Living in Japan with multiple names

Recently, I faced a little bureaucratic obstacle in Japan. If people tell you Japanese people are very precise, they are probably right: they are very precise. Of course it is a good thing, but it can get annoying at times. A few times I had to be extra cautious to tell people the exact, and I mean exact, name in katakana, as shown on my bank card, because if they used the wrong name with a slightly different spelling, they won’t be able to send me my money, even if the target bank account number was correct.

Japanese people have a family name, and their own name, in that order, because the family is more important than their individual selves.

My full name is Wouter Kees-Jan Thielen, four names, not too uncommon back in Holland, but in Japan, they have never heard of middle names. Japanese people have a family name, and their own name, in that order, because the family is more important than their individual selves. And you address them with their last names, unless you are very, very close to them. So I figured my name would be Thielen Wouter in Japanese, and I use ティールン・ウォータ for the katakana version, just like it is pronounced, closely enough.

For my company to be able to wire me my salary, I had to open a bank account. I went to the bank, and during the registration process, I was asked to write down my full name, as shown on my passport, in katakana. Back then, I had barely arrived in Japan and I hadn’t really thought much about it yet. I put down ティーレン・ウォータ・ケース・ジャン in my haste. The worst bit is, it was spelled wrongly, directly from the Western alphabet, with a clear “e” in the last syllable of “Thielen” while it should be a schwa, like the “e” in “taken”. Also, the “Jan” part was transcribed with an English “J”, like in “jazz”, while it really should be like the “Y” in “year”. At first, I thought nothing of it, but the problems started later.

Bank transfers

I did something for an organization, and they wanted to pay me some kind of a thank you fee. I gave them my bank account number. They tried to send the money, but the bank told them they could not accept it. Then they e-mailed me about it, and it appeared that they were trying to send the money to a ティールン・ウォータ account, and the bank squarely refused the transaction. It had to be ティーレン・ウォータ・ケース・ジャン specifically, with the wrong ‘e’ and the wrong ‘j’. So from that time on I started to pay close attention to how I tell people about my bank account, and that worked fine. For a while.

Until I applied for a trading account with a Japanese broker. They have this internal electronic transaction thing that would instantly transfer money from and to my Japanese bank account. Very neat, really, except that it was using the name I used to register with the trading broker: ティールン・ウォータ. I couldn’t use this very convenient service, and had to separately wire the money to their account. And it took a few days before I could see it in my trading account. So I tried to contact them about the name change for use with the bank account, as it was clearly a separate field shown in the interface, so it should be a small issue, easily fixed.

I mailed them a photo copy of my bank account note, where the account number and the name are shown, as a proof. They replied that they could not do that with their system, and that I should go to the bank and fix my name there. The system engineer in me was, of course, perplexed, as it was clearly a separate field, and that changing the name would not be that much of a security issue as the bank account number remains the same, and is evidenced by the photo-copy I sent them. After a few days, I suddenly got an e-mail from them, saying that they have changed the name in their system, and I could use this very convenient system of quickly transferring money to and from my trading account.

System engineer vs. society: 1-0.

But it made me think. They had a point. The name on my bank account is, after all, wrong.


Next, I wanted to register for a credit card somewhere. The online form they used had a field for the name. I entered my name, ティールン ウォータ. So far so good, until the process stopped at checking my information against my bank account. “Your name is not correct”. My name is very correct, it is just the bank that has it wrong. So I went back in the process, and entered ティーレン ウォータ ケース ジャン, like the one on my bank account. “Please use 1 space in your name”. What the…?!

So this was the last drop in the bucket. I reckoned this would not be the only one. There would be other financial institutions (think about loan for a house, etc.) and I’d probably have to go through the same procedure all over again. I decided I would go to the bank and get my name corrected.

