Japanese Name

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A modern Japanese name (日本人名) consists of a family name, or surname, followed by a given name. There are no middle names.

Common surnames in Japan include Satō (佐藤), Katō (加藤), Suzuki (鈴木) and Takahashi (高橋). According to estimates, there are as many as 100,000 different surnames in use today in Japan. Surnames occur with varying frequency in different regions; for example, the names Tamagusuku (玉城), Higa (比嘉), and Shimabukuro (島袋) are common in Okinawa (沖縄) but not in other parts of Japan. Many Japanese family names derive from features of the rural landscape; for example, Ishikawa (石川) means "stony brook", Yamamoto (山本) means "the base of the mountain", and Inoue (井上) means "above the well".

Given names are much more diverse in pronunciation and character usage. Male names often end in - (郎 "son", but also 朗 "clear, bright") or -ta (太 "great, thick"), or contain ichi (一 "first [son]", also 市 "market, city"), ji (二 "second [son]" or 次 "next"), or dai (大 "great, large") while female names often end in -ko (子 "child") or -mi (美 "beauty"). (Since 1980, the popularity of female names ending in -ko has dramatically fallen for new baby names.) Other popular endings for female names include -ka and -na.


Structurally, Japanese names are simple compared with other names. All of Japanese people have one surname and one given name with no middle name, except for the royal family. The given name in Japanese is called the "lower name" (下の名前 shita no namae) or simply the name. The surname is called myōji (苗字 or 名字). When written in Japanese characters, the family name always precedes the given name.

Few surnames can be also used as given names and vice versa. The few includes Kaneko. This clear distinction makes changing the order of surname and given names less troublesome. To those familiar with Japanese names, which is the surname and which is the given name is apparent, no matter what order the names are presented in.


Japanese names are usually written in kanji, although some names use hiragana or even katakana. While most "traditional" names use kun'yomi readings, a large number of given names and surnames use on'yomi readings as well. Many others use readings which are never found except in names (nanori), such as the female name Nozomi (希). The vast majority of surnames comprise one or two kanji. Some others consist of three characters, like Hon'inbō (本因坊, a name for the famous family of go players), Shōji (東海林), and Gushiken (具志堅).

Female given names often end in the syllable ko, written with the kanji meaning "child" (子). This was much more common up to about the 1980s, but the practice does continue today. Male names occasionally end with the syllable ko, but very rarely using the kanji 子. Common male name endings are -shi and -o. In the past (before World War II), names written with katakana were common for women, but this trend seems to have lost favour. Hiragana names for women are not unusual. Kana names for boys, particularly those written in hiragana, have historically been very rare. This may be in part because the hiragana script, which is more cursive (and also said to have been created by women), is seen as feminine.

Names, like other Japanese words, cannot begin with the syllable n (ん、ン). A final ending n is rather rare, although the male names Ken, Kon, Shin, Jun, and Den are examples.

One large category of family names can be categorized as "-tō" names. The kanji 藤, meaning wisteria, has the on'yomi (or, with rendaku, ). Many Japanese people have surnames that include this kanji as the second character. Examples include Atō, Andō, Itō (although a different final kanji is also common), Udō, Etō, Endō, Katō, Kitō, Kudō, Kondō, Saitō, Satō, Shindō, Sudō, Naitō, Bitō, and Mutō. As already noted, some of the most common family names are in this list.

A name written in kanji may have more than one common pronunciation, only one of which is correct for a given individual. The name 靖仁, for instance, can be read as either Seijin or Yasuhito. This makes the collation and romanization of Japanese names a very difficult problem. For this reason, forms and documents commonly have spaces for people to indicate the pronunciation of the name using kana.

A few Japanese names, particularly family names, include dated, uncommon, and sometimes simply mis-written kanji. These characters are often left out of computers' character sets, such as Unicode, which causes severe difficulties in representing many names on the computer. Those who have such a name usually compromise by substituting similar characters. An example of such a name is Saitō. While there are over 100 kanji that can be read as sai and over 200 kanji for , in this case, there are 4 sai that are usually converted to a single sai. The problem is that each sai character has a completely different meaning: sai (斉) written with 8 strokes means "together" or "parallel"; sai (斎) with 11 strokes means "to purify"; sai with 21 strokes means "to pay"; sai with 23 strokes means "salad". While the latter two are rarely used for names, even confusing the first two characters would be an embarrassing mistake and would likely be seen as an insult: the names are often indicative of the family's history.

