Cultural Lessons in a Name

Today’s guest post is written by Melibee’s Risa (Lisa) Zenno.  It provides an excellent lesson on the importance of a name. Should you call her Risa or Lisa?  Read on to know!

November is known for International Education Week, but for me, everyday life is filled with related topics. Take for example, my name.

My name is Risa, but I go by Lisa.  Actually, on paper, Risa 梨沙 in Japanese is pronounced Lisa.  But if you’re like me and English is your native language, how you pronounce Lisa with an “L” and an “R” is completely different.  Am I right?

My parents knew before having me that they wanted an international name for me; one that transcends international barriers, one that everyone can remember and say without difficulty and the final decision was Risa.  My Japanese spelling literally means “pear and sand.”  Pear, like the fruit, and sand that separates pure from evil.  My last name Zenno 善野 means widespread zen or unity.  (My sister’s name is Anna, using Apricot and information gathering).

Another tidbit I can add is that there are legal regulations in naming a child in Japan.  The kanji’s (if you decide to use them) need to be in the approved list the government has issued and the stroke number of the baby’s name is often calculated for fortune telling. 

Kanji is one of Japan’s writing systems, adopted by the Chinese logographics.  Each character has a set stroke number, the order in which a character is written.  The picture shows the stroke order for the character ‘water.’  Water as depicted has 4 strokes.  Since your last name is already a fixed name, parents play with the baby’s potential name, adding x amount of stroke numbers to the whole name.

1183 kanjis are taught through grades 1-6.  This chart shows you 2230 of the most common kanji used in modern Japanese.

There are numerous books on naming a child based on the stroke numbers . For those who would like to research further on this, my whole name has 51 strokes.  I asked my mom if she was superstitious in this regard, and she claims she didn’t want to choose a ‘negative’ name.

Why didn’t my parents use the letter “L” instead of “R”?  Well, that’s because I was born in Japan, and the letter “L” doesn’t exist in the Japanese alphabet.    Confusing, isn’t it?

Japanese writing is syllabary so how you spell is how you read.   There is no equivalent sound of an English “R” found in the Japanese language; instead they have the English “L.”  My name is officially spelled Risa, but phonetically, it isthe equivalent to Lisa.

For example, Ruriko in Japanese would phonetically sound like “Luliko” and Ryan as “Lyan or lion

Having grown up outside of Japan as a Third Culture Kid, I’ve always spelled my name with an “L.”  School papers, yearbook, and school ID always had me as Lisa.  Official documents including passport, green card, and driver’s license has me as Risa.  I’ve had to redo many forms signing my name to renew my passport since I’ve lived with my name phonetically.  I’ve even had fights with my dad on how I’m incompetent of signing my own given name.  My bank statement clearly states “Risa aka Lisa” since others have questioned my identity.

As an intercultural communicator, language is fascinating.  I love to sit down and teach others the differences between the English and Japanese language.  Although, trying to explain that “Risa” is the same as “Lisa” to a government official isn’t as pleasant.  Usually I get the snarky “suuure” and rolling eyes – sigh.

A name is crucial for one’s identity.  How you decide on a name has many layers: context, family history, imagery, meaning, and let’s not forget phonetics/spelling. What one name means in one language may not mean the same in another.  I can vouch that my name, as complex as it is, gave me nothing but embarrassment through my childhood living in México as my name literally translates to “laughing boob” (Risa=laughter, Zenno phonetically in Spanish is Seno=boob).

Will this push me to go through naturalization and change my name officially to “Lisa”?  That’s another ball game I still have yet to play.

All in all, my name has opened lots of room for intercultural dialogue, and for that I am grateful.

About the Author: Risa Zenno is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) who goes by Lisa.  She works at the Art Institute of Seattle as an enrollment processor.  In her spare time, she loves volunteering time for international education. She tries to help out many ‘challenges’ on such as creating powerpoints and helping with translations.  She considers herself a life-long learner and hopes to continue expanding her interest within international education.