The Western order of names is the given name, followed by any middle names, followed by the family name (e.g., “Jane Ellen Doe”). Typically, when someone is addressed informally, they are addressed by their given name (“Jane”); and when addressed formally, their family name is used—although it is normally preceded by a title (“Ms. Doe”). In some quasi-formal situations, people can be referred to by their family name without a title (“Doe”).

In Japan, however, the family name comes first, followed by the given name (e.g., “Yamada Tarō”). The informal address here would be “Tarō,” while the formal address would be “Yamada-san”—or “Mr. Yamada” in English. (However, the cultural conventions are a bit more complex than this. For instance, even in informal situations the given name is often reserved only for people who are very close—or where the speaker being referred to is junior to, or socially inferior to, the speaker. Also, using just the family name on its own, e.g., “Yamada,” is always considered rude. And if “Mr. Yamada” is somebody important, you would refer to him as “Yamada-sama” instead.)

This is far from exhaustive. In Iceland, the given name comes first—but the name that follows is the father’s given name with either “sson” (for a male) or “sdottir” (for a female) added as a suffix. (Some people choose to use the mother’s given name instead.) Therefore, if “Jane Doe” were Icelandic, and her father’s given name were “John,” Jane’s Icelandic name would actually be “Jane Johnsdottir.” (Although, like most things, there are exceptions, and family names do exist in some situations. I’m also sure they must handle situations where the parent is unknown, or the named person is gender non-binary, in other ways.) Further, the formal address here would be “Fröken Jane,” and never “Fröken Johnsdottir.” (In this example, “Fröken Jane,” is the Icelandic equivalent of the English “Ms. Doe.”)

To make matters worse, the media—as well as individuals—can reverse their names for foreign countries so that their names are used in the “correct” order locally. So, what am I supposed to do if I see the name “Yamada Tarō,” and I don’t know enough Japanese to tell which is the given name and which is the family name?

An obvious answer is that you should never assume: ask somebody who knows what the correct order is. (Also ask if you are not sure how to address somebody formally or informally.)

However, I recently saw an example of typography that really caught my attention. I may have seen something like this before, but, if I have, I’ve never paid attention to it until now. I was watching the final of the 2017 Northern Ireland Open snooker tournament. The two players were Mark Williams and Yan Bingtao. The typography used on the main scoreboard was excellent:

Mark WILLIAMS 0 – 2 YAN Bingtao

If only this could be an international standard, with the name for formal address being clearly differentiated. (In the example of “Jane Johnsdottir,” the typography would be “JANE Johnsdottir.”)