Names and superheroes

I had a sudden flash of insight this evening while reading reviews of Suicide Squad, thinking to myself how few teenagers waiting for these movies are named “Bruce”. Likewise any “Tony”s watching Iron Man or “Hank”s watching Ant Man (yes, I know the main character was Scott Lang, not Hank Pym).  Even if those names are way underrepresented among the current crop of teenagers and young adults, there is a good chance that the next cohort of moviewatchers, this cohort’s kids or grandkids, will include Bruces and Hanks again.  The same way that the top baby names for 2016 include names my generation considered antique such as Ethan, Sophia and Charlotte; Ethan and Sophia’s kids might be able to watch X-men and say, “Psylocke’s real name is Betsy? I have 2 Betsys in my class”, a feat last possible in the 1960s.

Names are frequently recycled from times of yore in English-speaking societies, perhaps to give an air of historical sophistication and gravitas to the next generation greater than the mundane ordinariness of the names that we’re used to.  My generation has a plethora of Mikes and Daves, and the next generation has names that Mike and Dave consider timeless or just old enough to be classy.  Of course, that’s how our parents’ generation felt too, which is why Lindas and Freds are so underrepresented among their kids.

None of this is so in Japan, where new generations are often given freshly minted names with no apparent precedents.  There is very little chance that the equivalent of “Bruce” in Japan will be widely used again in our lifetimes.  This fact of naming has implications for the current superhero boom, and helps to explain a bit of the differences between popular heroes in the US and Japan.

To be a bit more precise, names in Japan often do have a connection to past generations, but often in ways that are obscure to people unfamiliar with the particulars of Japanese writing.  To be specific, name recycling is in the form of a particular kanji or even kanji radical shared with other family members rather than an entire name lifted from 100 years ago.  For example, say mom’s name is 由美子 Yumiko, and dad’s name is 幸信 Yukinobu.  They might name a male child 幸希 Kōki, using the kanji 幸 shiawase (“happiness”, one of those kanji with a lot of readings) from dad’s name and a female child 由真 Yuma sharing mom’s 由 yu (a lot of abstract meanings, but probably meaning “freedom” here).  It might be considered equivalent to a father, “Homer”, naming his son a cognate of “Homer” like “Omar”.  For our purposes it is important that although the first names within families often share some less-than-obvious features, they are nonetheless novel for that generation.  It is very unlikely that Yumiko or Yukinobu have any old classmates or grandparents named Kōki or Yuma.

Now for the point of this post.  Because there is quite a bit more historical continuity in names in the English-speaking world, old superheroes and their stories can be recycled and rereleased as many times as studios want.  Bruce can still be Bruce and audiences will still recognize his name as the name of a male person, albeit probably nobody they know.  The Japanese equivalent to “Bruce” sounds unmistakably like someone’s grandpa.  It doesn’t read “male person” so much as “retired golf enthusiast” or “ATM time-taker”.  I realized while reading those Suicide Squad reviews that this difference in naming may be part of the reason for something I’d known but never connected to anything else I know about Japanese culture – that Japanese superheroes have completely new identities with each new iteration of the franchise.  That is, the current generation’s version of the equivalent to The Avengers doesn’t have Steve, Tony, and Clint, Barbara, and Wanda, but entirely new people named something equivalent to Liam, Aiden, Isabella, and Emma.

The Power Rangers (whose Japanese origins are in a series of series called スーパー戦隊, each iteration of which has some version of “Ranger” or just “-ger” in the name, e.g. 侍戦隊シンケンジャー samurai sentai shinkenjaa “Samurai Squad Serious-ger”) are a well-known example of a series rebooted each season with completely new characters.  The first generation of Rangers in the 1970s had as its main characters 剛 Tsuyoshi, Akira, 大太 Daita, ペギー Pegī (Peggy), 大五郎 Daigorō, and  健二 Kenji.  Of these 5, 3 appear in the top names for the decade in which the show was broadcast as well as the decade previous (well, sort of – Kenji doesn’t appear but its cognate Kenichi, which uses the same kanji 健 but with a 一 meaning “first born” rather than a 二 meaning “second”, does).  Pegī and Daigorō are obvious rarities (gorō meaning “fifth son”) but overall the names seem within the realm of possibility or at least imagination for someone in the show’s audience.  The 2005 incarnation of the show had 魁 Kai, Urara, 芳香 Hōka, 翼 Tsubasa, and 蒔人 Makito taking up the familiar Ranger 5-color mantle, echoing its generation’s preference for idiosyncratic kanji readings (so-called kirakira names).  No characters have names that would have been common 40 years ago, except 翼 Tsubasa, a classic like Makoto and Kaoru.


My (unprovable) hypothesis is that the speed with which people’s first names are “retired” in Japan and their consequent strong connections to particular generations means that authors of superhero stories have no choice but to replace characters rather than persist with their original identities.  The Japanese versions of Batman in Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s eras would probably be rewritten especially for their generations as contemporary young people named Matt and Lachlan respectively.

Dave Wayne, orphaned child of Fred and Linda.

(Another note on names: as Steven Pinker among others has noted, in the English-speaking world male names and family names can cross over and be used for female babies’ first names, e.g. Madison or the newer Charlie’s Angels (Natalie, Dylan, and Alex).  I have never heard of this happening in Japan, although some first names like Makoto,  Kaoru, and Tsubasa have been unisex for some time, albeit sometimes written with gender-specific kanji.  I think the images sought by parents choosing formerly male names for females, most likely strength and independence, would be distinctly poisonous to parents of girls in Japan.  I was once told by the mother of a boy and girl that they deliberately chose names wishing for the boy, “may this child be strong!” and for the girl, “may this child be cute!”.  New names for girls are, if anything, more overtly feminine than those of previous generations.)

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