Japanese Literature: Using Western letters as placeholders for names

By | August 22, 2022

Compared to English, Japanese has countless differences in how things are expressed, including major things like word order, particles, and levels of politeness. However, if you ponder things long enough, and do enough research, you can often find something similar in English, or at least a roughly equivalent way to express things, whether that is for the purposes of translation, or just to help you understand better.

However, if you read enough Japanese literature you will come across things that are well, simply foreign to the English language, and really stand out as unique aspects of Japanese. While they may not necessarily be hard to understand, they can often be hard to translate naturally.

In this post I want to talk about one such tendency, which is how arbitrary names are often expressed in Japanese literature using capital English letters. Let’s look at a simple example by famous author Tanizaki Jun’ichiro:

  • Tさんに御紹介します。此れは私の友人のAさんで………」

Here we see two such instances, “Tさん” (‘T san’) and “Aさん” (‘A san’). Letters like this would be pronounced the same way those letters would be pronounced when saying the English alphabet in Japanese. So “T” would be ティー (tii) and “A” would be エイ (ei).

While it is possible that the letters may indirectly refer to a character that has been given a full name in the story, or a person in the real world, in my experience most of the time they are simply placeholders. Keep in mind that in Japanese 〜さん can follow both first and last names, although in polite contexts often last name is more appropriate. But when trying to understand text like the above, you just need to understand there is one character named “T” and one named “A”. 

The names will generally have suffixes, not just because Japanese names often do, but because some letters by themselves (like A,E, etc.) sound like existing Japanese words. But the suffix doesn’t have to be “san”, it can be others like “kun”, “chan”, or even “sama”. As usual, the suffix will often give important context hints to who the character is in relation to the person speaking.

In some cases a few characters can be used with different names based on letters. This short story is a bit extreme, involving 4 characters that are only referred to by names (S,N,Y, and K). which I personally find a bit hard to follow. 

This technique doesn’t apply to only names, it can also be used for places, like city names. In this story we see a place called “B市” (City B) and “R公園” (Park R). You can even use it for company names, and in this story we see reference to “A社” (Company A), although judging from the content of this latter work, this may be referring to a specific real world company.

After seeing a few examples, I think it’s easy to pick up on how this placeholder naming works. But translating it naturally is another story.

The easiest thing is to just literally translate these things, like “Mr. A” (assuming we know it is a male) or “Company A”. But, while I can’t say never, I feel such a way of naming is pretty uncommon in English, and so things like this could lead to an unnatural translation (and for some knowledgeable readers, maybe even a hint that the work was originally in Japanese). 

Unfortunately, there are not too many other options that come to mind. In some cases you can probably get by with something like “Mr. so-and-so” or “a certain~”, but if that person or thing is referenced often that would get awkward. Similarly, if there is a possibility the name alludes to a real-world thing or person, removing the letter deprives the reader of valuable context. At least if letters are used in order like “A”, “B”, “C”, there is a good chance the naming is being used arbitrarily, especially if the discussion is a hypothetical one (as in “Let’s say we have person A…”).

We can now bring this discussion back full circle and ask ourselves: why isn’t this naming pattern more common in English? I don’t have a good answer, but it sure does seem like a convenient technique for authors writing in Japanese, and allows omitting unnecessary details (like writing simply “Tさん” instead of “たかはしさん”, especially when the name doesn’t matter). In fact, Japanese as a language is well known for omitting subjects, objects, and sometimes even verbs, so the tendency to use abbreviated names sort of makes sense. Another reason may be that sometimes reading name Kanji properly can be tricky, even for native speakers, and using a single letter is simpler than using Furigana (which is not available in some media) or writing it out using hiragana (which generally takes much more space).

But the real irony comes from the fact that Japanese uses Western letters instead of something more native to their language. But I guess some aspects of English have been more-or-less integrated into Japanese for many decades now.

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2 thoughts on “Japanese Literature: Using Western letters as placeholders for names

  1. Tomek

    What a timely post! I’ve encountered this just recently, in a short story where a placeholder was used instead of a name of a mountain. It ruined immersion for me, but also made me wonder: how is it perceived by native speakers?

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment! Yes it can feel awkward as a non-native Japanese speaker to come across these placeholders.

      As this practice seems pretty common in Japanese since decades ago, I think that the average person would not be bothered by it, or even feel it is anything special.

      Reply

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