Oh: The large-scale impact of getting an American name

Jacqueline Oh, Op-Ed Contributor

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Over the past couple weeks, I read Dani Zhang’s column on why she changed her name since she came to Northwestern because of the differential treatment she faced having a non-white name. This was compelling to me, as I recently learned that, throughout Japanese colonization, a significant number of Koreans had to change their surnames to sound more Japanese.

Ordinances 19 and 20 of the Sōshi-kaimei policy required Koreans to adopt Japanese names, a law also known as 창씨 개명 in Korean. The ordinances changed many surnames: someone named Park (朴) had to change their name to Kinoshita (木下), for example. In 1939, more than 80 percent of Koreans complied with the name-change ordinance, according to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators.

However, Koreans could not completely change their names to sound natively Japanese. According to the Korea Times, national distinctions were maintained and remained in public records, sending a message to Koreans that “they couldn’t be completely Japanese.” The Japanese were essentially trying to get rid of the Korean language, and this sparked nationalist activism to maintain it — otherwise, Korean culture was in danger of becoming extinct.

The intent of the Japanese at the time was to destroy the Koreans’ national identity — thus decreasing the potential threat of an uprising — but also to make it known to Koreans that they would never fully be Japanese citizens. This second-rate classification created an unacknowledged difference that left many Koreans conflicted about their own identities in the post-colonial era.

Although the liberation of Korea encouraged many citizens to restore their original names, a significant amount of Koreans retained their Japanese name to circumvent discrimination or to meet the naturalization requirements to become Japanese citizens.

What is the significance of all of this? Currently, changing names in the United States is voluntary. However, the reason someone — particularly a person of color — makes this decision is why this is such a problem on a larger scale. According to the Korean Times, “Although (initially) voluntary, low-level Japanese officials forced Koreans to switch their family names if they wanted to go to school, register their names anywhere (marriage, for example), buy or sell land or apply for work.”

This caused many parents to change their children’s names, all while asking for forgiveness from their ancestors. The freedom to name your own child was forsaken, not only because of the government’s dictation, but because parents wanted to make sure that their children could live their best lives possible. While it’s difficult to imagine that government-mandated name changes would ever happen today, the truth is that it still does — unconsciously through college applications, job interviews and even in social settings like dates.

I formally go by Jacqueline on all of my official papers, but at Northwestern, many people refer to me by my Korean name, YoonJae. I never really gave it much thought. When I asked my parents why I was named Jacqueline, they said that they didn’t know of any “white” names at the time and asked my obstetrician to name me instead. I haven’t asked much past that, but I presume they wanted me to have an American name to make my life easier as a first generation child in the United States.

It’s sad that traces of our Asian identities have to be sacrificed for our future, whether it’s for pre-professional reasons like Dani’s or in order to be treated more humanely, like Koreans during the Japanese colonization. Seeing how much history foreshadows the future is alarming because it repeats itself, and we often don’t even notice.

The discrimination and prejudice we face when someone reads our applications and reviews whether we get hired for a job is not addressed in today’s society, or even on this campus, as seriously as it should be. It may be because right now, it’s hard to see where we — and our names — fit into Northwestern.

Jacqueline Oh is a Weinberg first-year. She can be contacted at jacquelineoh2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.