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

A Jewpanese Name for the Past, Present, and Future

Can parents choose a name that is a reflection of its times, as well as the past, and even the future? I was born on March 19, 1970, at Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, the same hospital where my mother had attended a School of Nursing to become a registered nurse in 1962. I was the second of three girls to Jack and June Nakamoto. My birth certificate lists my full name as Sharleen Naomi Nakamoto.


I have always liked the fact that my first name Sharleen is written to look the way that it sounds, unlike the conventional spelling Charlene. When my parents were recording my name, my pediatrician, who was also my father’s cousin’s husband, had recommended the phonetic style of spelling. Sharleen means “womanly” or “little lady,” and aptly expresses my gender and petite 4' 10.5" size. My mother thought of picking out names before I was born, but my father wanted to name me afterwards, so my name would match me. If I was a girl, he wanted me to have a name that I could carry as a woman, and wasn’t too cute or childlike. He was a salesman, and thought that in the world of work, women needed to have a name that could be taken seriously. My mother’s stipulation was that she wanted to choose a two-syllable name because Nakamoto is already long enough. Also, she wanted a shorter name that could not be easily made into a nickname, or mispronounced in an unfortunate way.1

Since both my parents were Americans and came of age in the post-World War II era, like many Sansei (third generation in America) they chose to give their children English rather than Japanese first names.2 Their decision to pick Sharleen echoes name choices on both sides of my family. My mother’s older sister named her two daughters Lori Ann (b. 1962) and Shari (b. 1965). Likewise, my mother named my older sister, Lorna (b. 1965), and me, Sharleen (b. 1970). It was not her intention to mimic her elder sister’s choice of girls’ names, but the pattern in naming is undeniable.

Sharleen can also be associated with the first name of my father’s elder sister, whom I have known as Aunty Eiko, but was born Charlotte Eiko Nakamoto in 1934. She, my father Jack Hitoshi (b. 1935), and their youngest brother James Tooru (b. 1936) were born on Lana‘i. They could go by their English first name or Japanese middle name, depending on whether they were interacting in their home community, the dominant American culture of school and work, or abroad in Japan. In contrast, most Japanese Americans during these pre-World War II years were given only a Japanese first name with their last name, which was and still is the common practice in Japan. My father always expressed great affection for his elder sister, and so I am gratified to see the similarity between her first name and mine.

I am a Yonsei (fourth generation in America) because my mother and father are both Sansei. But my father was also a Kibei (American schooled mainly in Japan). When she was still Matsue Kitano (b. 1908), my father’s mother had worked as a registered nurse, and married his sickly father Shigeru “Jack” Nakamoto (b. 1905). In 1937, when he soon died of some type of stomach tumor at the age of thirty-two, my father and his two siblings had been born and were only 3, 2, and 1 years old. Their mother took them to stay with their father’s younger brother in Lāhaina, Maui. Then in June 1941, despite the fact that Japan was engaged in militant expansion in East Asia, she took them to Hamamatsu, which is in Shizuoka Prefecture.3 There they joined one of her husband’s elder sisters who owned a ryokan (small Japanese-style hotel), but had no children to succeed her. My father and his two siblings were now 7, 6, and almost 5 years of age.

So how did my father end up in Hawai‘i again, where he later married my mother and had my two sisters and me?4 After enduring the challenges of war in Hamamatsu as Japanese Americans, his family became divided again across the Pacific.5 To ease their postwar struggles, my father’s paternal aunty summoned my father and his younger brother to live on O‘ahu, with her and her husband.6 But upon their arrival to Honolulu in 1949, these relatives sent the boys to Lāhaina, Maui, to live with other Nakamoto relatives. Back home in Japan, their elder sister Eiko was essentially adopted by their childless paternal aunt, and trained to take over management of her hotel. Unbeknownst to the boys, their mother was soon remarried to the father of their half-brother Tsukasa, who had been born about a year before they had left for Hawai‘i.