I arrived at the bank, and explained to the lady that I would like to correct the registration of my name, and preferably shorten it to ティールン・ウォータ. “Sorry, that is not possible. We need your name as it is on your passport or ID card.” But, I never use the “Kees-Jan” part, it is just a cultural thing from Holland. “No can do.” Everybody says and uses ティールン・ウォータ! “Mōshiwake gozaimasen.”

Enter tsūshōmei

I was almost out of options, until I remembered about the new ID card system in Japan, effective from July 2013. I had received some confirmation letter of my registered data, and took a look at it. Plainly, it said THIELEN WOUTER KEES JAN, but under it, there was another – blank – field! The field said 通称名 (tsūshōmei), and this is what the Japanese Wikipedia says about it:

本名ではなく、一つ、もしくは複数の通称名を名乗って生活することは、法律的規制がないため原則自由である。通称名で有効な法律行為を行うことは原則としてできないが、在日外国人の通名は、居住する区や市町村に登録することで、住民票に記載され、法的効力を持つ。登記などの公的手続に使用することが認められ、 契約書など民間の法的文書にも使用できる(単なる自称では、詐欺罪や文書偽造罪などに問われる場合がある)。印鑑登録証明書や運転免許証には、本人の申請により本名に加え、通名の併記が可能である(例:氏名 金 美淑(木村 淑子))。

“There are no legal restrictions about using another name or names other than your real name in society, and it is therefore allowed to do so. Using an alias is generally not a valid method for performing legal actions, but foreigners living in Japan can register their alias with the ward office or city hall of the area they are living in, and this being registered on their certificate of residence, has legal validity. It is recognized for use with registrations and official procedures, and can also be used for civil documents like contracts (with simple self-styled names, one can be accused of fraud or document forging). When applying for a seal certification document or a driving license, one can use this alias next to his real name in the application process (e.g. Name: Kim Mi-sook (Kimura Yoshiko)).”

So this is exactly what I needed. I went to the ward office of where I lived, and explained I wanted to get my shorter two-name alias registered. “This is not a trivial procedure. It is mostly used for foreigners who are married to a Japanese national. Are you married?” Eh, no, but I am free to register an alias to make my life easier in Japan. “Please wait a moment…” and they went back to check all kinds of laws about registering and using an alias. Then a gentleman came back, and discussed the problem with me. In the end, I had to come back with multiple official documents (such as contracts, bills, etc) from at least 3 years back, in which I used the ティールン ウォータ name, to prove that it is commonly accepted. I am really thankful for my wits to at least save those documents!

I went to the bank again, and the process of changing the name was much smoother.

Now I have this brand new residence card (住民基本台帳カード, jūmin kihon daichō kādo, or 住基カード, Juki card, for short), with the alias registered on it. I went to the bank again, and the process of changing the name was much smoother.

Lesson to be learned here: when you are serious about living in Japan, be very careful with how you register your name. Decide first, be comfortable with it, and take proper measures to get an alias, if needed. For people who do not have a long record of using a different name than the one on their passport, an employment certificate (在職証明書, zaishoku shōmeisho) with the alias may suffice. Please inform with your local ward office or city hall.

Did you have any bureaucratic trouble in Japan as a gaijin? Please share it in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Living in Japan with multiple names”

  1. Very interesting information I will need to consider once my stay in Japan is no longer related to my military service. Thanks Wouter.

  2. You probably meant 3 months, not years? I went through the same process, and after having utility bills and mail proving the use of alias for at least the past 3 months, I was able to register it. However, it took me three visits to 区役所, because the first time they didn’t give me proper information, and the second time I didn’t thus bring good-enough proof of using 通称 in daily life (all the proof documents need to show a date at least 3 months prior to the registration!). Third time I finally succeeded and also registered seal equal to the newly registered 通称.

    However, I’m not sure if there was some problem with the registration because it seems they didn’t register katakana reading for my 通称, and now my bank complains that they can’t change my name because I can’t prove that my 通称 has the katakana reading I claim. I’m also wondering if my credit card applications have been turned down because of the differing name in the applications and the bank account. What a hassle…

What are your thoughts?