9.4. How are historical names formed?
In China, Japan, and Korea, the family name is written before the
personal name. In Japanese, myouji (苗字・名字), the family
name, comes first, and namae (名前), the personal name, comes
last. For example, Tokugawa Ieyasu is Ieyasu of the house
However, many Japanese when writing English prefer to write in the
western style with the personal name first and the family name last.
So you may see Japanese names in the form Akira Kurosawa,
which means Akira of the Kurosawa family.
This can make you confused. The names of historical figures are
almost always written in family-personal name order, but the names of
modern people are usually written in personal-family name order.
Some people capitalize their family name. For example Gen'ichi NISHIO, Gen'ichi of the Nishio family.
Japanese people never have middle names today. However, historical
figures from before the 19th century often had many middle names,
representing their occupation, etc.
The emperor has no family name. He has only a personal name, such as
Hirohito, Akihito and so on. Members of the
royal family also don't have family names. When a woman marries a
member of the royal family, she loses her family name.
Modern Japanese names are very different from those of 200 years ago.
So I'll explain each of the two.
Until the 19th century, only the aristocracy and bushi (武士)
(samurai) had family names. Everyone else, including farmers,
merchants, and craftsmen, had only personal names. When the
Edo Shogunate fell in 1853, the new Meiji government
decided that all people must have family names. Until then, 80% of
Japanese people had no family names.
Most women didn't have their own family names either. Even a daughter
of bushi had only a personal name. This was because a woman
couldn't be a successor to her house.
Historical Family Names
Famous Bushi houses
There are several famous bushi houses in history.
- One of the two major houses of the Heian era, and the
house of Kamakura shogunate. It ended in the 13th century.
Famous members: Minamoto-no-Yoritomo,
- The other major house of the Heian era. They once
grasped power, and then were destroyed by Genji in 1185.
Famous members: Taira-no-Masakado,
- The regent house of the Kamakura shogunate. When Minamoto-no-Sanetomo the third shogun, was assasinated in 1219,
he left no apparent successors. The emperor Gotoba raised an
army to bring down the shogunate and regain sovereignty. In this
crisis, Hojo Masako, the mother of Sanetomo, became the
regent of the Shogun, and defeated the imperial army in 1211 (the
war of Jokyu). After her, members of the house ruled Japan as
the regents until 1329. Famous members were Hojo Masako and
- The house of the Muromachi shogunate. After the war with
China under the Mongolians (1274 and 1281), the Kamakura Shogunate
declined. The emperor Godaigo raised an army and destroyed the
shogunate. But after the victory, Ashikaga Takauji, the leader
of the army, rebeled against the emperor. He drove away the emperor
from Kyoto, and installed another emperor. Then he became the new
shogun, opening the Muromachi shogunate. The house
Ashikaga ruled Japan for about 200 years. Famous members:
Askihaga Takauji and Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
- The house of the Edo shogunate, founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu. They ruled Japan for 230 years. Famous members:
Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Yoshimune.
- The original house of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was
originally called Matsudaira Ieyasu, but he changed his
family name and founded the new house. The house Matsudaira
was a powerful relative of the shogun in the Edo
era. The house Matsudaira still exists today, though no
longer as a samurai house.
- A house with a long tradition. Originally founded as a noble
house about 500 years ago, the house Hosokawa became a
daimyo as a bushi family later. The house of
Hosokawa still exists today. Its most famous member is the
- The damiyo house of Satsuma, the south edge
territory of the Japanese islands. It was one of the most powerful
daimyo when the Civil War era. When the western army lost
the battle of Sekigahara, the house Shimazu became a
daimyo under the Edo shogunate. 270 years after the
battle, Shimazu rebelled against the shogunate, and finally
destroyed it in 1867. Famous members: Shimazu Nariakira,
Other Family Names for Bushi.
Here are some family names that existed in feudal Japan:
Kaga, Date, Maeda, Kuki,
Asai, Shibata, Kato, Takeda,
Saito, Honda, Ii, Tanuma,
Ooka, Miyamoto, Suwa, Hattori,
Chosokabe, Ukita, Mori, Ishida,
Fukushima, Oda, Kuroda, Hachisuka,
Okubo, Watanabe, Takigawa,
Famous Noble Family Names
Konoe, Takashi, Kujo, Ichijo and
Gojo were the five major noble houses called
Gosetsuke. Hirohata, Daigo, Kuga,
Oimikado, Saionji, Sanjo,
Imaidegawa, Tokudaiji, and Kaoin were
ranked next. There were also other noble houses such as
Masachika, Shigenoi, Anenokoji,
Shimizudani, Kawashi, Nakayama,
Nanba, Asukai, Nomiya, Konjo,
Matsuki, Jimyoin, Shijo,
Yamashina, Aburakoji, Washio,
Minase, Reizei, Kajuji, Karasuma,
Inokuma and Rokujochigusa.
Historical Personal Names
Personal Names for Bushi
For a high-ranked bushi, such as shogun, daimyo,
high officials of shogunate etc., two kanji characters with
noble images were combined and used.
Choose two from the list below and combine them.
-Yoshi-, -Tada-, -Ie-, -Tsuna-, -Yasu-, -Yori-, -Mochi-, -Taka-, -Kane-,
-Tomo-, -Nobu-, -Naga-, -katsu-, -Toki-, -Masa-, -Mitsu-, -Hisa-, -Hide-,
-Toshi-, -Sada-, -Kuni-, -Aki-, -Shige-, -Nori-,
-Mune, -Uji, -Mori, -Tsugu
For example, Yorihisa, Kanemori, Sanetoki
There was a wide variety for a low-ranked bushi.
Ichiro (the first son), Jiro (the second son),
Saburo (the third son), Shiro (the fourth son),
Goro (the fifth son), and variations such as Chojiro,
Kanzaburo, Heishiro, Daigoro etc. were
commonly used. -Emon, -Ji, -Zo, -Suke, -Be are also common such as
Kuemon, Hikozaemon, Goemon, Heiji,
Heizo, Kinnosuke, Kanbe, Hyobe,
Personal Names for other people
People who are neither nobles nor bushi such as farmers,
merchants, craftsmen, had only their personal names, but not family
names. So they called each other by their personal name with place
names or shop names. For example, Ryobe of Honda
village, Kansuke of Echigoya cloth store, etc.
Their names were similar to those of low ranked bushi.
There was a wide variety of names for women. Here are some famous
women in Japanese history:
Sei, Shizuka, Tomoe, Masako, Ichi, Yodo, Kasuga, Nene, Koi,
Tsukiyama, Matsu, Tama, Tara, Man, Sen, Yoshi,
The word hime means "princess", so a woman named
Koi could be called Koihime if she was noble and not
married yet. The suffix gozen was used for a wife of a
Bushi, such as Shizuka-gozen.
In is a suffix used by nuns. When a bushi died, his widow
usually became an ama (nun) in an amadera (convent). Such a
widow renamed herself, and put the suffix on her new name. Here are
some famous nuns in Japanese history:
Hoshun-in, Kenbai-in, Kensei-in, Koudai-in
Edited from material found at
/ 9. Names
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