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Nikkei Chronicles #3—Nikkei Names: Taro, John, Juan, João?

Re-Discovering My Name Between Two Cultures

I was born in Hawaiʻi to a Yonsei Japanese-American father and an Irish-American mother who gave me the name Jayme Tsutsuse. Even though Japanese names are common in Hawaiʻi, the name Tsutsuse is rare, and not just in Hawaiʻi or America, but also in Japan. In fact, through all my research, I’ve yet to find a Tsutsuse family line besides my own. I’d even venture to say that I’m the only Tsutsuse currently living in Japan.

Anyone unfamiliar with Japanese will often get tongue tied between the two t’s and three s’s of Tsutsuse. I’ve heard it all, “Tootsie,” “Tootoosee,” “Tasutasusay,” and sometimes people just give up and say “Tsunami.” When I was little, I used to break it down by syllable, “sue somebody, sue somebody, say something.” But when I said this to my third-grade teacher, instead of calling me “Jayme Sue-Sue-Say,” she called me “Jayme Sue-Somebody-Sue-Somebody-Say-Something” for the whole year.

As a kid, I thought it was funny and didn’t mind the extra attention, but in middle school, when I moved to Northern California, I began to notice a change in the expectations people project on my name. Having a Japanese name became uncommon and after constantly answering the question, “Where are you really from?,” I began to believe that, somehow, I really was Japanese.

This sense of identity shaped how I thought of myself for years, but when I moved to Japan last year, everything changed. Suddenly, instead of asking how to pronounce Tsutsuse or where it’s from, people were asking, “What’s the kanji for that?” It caught me by surprise, and when I responded that I had no idea, people were taken aback. Once someone even pointed out that I was adding a small “t” sound before the last syllable, “se.” After all those years of correcting other people, I was the one being corrected.

It was strange to lose this part of how I identified myself, to experience the discomfort that other people felt when they saw “Tsutsuse” on paper and had to turn it into a sound. I quickly learned to write Tsutsuse in kanji and practiced the pronunciation over and over, making sure that I was using the right number of t’s. But still, I was self-conscious. When I would say my name, people would repeat it with a puzzled expression, and I couldn’t tell if I said it wrong or if they were just fishing through their memory banks of kanji. I would try to draw the characters in the air, just to show that even if I couldn’t say Tsutsuse perfectly, I could at least write it.

Now, after living in Japan for a year, studying the language and growing more familiar with Japanese society, I’ve realized that it’s not my pronunciation or lack of kanji literacy that makes me feel less Japanese than my Japanese name. My life experiences are wholly different, and just because I fall into the American definition of what it means to be Japanese, I don’t necessarily fit the way being Japanese is defined in Japan.

My name carries varying expectations depending on the circumstance. In America, my name is a constant assertion of my Japanese heritage, but in Japan, it reminds me that I’m foreign. Understanding this distinction has placed me between two cultures, neither of which I can fully identify with, but at the same time, neither culture can fully identify me.

No matter where I go, people will always have different ideas of who I am. But without a universal expectation, there can be no objective identity that I must conform to. I am free to create an identity of my own, based not off of other people’s ideas of me but on whom I feel I really am.

I’m still figuring this out, but I’ve stopped picking myself apart, labeling the parts that are Japanese and those that are not. I’ve learned to keep my name from getting tangled up in how I view myself, because in the end, it’s not a matter of being an expert on how to say or write Jayme Tsutsuse. It’s a matter of being comfortable with being Jayme Tsutsuse.

At Iwakuni with my brother, Jeffrey Tsutsuse, and a relative from Hiroshima, whose maiden name is Tsutsuse


*This article was originally published on Cross-Cultural Kansai on July 27, 2014.


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Our Editorial Committee selected this article as one of their favorite Nikkei Names stories. Here are their comments.

Comment from Susan Ito:

I enjoyed this piece for its humor, for its unique take on names, for her unique name “Tsutsuse” and how her perception of her “Japaneseness” changed she was living in Hawaii, northern California, and finally, Japan. The piece was full of surprises, as the author herself was surprised by the origin and true meaning of her name when the kanji was scrutinized in Japan. Her identity as a Japanese person shifts depending on her environment and on the expectations of the people around her. Ultimately, she learns to be comfortable with herself, regardless of the perceptions of others.

Comment from Andrew Leong:

Jayme Tsutsuse’s tale of rediscovering her name, as genealogical mystery, playground riddle, and test of kanji literacy, takes us from Hawaii to California and Japan. I greatly appreciated Tsususe’s honest take on the processes of picking a name apart if only to find peace not in the saying or writing, but in the being.

Comment from Tamiko Nimura:

Jayme has given us an essay about her individual name, but one that resonates across Nikkei name experiences: difficulty with pronunciation, ability to write the name in kanji (or not), and connections to cultural origin and identity. However, Jayme’s essay stands out for combining all of these factors into a cohesive journey that offers us a different insight into the flexibility of a name’s meaning. I especially appreciate her ability to depict this journey across time, cultures, nations, and spaces.


© 2014 Jayme Tsutsuse

5 Stars

Nima-kai Favorites

Each article submitted to this series was eligible for selection as favorites of our readers and the Editorial Committees. Thank you to everyone who voted!

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About this series

What’s in a name? This series introduces stories exploring the meanings, origins, and the untold stories behind personal Nikkei names. This can include family names, given names, and even nicknames!

For this project, we asked our Nima-kai to vote for their favorite stories and our editorial committee to pick their favorites.  

Here are the selected favorite stories. 


 Editorial Committee’s selections:

  Nima-kai selection:

To learn more about this writing project >>

Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series >>