And now we’re grown-up orphans
That never knew their names
We don’t belong to no one
That’s a shame
But you could hide beside me
Maybe for a while
And I won’t tell no one your name
And I won’t tell ’em your name
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we flipped through books and clicked through dozens of webpages to find the perfect name for him. It had to sound right – together with our last name, together with a middle name, and in context of what was acceptable today. We went through a similar ritual with our second child. Most importantly for us, the name had to mean something.
In western culture today, the meaning of names has lost much of its importance. For instance, my name means “strong and manly,” but I would never use those adjectives to describe myself, except in jest. In certain homes in the west, and in other countries around the world, name meanings are considerably more important. For instance, names in Asian countries like Japan and Korea have long held significance for the individual and his or her family.
In 1939-40, the Sōshi-kaimei policy went into effect, where Koreans (at that time subjects of the Japanese empire) were effectively forced to change their names to Japanese ones. Many of us in the west might only see the surface-level shame and anger a policy like this could cause, but it went far deeper than that for the Koreans, as demonstrated in the wonderful short story, “Lost Names,” by Richard E. Kim. In it, a young boy goes with his father to register their new family name. On the way, he thinks to himself:
I am going to lose my name; I am going to lose my name; we are all going to lose our names.
The family is given the surname Iwamoto, meaning “foundation of rock” (Iwa mean “rock” and Moto means “root”). The tearful father tells his son:
Take a good look at all of this. Remember it. Don’t ever forget this day.
Later, as the family visits a graveyard, three generations of males weep, as do other individuals in the cemetery. The symbolism of the burial ground is evident, as is that of the black armbands that the narrator’s father and friends wore – the loss of names is equivalent to death. The boy’s grandfather cries to the grave of his father:
We are a disgrace to our family. We bring disgrace and humiliation to your name. How can you forgive us?
In Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi’s critically acclaimed anime, names are likewise charged with meanings that are deeply rooted with the individuals they are attached to. The haibane are given them as they are born into their new world. These names reflect their dreams – it is a significant part of their identities. The main characters have the names of Rakka (falling) and Reki (pebble). As time passes, the myserious beings known as the haibane renmei can present the haibane with new names, reflecting their growth or failure to grow past obstacles that seem fated to them.
Without spoiling the series, the giving of these new names have a profound impact on the two haibane. Rakka tries to earn a new one, while Reki is simply trying to cling to her’s. Their paths involving these names and the redemption of their souls is obviously very spiritual in nature. Names, too, have spiritual meaning, in Christianity as with other religions. My children, for instance, have names related to figures from the Bible, and at Christenings, it’s common to receive a new “Christian” name, symbolic of rebirth. For any who have seen the series, the relationship between rebirth, baptisms of sorts (by fire, perhaps, rather than by water), and the receiving of names is obvious.
The boxes, too, in which their names are contained are reminiscent of a verse in the Bible. In Revelation 2:17, John reveals the words of God, writing that those who are victorious will receive a white stone with a new name on it. In Haibane Renmei, when the sin-bound are victorious, they may receive a new name, packaged in a box with stone-like material and symbolic of how they overcame the sin which weighed them down.
Interestingly enough, Reki’s connection to Christianity goes even further than that. Her name, meaning “pebble” or “small stone,” reminds me of the most famous discussion of names in the New Testament. Jesus speaks to his fiery disciple Peter, and tells him that “on this rock I will build my church.” What He is exactly referencing is up to interpretation, but Jesus, a lover of wordplay, is clearly discussing the building of his church on a strong foundation and is referencing the name which He Himself gave to the disciple: “Peter” means “rock.” The meaning is similar to Reki’s, as is their importance for future generations of their ilks; each may serve as a stone foundation for others. Neither will achieve their goal easily.
What’s in your name? How has it effected who you are and what you’ve become?
Note: This is the first post of three this week regarding Haibane Renmei. Please visit on Wednesday for an interview with author Dan Cronquist and on Friday for a review of Set Apart, his book discussing Haibane Renmei in relation to Christianity.
Featured illustration by 椎名ヤスヒラ (reprinted w/permission)