I'm writing a book (travelogue) about Japan, comparing it to Sweden, where I'm from. During my travels I communicated mostly in Japanese but occasionally in English and Swedish. The book is in English with some words or expressions in Japanese that I translate and/or explain in English to convey some of the differences in language and culture.

I'm considering how to best refer to people I encountered while in Japan:

  • Swedish language: Very rarely anything but first name-basis.
  • English language: Last name-basis unless you have met.
  • Japanese language: Last name-basis unless you know the person intimately.

I prefer calling people by their first name, whether I met them or not, because I worry that the text would feel more formal if I called them by their last names.

I would like the writing to be playful and relaxed, at the same time I wouldn't want the book to be considered sloppily written or confusing thanks to the complexities involved.

Say I refer to someone I have not met by their last name as suggested in English, then I will still call them by their first name when quoted, since that's what I do. To make matters worse, Japanese people would call me by my last name despite the fact that we have already met.

Sometimes I refer to people who have inspired me, writers of the past with connections to what I'm doing or people that simply come to mind as I travel. Of course, other than translating the dialogues, I'm keeping them unchanged.

Example sentence: "It made me think of Alan Booth, who walked across Japan in 1977 and wrote the book “The Roads to Sata” detailing his experiences. Alan often spoke of [...]"

Here I think Booth sounds a bit formal, and Mr. Booth sounds very formal, but maybe it's just because I'm not used to it - the equivalent of Mr is rarely used in Swedish.

I know that the people I communicate with in English may have different customs in their countries, but I already feel that this is becoming complicated as it is, so I'm trying to find a good compromise.

What I'm looking for is a relaxed way to refer to people that I have and have not met or am familiar with/know intimately, that leaves room for a cultural flavor but is not likely to confuse the reader by being too incoherent.

EDIT/Clarification: The target market is English speaking countries in general, which largely excludes Sweden and Japan. I'm trying to write in American English, so I suppose the primary target is the USA if I had to pick one.

  • A travelogue sounds like it's in the same general space as reporting. How do reporters refer to people in your target market? (In the US it's last name -- "Booth said...". I assume your market is Sweden?) Jul 10, 2013 at 0:33
  • I have to admit that as an (American) English-speaker, it jars me to see authors referred to by their first name unless I knew the writer knew them and was telling a personal story. "As Mark said..." (instead of Twain) is so jarring as to seem, to me, pretentious-- which is the opposite of what you are going for.
    – Anna M
    Jul 10, 2013 at 1:08
  • It might be appropriate in explaining this to use "surname" and "given name" rather than "last name" and "first name" since name order is dependent on culture (e.g., Japanese names have the surname before the given name).
    – user5232
    Jul 10, 2013 at 15:00

2 Answers 2


My inclination would be to say that, in general, you should use the conventions of the culture that you are writing for. If your target audience is Americans, than write the way Americans write.

I agree with Anna M: As an American, if I read something that referred to famous people by their first names I would find it very jarring. Like if you were writing about World War II and instead of talking about Churchill and Roosevelt and Stalin you called them Winnie and Frank and Joe, that would leap out of the page as just ... weird. If you actually knew these people personally and were describing personal conversations, that would be okay, but to talk about people you've never met by their first names sounds odd. On the other hand, if you were talking about your childhood and the other kids you played with and you referred to them as Mr Miller and Mr Brown, that would sound strange, too.

A big exception to this is if you're trying to give the feel of another culture. If you were writing a novel set in Sweden, I'd expect the characters to talk the way Swedes talk, not the way Americans talk. Or if you were describing a conversation by a group of Swedes, if Swedes routinely refer to famous people by their first names, then I think it would be correct to say, "I said that I thought Johannes was the greatest scientist of all time. He even had a unit of measure -- the Rydberg temperature scale -- named after him. But my friend Bjorn insisted that it was Alfred. He was not only a great scientist, but had established the famous prize fund. His brother held out for Svante, pointing out that he had made contributions to both physics and chemistry ..." If that's how they'd talk, then that's how I'd describe their conversation.

But if you're just giving general narrative, I'd use the conventions of the audience and not of the culture being described or of your home culture.


Refer to people the way you think of them. If you think of him as "Alan," refer to him as Alan. If you think of your Japanese friend Goto Sumiko (where Goto is her last name) as "Goto," then use that.

Alternately, if Goto Sumiko goes by "Goto" but you always called her "Sumi Quatro" because you both love the singer Suzy Quatro, then by all means refer to her as Sumi Quatro in the text.

Just be consistent and clear, and identify everyone on first reference so the reader doesn't get lost.

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