When confronted for the first time with my last name, the world seems to divide
into three clear groups. Most numerous are those who gamely give it a go: Soo-soo,
Tut-soo, and Chew-chew are pretty common attempts, although sometimes I hear more
creative pronunciations. A significant minority of folks just won't even touch
it: some form their lips, struggling to get their minds around that jumble of letters,
but no sounds come out; many just default to calling me Bill or something curious
like Mr. William; a few shake their heads and say "I'm not even going to try that
one." And then, of course, there are those with a natural advantage, all of the
world's native speakers of Japanese, who don't miss a beat in rendering a flawless
Tsutsui every time.
I have to admit that I do not pronounce my own name in accordance with the best
practices of Japanese diction. All my life, I have followed the lead of my mother,
who was born and raised in upstate New York of honest, hardworking (but very un-Japanese)
German and British stock. She made things easy for tongue-tied Americans by ignoring
the initial T in our name and grouping the subsequent letters in a way that made
sense to English (if not Japanese) speakers. Thus, she and I go by SUIT-sooey.
Think of a suit of clothing followed by a call for the hogs. Perhaps not the most
elegant mnemonic, but it's hard to forget and almost impossible to mess up. My
father, who was originally from Japan, always winced a bit at our Americanized pronunciation
but patiently put up with it as just another of the many small compromises that
immigrants are obliged to make.
So feel free to take a hack at Tsutsui when we first meet. Or you can just call
me Bill. And please forgive me if I mangle your name the first time around: I will
try to learn how to get it right, especially if you have a neat little trick like
SUIT-sooey that you can share.
Dr. William M. Tsutsui, Dean and Professor of History at Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University, was named the 11th President of Hendrix College. His presidency begins June 2014.