In rare cases, family names are written with idiosyncratic characters that relate indirectly to the name as spoken, as with 四月一日, which would normally be read as shigatsu tsuitachi (literally, "April 1st"), but is in this case is read watanuki (literally, "unpadded clothes"): April 1st is the traditional date to switch from winter clothes to summer.

Kanji names in Japan are governed by the government's rules on kanji use. There are currently (Oct 2004) 2,232 "name kanji" (the jinmeiyō kanji 人名用漢字) used in personal names, and the government plans to increase this list by 578 kanji in the near future. This would be the largest increase since World War II. Only kanji which appear on the official list may be used in given names. This is to ensure that names can be written and read by those literate in Japanese. Rules also govern names considered to be inapproriate; for example, in 1993 two parents who tried to name their child Akuma (devil) were prohibited from doing so.

The Japanese government currently has restricted the number of kanji that can be used in naming infants to 2,230, but many old characters are still intact in adults' names. Because these restrictions have been confusing to say the least, many recent changes have been made to increase rather than to decrease the number of kanji allowed for use in names.

The plan to increase the number of name kanji has been controversial, largely because Chinese characters for "cancer", "hemorrhoids", "corpse", and "excrement", as well as those used in jukugo (words which are compounds of two or more kanji) meaning "curse", "prostitute", and "rape", are among the proposed additions to the list. This is because no measures were taken to determine the appropriateness of the kanji proposed. However, the government will seek input from the public before approving the list.

Most Japanese people and agencies have adopted customs to deal with these issues. Address books, for instance, often contain furigana or ruby characters to clarify the pronunciation of the name. Japanese nationals are also required to give a romanized name for their passport.

All of these complications are also found in Japanese place names.

Not all names are complicated, of course. Some common names are summarized by the phrase tanakamura: the three kanji 田 (ta, rice paddy), 中 (naka, middle) and 村 (mura, village), together in any pair, form a simple, reasonably common surname: Tanaka, Nakamura, Murata, Nakata, Muranaka, Tamura.

In ancient times, people in Japan were considered the property of the Emperor and their surname reflected the role in the government they served. An example is Ōtomo ( おおとも 'great attendant, companion'). Names would also be given in the recognition of a great achievement and contribution.

Until the Meiji restoration, Japanese common people (people other than kuge and samurai) had no surnames, and when necessary, used a substitute such as the name of their birthplace. For example, Ichirō born in Asahi mura (Asahi village) in the province of Musashi would say "Ichirō from Asahi-mura of Musashi". Merchants were named after their brands (for example, Dembei, the owner of Sagamiya, would be Sagamiya Dembei), and farmers were named after their fathers. After the Meiji restoration, the government ordered all commoners to assume surnames in addition to their given names: many people adopted historical names, while others simply made names up or had a local sage make up a surname. This explains, in part, the large number of surnames in Japan, as well as their great diversity of spellings and pronunciations.

During the period when typical parents had several children, it was a common practice to name sons by numbers suffixed with (郎, "son"). The first son would be known as "Ichirō", the second as "Jirō", and so on. Girls were often named with ko (子, "child") at the end of the given name; this should not be confused with the less common male suffix hiko (彦). Both practices have become less common, although many children still have names along these lines.

Within families, younger family members generally refer to older family members by title rather than name, e.g. kaasan "mother" or niichan "big brother". Older family members refer to younger family members by given name. Outside of the family people are generally referred to by family name (村田さん Murata-san), by position (e.g. 先生 sensei, "teacher"), or by a combination of the two (村田先生 Murata-sensei ). Given names are used when referring to adult friends or to children. Names are almost never spoken or written without some sort of honorific, either a title like sensei or a general honorific like -san (さん), -kun (くん、君), or -chan (ちゃん). Honorifics are omitted only in intimate relationships. Some people, especially children, may be called by a shortened form of their name: typically "small tsu" (っ, the phonemic lengthener) is involved, and an honorific may be permanently attached: Satchan for Sachiko, Akki for Akihito, Takkun for Takuya, Katchan for Kazuya, and so forth.

Often, Japanese people avoid referring to others by name, substituting a title. The uses of sensei (先生) and kinship words mentioned above are two instances of this. Senpai (先輩, predecessor, one's senior) likewise replaces a name extremely often, in social situations ranging from elementary school through working life. Daily life, the workplace, and mass media provide many other illustrations of people calling someone kachō, buchō, torishimari, senmu (専務), shachō (社長), tōdori, kyōdō, gakubuchō (titles of rank within companies and schools), senshu, tōshu, kantoku, sekitori (titles from sports), and a host of other words in place of a name.

