Of all languages in the world, Japanese is the only one that has an entirely different set of written characters to express foreign words and names. Just seeing these characters automatically tells the Japanese that they are dealing with something or someone non-Japanese.
So foreign names, from US President George Bush to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, are depicted in these characters, called katakana. What's more, the names of foreign citizens of Japanese ancestry are also written in this set of characters, indicating that while they may have Japanese names, they are not, well, really Japanese.
By contrast, in Chinese, no such distinction is made. There, non-Chinese names are depicted, sometimes with great difficulty, entirely in Chinese characters. Foreigners are, in effect, made Chinese.
At bottom, the differences reflect each country's diverging worldview. In contrast to the inner-looking island nation of Japan, China has traditionally viewed itself as the Middle Kingdom of its name, the center of the world. If it is natural for Japan to identify things or people as foreign, viewing them with some degree of caution, it may be equally natural for China to take "Coca-Cola" or "George Bush," and find the most suitable Chinese characters to express them.
In Japan, the rigid division between the inside and outside in the language underscores this country's enduring ambivalence toward the non-Japanese. The contrast with China is stark, and speaks also to the future prospects of Asia's two economic giants as they compete for influence in a world of increasingly fluid borders.
While today's Japanese travel overseas with an ease and confidence that would have been unimaginable only two generations ago, they remain uneasy about foreign things and people coming here. Safer to label them clearly as foreign.
Not so China.
"China is a big continent and has an inclination to think that it is No. 1 and that others are uncivilized," said Minoru Shibata, a researcher at NHK, Japan's public broadcast network.
"Therefore, they feel that giving Chinese names to foreigners is doing them a favor," Shibata said.
China and Japan represent the two nations that still widely use Chinese characters in their writing. The Chinese, as the creators of this system, still use them exclusively.
Come to Japan, and things get extremely complicated. In their everyday lives, the Japanese use three different sets of characters in writing -- four if the widely used Roman alphabet is also included.
First are the Chinese characters, called kanji in Japan. Japanese names are written in kanji. Currently, the number of kanji permit-ted for names stands at 2,230, and selecting a character outside this list is illegal. Parents have been pressing for an expanded list, though, and so the justice ministry said recently that it is considering adding between 500 and 1,000 characters.
Second is a set of phonetic characters used for Japanese words. Third are the kanji, the set of phonetic characters for foreign words.
"There is no other language that has three set of characters -- only Japanese," said Muturo Kai, president of the National Institute for Japanese Language.
The system is convenient for Japanese, Kai said. "But when an American person wants to learn it, it is inconvenient."
In the US, parents' freedom to name their children may be absolute. In Japan, the government and the media set the boundaries of names and the way they are written, thereby also setting the boundaries of Japanese identity.