Like many post-World War II Yonsei, I don’t read or write Japanese and took only a few years of Japanese language. My parents never taught me how to spell my Japanese names using kanji or hiragana. However, I do recall my father telling me that our last name Nakamoto means something like inside (“naka”) and origin/base (“moto”). So perhaps my paternal ancestors lived at the base or center of a village, and that’s how we originally got our surname.7

According to my mother, she chose my Japanese middle name Naomi, and consulted about it with my father and her mother. When I was little, I used to wish it sounded cuter like Eiko or Junko. But since the turn of the twenty-first century, the ‘ko’ suffix has been out of fashion in Japan (“ko” in Japanese means “child”). In contemporary Japanese culture, my name Naomi is now desirable for not being dated and associated with older generations of women.8

My middle name Naomi is not only Japanese, but also Hebrew, unlike my sisters, whose Japanese middle names are exclusively Japanese. Naomi happens to complement the Jewish heritage of my husband Aaron Joseph Levine, who is a third-generation American Jew. When I was married to Aaron, we got married under a chuppah (canopy) that I embroidered with our family crests. The Nakamoto family mon (crest) is composed of two upward curving branches of overlapping ginger leaves that form a circular arc. Ginger can be written in kanji to mean “divine protection,” and has an historic association with certain Buddhist temples and gods. In contrast, a water pitcher is the symbol for Levine. Levine is from Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Levites were responsible for doing the ceremonial washing of the priests’ hands in the temple.

Family crests

When we were married, I took Levine as my legal last name, and made Naomi Nakamoto my middle name, so my full name is now Sharleen Naomi Nakamoto Levine. With the support of my husband I earned a doctorate in U.S. history in 2009, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, after giving birth to Nadia Rina and Mirah Hanna. Therefore I can also put a Ph.D. after my name.9 

As my own name illustrates, writing about a person’s full name can involve recounting family stories that have sentimental and historical value and meaning…like a name well chosen.



1. As a child, her Japanese name Junko had been a source of grief and embarrassment because instead of saying “Jun” like the month, and “-ko,” teachers unfamiliar with Japanese pronunciation would often say “Junk” and “-o” to the amusement of a class full of students.

2. In my mother’s family, whether to give children English or Japanese names became a source of conflict after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and all things Japanese were associated with the Japanese enemy. Prior to December 7, 1941, my mother’s two elder siblings and she were born and given Japanese names: Hideo, Sumie, Junko. When two other boys were born during wartime, their mother gave them English names—Eugene and Roy—on the advice of a hospital nurse and to the consternation of their father. As their mother recalled him protesting, taking an English name offered no protection against white prejudice: “Even if get English name, go work any kine place, still Japanese is Japanese, no can be haole [and get a good paying job and title].” Their last child was born after the war was over, and she was given the Japanese name Mitsue.

3. They were among hundreds of Issei who chose to return to Japan in response to mounting tensions between Japan and the United States between the spring and summer of 1941. See John J. Stephan, Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984), 39.

4. Since graduating from college, my elder sister moved to Japan and married a Nihonjin (Japanese national). They have two children, who attend different colleges in Hawai‘i and Japan, so our family’s trans-Pacific ties have persisted into the latest generation.

5. As a Japanese American attending school in Japan during the war, my father learned to fight kids who would chase him after school and call him an American spy and other derisive names.

6. During war a carrot might be lunch for the three children, and grasses and grains normally fed to livestock were cooked with rice to make it stretch. Because of the latter, my father and his brother developed an aversion for rice cooked with other grains or beans, and a preference for steamed white rice. As Uncle Jimmy recalls of the former type, “After the war, I said to myself, I’ll never eat that kind again.”

7. For historical background on how last names were first prohibited by the Japanese government in 1587, then required starting in 1875, see Michael Hoffman, “The Long Road to Identity,” Japan Times, October 11, 2009; Web, July 18, 2014.

8. See Namiko Abe, “Trends in Japanese Names,”, undated (2005?); Web, July 18, 2014.

9. Although there are relatives on both side of my family who have become doctors, lawyers, and accomplished artists (an opera singer trained in Vienna, Austria and a ceramicist trained in the U.S. and Japan), up until me there have been no doctor’s of philosophy, as far as I know.


© 2014 Sharleen Naomi Nakamoto Levine

7 Estrelas

Os Favoritos da Comunidade Nima-kai

Cada um dos artigos enviados a esta série poderia ser selecionado como um dos favoritos de nossos leitores e Comitês Editoriais. Agradecemos a todos que votaram!

culture hawaii identity mon multicultural Nakamoto names Nikkei Chronicles Nikkei Names

Sobre esta série

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:

#1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture
#2: Nikkei+ ~ Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race ~
#4: Nikkei Family: Memories, Traditions, and Values 
#5: Nikkei-go: The Language of Family, Community, and Culture 
#6: Itadakimasu 2!: Another Taste of Nikkei Culture
#7: Nikkei Roots: Digging into Our Cultural Heritage