Shinzo Abe or Abe Shinzo? A basic guide to using Asian names

When should you use someone's family name first? And is Kim a first name or a last name? The Asia Media Centre looks at naming conventions in Asia. 

Japan’s foreign minister has called on overseas media to refer to the country’s prime minister as “Abe Shinzo”, instead of “Shinzo Abe”.

Foreign Minister Kono Taro (whom we would usually refer to in English as Taro Kono) wants reporters to write Japanese names in the East Asian style, which is to put the family name before the given name. This convention is already widely used when referring to other Asian leaders, such as China’s President Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

For those who are used to the western convention, the format has been known to cause confusion. Last year, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was left red-faced after he referred to the North Korean leader as “Chairman Un” — which would be a bit like calling President Donald Trump, “President Don”. Meanwhile, President Xi is often mistakenly referred to as “Mr. Jinping.”

It’s good to be aware that naming conventions differ throughout Asia. In some countries, the family name is king, while in others, calling someone by their given name is the polite thing to do. The Asia Media Centre has put together a rough style guide that can act as a rule of thumb when it comes to using Asian names in your reporting.

Please note this list is not exhaustive — and keep in mind that in all cases, the person’s preference is the most important thing to consider. If in doubt, just ask!


Order: Family name, given name. Eg. Kondo Marie.

Second reference: Family name. Eg. Kondo.


Order: Family name, given name. Eg: Xi Jinping.

Second reference: Family name. Eg. Xi.

Note: Most Chinese family names consist of one syllable. If you see a three-syllable Chinese name, you can be confident that the two-syllable name is the given name, and the one-syllable name is the family name. But in cases where the person has two one-syllable names, it can be impossible to tell which should be the first and last name. Eg. Wang Yang. 


Order: Family name, given name. Eg: Moon Jae-in; Kim Jong-un.

Second reference: Family name. Eg. Moon; Kim.

Note: Like Chinese names, most Korean family names are single-syllable. Most given names have two syllables, often joined with a hyphen. Also note that Kim is the most common surname in the Korean Peninsula, so if referring to more than one "Kim" in a story it can be helpful to write the names out in full.


Order: Depends on region. In northern India, it is typical to follow the western convention of given name, family name. Eg. Narendra Modi.

Second reference: Family name. Eg. Modi.

In southern India, some communities follow a more complex naming system. A typical pattern is: Village name, father’s name, given name, caste name. Initials are often used to shorten the name. Eg. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. It is common for the given name to be spelled out in full. It is also common for Indians in the south to use their caste names as surnames.

Second reference: Either given name or caste name. Eg. Kalam.

Note: Sikhs tend to use Singh (males) and Kaur (females) as surnames.


Order: Depends on ethnic group. Sinhalese names are often comprised of three or more components, including: father’s name, given name, family name. Eg. Pallewatte Gamaralalage Yapa Maithripala Yapa Sirisena (usually shortened to Maithripala Sirisena).

Second reference: Family name. Eg. Sirisena.

The Tamil community usually uses two names: Father’s name, given name. The father’s name is often represented by an initial, with the given name written in full. Eg. V. Rudrakumaran.

Second reference: Given name. Eg. Rudrakumaran.


Order: Given name, family name (or father’s name). Eg. Imran Khan.

Second reference: Family name. Eg. Khan.


Order: Given name, father’s name. Eg. Mahathir Mohamad.

Second reference: Given name. Eg. Mahathir.  


Order: Given name, family name. Eg. Thaksin Shinawatra.

Second reference: Given name. Eg. Thaksin.


Order: Given name/names, sometimes (but not always) followed by a family name. Eg. Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo.

Second reference: Given name. Eg. Prabowo.

Note: Many Indonesians have only one name. Eg. Suharto. Nicknames are also commonly used. Eg. President Joko Widodo (both given names) to Jokowi.


Order: There is no such thing as first names and surnames – names should always be used in their full form. Eg. Aung San Suu Kyi.

Second reference: Aung San Suu Kyi.


Order: Family name, two-part given name. Eg. Nyuyen Phu Trong.

Second reference: Second part of given name. Eg. Trong.

Note: Some names cannot be split in this way because they have a special meaning and should always be written in full. Eg. Ho Chi Minh means “Bringer of Light”.


Order: Given name, family name. Eg. Rodrigo Duterte.

Second reference: Family name. Eg. Duterte.

Note: Many Filipinos also use their mother’s maiden name as a “middle name”, which can be represented by an initial or spelled out in full. 


Order: Family name, given name. Eg. Hun Sen.

Second reference: Full name. Eg. Hun Sen.


Order: Given name, family name. Eg. Bounnhang Vorachith.

Second reference: Given name. Eg. Bounnhang.

- Asia Media Centre