What's in a Name

Saturday I attended a gathering at the famed watering hole "Waterr", where everyone was suppose to be fashioned in red. I say this as an explanation for the lousy amounts of it you can see in the photo below the next paragraph.

I had invited my 後輩 from the lab, that is, another study abroad guy who joined Inui-ken with the new semester. He's sporting a name that seems to be fairly common within our generation: another Matt. Note that when I write his name in English, there's nothing to be done about it but to write it exactly the same as mine. We've only got the one script, after all.

In Japanese, we have a few more options.

Matt and Matt

On Japanese Syllabaries

When Matt and I both signed up to go to a fare-well party our lab was holding on, the event's list of participants had both our names written on it, but each written in a different script. One was written in Katakana, and the other, Hiragana.

Katakana and Hiragana are symbols standing for the exact same sounds - that is, there is a one-to-one correspondence between Hiragana and Katakana characters. The difference lies only in shape and usages, and from those differences comes a sort of... gut feeling, if you will; some sort of subconscious association between the characters and something in the back of your mind. Thus the same word will have a different impact written in both of the syllabaries.

Katakana was traditionally established and used by men. It is characterized by simple figures, sharp angles and straight edges. Nowadays it is used to transliterate foreign words like "rock climbing" into the closest thing Japanese can get: ロッククライミング (rokku ku-rai-mingu), as well as as a sort of italics for Japanese words. This is the script I'm use to seeing my own name in, as foreigners' names are written in it.
Hiragana was developed after Katakana by aristocratic women looking to get into the world of early Japanese literature but who found themselves forbidden to use the manly Katakana script. So, they created their own. Compared to Katakana, Hiragana are far more fluid, flowing, and soft. They often have loops and bends, features completely lacking from Katakana. If I tell you both of the following characters are for the same syllable, one written in Katakana and the other in Hiragana, it should be obvious to you which is which.


Hiragana is now the standard way of inscribing the sounds of the Japanese language itself. It is used as a reading guide above difficult or rare Kanji words (this is called "furigana"). It is also the script used for the grammatical particles and affixes that appear in standard Japanese.

Your typical written sentence in Japanese will consist mainly of Kanji and Hiragana, with Katakana appearing only when an imported foreign word needs to be used.

With all that background laid out, perhaps you'll have a glimmer of why Matt and I goodnaturedly started arguing about whose name had been written in Hiragana - まっと - and whose had been written in Katakana - マット. We both wanted to be the the original and manly マット, because Hiragana is girly and its not okay for men to be feminine. We set up our arguments and eventually took it to the courts.

I presented a rather strong case. I had been at the lab for a longer period of time, and was also the elder Matt. You have may heard that seniority is a Big Deal in Japanese culture. Furthermore, I'm just more manly, dangit. Look at all my adventures! Just look! With those details in the clear, it should be obvious that my face was in mind when the sender wrote マット.

We eventually took the argument up to the top, and the gent who sent off the letter bowed to my side of the case. Go me.

Go マット!

Matt Enlow

Matt has a camera, a home on wheels, and this website
Down by the river