While family members, spouses and lovers sometimes call each other by their given names, they are otherwise used only rarely, even among close friends; most people call each other by the surname plus the suffix -san (Tanaka-san). An exception is schoolgirls, who often call each other by the first name, plus the fond diminutive suffix -chan. Even within the family, there is a marked tendency to avoid the use of names in favour of titles like "older brother," "younger sister" and so on. It is not uncommon for people, particularly older people, to be unsure of their friends' given names.

Indeed, even so the use of the suffix -san (さん), meaning roughly "Mrs., Mr., Ms., Master, Miss, Mistress." is customary in addressing a person by name. This suffix is used with both surnames and given names, and failure to use it is called 呼び捨て (yobisute, literally "throwing away the name") and is considered exceedingly rude. The respectful equivalent of -san is -様 (-sama), and the fond diminutive equivalent is -chan (-ちゃん). Young boys and younger men are often addressed as -kun (-くん、君).

Occasionally, the common Japanese practice of forming abbreviations by concatenating the first two morae of two words (similar to English TLAs) is applied to names (usually those of celebrities). For example, Kimura Takuya (木村 拓哉), a famous Japanese actor and singer, becomes Kimutaku (キムタク); Itō Jun'ichi, a prominent Japanese hacker, can be Itojun. This is sometimes applied even to non-Japanese celebrities: notably, Brad Pitt is occasionally known as Burapi (ブラピ) (the final っ is dropped). Also, many Japanese celebrities take names combining kanji and katakana, such as Beat Takeshi.

Names from other ethnic groups in Japan

Many ethnic minorities living in Japan adopt Japanese names to ease communication and, more importantly, to avoid discrimination. But a few of them still keep their native name. Among them are Chang Woo Han, a founder and chairman of Maruhan Corp., a large chain of pachinko parlors in Japan.

Japanese citizenship, however, requires adopting a Japanese name. In recent decades, the government has allowed individuals to simply adopt katakana versions of their native names when applying for citizenship: Martti Turunen, who became "Tsurunen Marutei" (ツルネン マルテイ), is a famous example. Others transliterate their names into phonetically similar kanji compounds, such as David Aldwinckle, who became "Arudou Debito" (有道出人). Still others have abandoned their native names entirely in favor of traditional Japanese names, such as Lafcadio Hearn, who used the name "Koizumi Yakumo" (小泉 八雲).

Ethnic Chinese and Koreans in Japan sometimes have to change the characters in their names to apply for citizenship, because of the restrictions on which kanji can be used.

Individuals born overseas with Western given names and Japanese surnames are usually given a katakana name in Western order when referred to in Japanese. Eric Shinseki, for instance, is referred to as エリック シンセキ.

Imperial names
The Japanese emperor and Crown Prince have no surname for historical reasons, only a given name such as Hirohito (裕仁), which is rarely used in Japan: Japanese prefer to say "the Emperor" or "the Crown Prince", out of respect and as a measure of politeness.

When children are born into the Imperial family, they are given a standard given name, as well as a special Imperial surname. Akihito, for instance, was born as Tsugo-no-miya Akihito, and was referred to as "Prince Tsugo" during his childhood. The Imperial surname is generally used until the individual becomes heir to the throne or inherits one of the historical prince names (常陸 Hitachi, 三笠 Mikasa, 秋篠 Akishino, etc.).

Many members of the extended Imperial family became commoners after World War II, and adopted their Imperial surnames as regular surnames. An example is Asaka Yasuhiko.

See also: Imperial Household of Japan

Historical names

The current structure (family name + given name) did not materialize until the 1870s when the government made the new family registration system.

The Ryukyans, being vassals of the Chinese empires and influenced more by Chinese high culture rather than that of Japanese Shintoism, have names similar in form to those of the Chinese.

In feudal Japan, names reflected a person's social status. They also reflect a person's affiliation to Buddhist, Shintō, feudatory-military, Confucian-scholarly, mercantile, peasant, slave and imperial orders.

