t that be a great name for our son? Taro Raymunde. Kinda rolls off your tongue, no?” father said in a voice that betrayed his confidence as a senryu teacher.

Mother wouldn’t dream of arguing the rhythmical value of these two names, so she nodded to the nurse and she inserted the name of a priest as my middle name. My mother was finally free to go home.

Now, I’ve heard of parents thinking about the perfect name for their child, some agonizing for weeks if not months. But according to mother, the above episode took less than ten minutes–A whole eight or nine minutes to come up with a name that would torment me throughout elementary school. Still, I’m not complaining. These days, the name serves me very well. In a sea of colleagues with names like John, Peter and Richard, the name Raymunde stands out. But if you prefer, just call me Ray.

Query: Got a story about your name?