"A Boy Named Sue," the American country music classic, plays the name game for laughs. But in Japan, a real boy, who really is named Devil, has become a serious matter for bureaucrats.
And Friday, the case--which has turned into a battle over whether parents have the inalienable right to name their children or whether the government can intervene--reached the attention of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa's Cabinet.
The bedeviling case began when Shigeharu Sato, 30, and his wife, Ayako, 22, went to register their first-born son as Akuma (Devil) last August. Authorities in Akishima, a town within Tokyo, initially agreed to list the name in the family register, a move that gives it official recognition in Japan.
But two months later, higher officials, citing fears the boy would be subjected to ridicule and discrimination, overruled the judgment and asked the couple to choose another name. These officials called the Satos' selection "an abuse of the right of parents to name a child" and said the earlier decision to allow it ran against "healthy social concepts."
The Satos, intent on their choice, have taken the case to Family Court, which will decide the matter, possibly next week.
But in an indicator of Japanese sensitivities on the issue, Justice Minister Akira Mikazuki, in a Cabinet meeting Friday, spoke out about Devil, opposing the official intervention in the boy's naming via an "administrative guidance," a ruling made without specific legal basis.
"It is not appropriate to instruct parents to change children's names without legal basis," Mikazuki said.
But Home Affairs Minister Kanju Sato defended the ruling, calling for new legislation to empower such decisions explicitly.
The two ministers agreed on one point: Devil is not a good name for a child.
Naming a child in Japan is considered one of the biggest decisions parents make. Fortune-tellers are often consulted to ensure that lucky choices are made; even the average bookstore has a special section jammed with do-it-yourself instruction books on choosing a fortuitous name.
The Satos made their decision without help. The father, who runs a snack restaurant, said he picked the name to show he wants his son, whatever he became in the future, to "stand at the top." He also wanted his son to have a name different from other boys and was sure that "there will be only one Japanese with this name," he told Japanese reporters.
"If you hear it once, you'll never forget the name. . . . It is the best possible name," Sato said, adding he intended to raise Devil in a way to overcome any bullying that he might suffer.
His wife, he admitted, was "surprised" but agreed to the name. The couple call Devil, who was born July 30, by the nickname Aku, the equivalent of "Dev" in English. The baby, still officially nameless, already responds to that name. Children in Japan officially may not change their given names until they reach age 15.
Sato told reporters he has already chosen a name for a second son: Teio (Emperor). He said he would choose "an ordinary cute name" for a daughter.