Before feudal times, Japanese clan names figured prominently in history: names with no fall into this category. (No means of, although the association is in the opposite order in Japanese, and is not generally explicitly written in this style of name.) Thus, Minamoto no Yoritomo (源 頼朝) was Yoritomo (頼朝) of the Minamoto (源) clan. Fujiwara no Kamatari, Ki no Tsurayuki (紀 貫之), and Taira no Kiyomori (平 清盛) are additional examples.

Historically, a Japanese person could maintain several names to use in different occasions. Among those that were common are Azana, Imina or Okurina (either translate to posthumous name) and or Kagō (a pen name). It was not uncommon for one to have more than 10 names. [1] (http://www21.big.or.jp/~kirin/otya2.html) Imina is the same as one's real name and the real name would be called Imina posthumously. It is called so because after one's death, he would be referred by his Okurina while the pronunciation of Imina is being avoided. Azana, which is given at Genpuku(元服), is used by others and one himself uses his real name to refer to him. Kagō is commonly named after places or houses.

In the late shogunate period, many anti-government activists used several false names to hide their activities from the shogunate. Examples are Saitani Umetarō (才谷梅太郎) for Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本 龍馬), Niibori Matsusuke (新堀松輔) for Kido Takayoshi (木戸 孝允) and Tani Umenosuke (谷梅之助) for Takasugi Shinsaku (高杉 晋作). The famous writer Kyokutei Bakin (曲亭 馬琴) is known to have had as many as 33 names.

Professional names
Actors and actresses in Western and Japanese dramatic forms, comedians, sumo wrestlers, and practitioners of traditional crafts often use professional names. Kabuki actors take one of the traditional surnames such as Nakamura (中村), Bandō or Onoe. Many stage names of television and film actors and actresses are unremarkable, being just like ordinary Japanese personal names, but a few are tongue-in-cheek. For example, Kamatari Fujiwara (藤原 鎌足) chose the name of the aforementioned founder of the Fujiwara family, while Hino Yōjin (火の用心)'s name means beware of fire (although written differently). Many stand-up comics like the duo Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi choose a Western name for the act, and use their own (or stage) given names. Writers also tend to be clever about their names, for example Edogawa Ranpo which is designed to sound like "Edgar Allan Poe".

Sumo wrestlers take wrestling names called shikona (醜名 or 四股名). While a shikona can be the wrestler's own surname, most upper-division rikishi have a shikona different from their surname. A typical shikona consists of one, two or three kanji. Often, part of the name comes from the wrestler's master, a place name (such as the name of a province, a river, or a sea), the name of a weapon, an item identified with Japanese tradition (like a koto or nishiki), or a term indicating superiority. Often, waka indicates a wrestler whose father was also in sumo; in this case, the meaning is junior. Wrestlers can change their shikona, as Takahanada did when he became Takanohana (貴ノ花) and then Takanohana (貴乃花). Another notable example is the wrestler Sentoryu, which means fighting war dragon but is also homophonous with St. Louis, his city of origin.

Geisha and practitioners of traditional crafts and arts such as pottery, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, irezumi (tattooing) and ikebana (flower arranging) often take professional names. In many cases, these come from the master under whom they studied.

Japanese names in English

As is the case for other transliteration, writing Japanese names in English pose several issues, mainly romanization and name order issues.

As this differs from the ordering used in many other parts of the world, some, particularly academics, adopt the convention of writing the family name in upper case when the name is romanized: for example, Takuya MURATA or MURATA Takuya. Artists whose works are distributed in English outside of Japan often opt for a Western ordering on the English editions of their works: e.g., Ryūichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍一 Sakamoto Ryūichi), Shunji Iwai, and Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹 Murakami Haruki). Japanese living overseas, such as Yoko Ono (オノ ヨーコ Ono Yōko) and Ichiro Suzuki (鈴木 一朗 Suzuki Ichiro), usually use the Western order as well.

Most foreign scholars of Japanese history and literature use the Japanese order, so historical and literary figures are usually referred to in that order: e.g., Murasaki Shikibu (紫 式部) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康). However, English publications tend to prefer the Western order when discussing contemporary individuals.

The following English publications tend to use the western order to refer to Japanese figures:

The following tend to keep the original Japanese order:

  • Scholastic articles
  • Reference works including encyclopedia
  • Books concerning historical Japanese activities like Go and Waka

Characters in translated Japanese manga, anime and video games are a special case. They are sometimes given new Western names (as in Pokémon for example), or they may keep their original Japanese names in either Japanese or Western name order. They may also have non-Hepburn transliterations of their names, or even different transliterations between different editions or between manga, anime and/or video game versions.

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