sci.lang.japan FAQ / 9. Names

9.3. How do Japanese names work?

Japanese names on a noticeboard
Photo credit: Angie Harms
Used under a Creative Commons licence1

Japanese people have two names, a surname and a given name. The surname is usually inherited from the father, and women usually change their surname upon marriage. In Japanese, the surname comes before the given name. Thus, a person with surname Yamamoto and given name Sanae is referred to as Yamamoto Sanae. In the name order of English, this would be "Sanae Yamamoto".

Japanese names are usually written in kanji (Chinese characters, see 1.2. ). Surnames are almost always in kanji. Given names are usually in kanji. Some given names are in hiragana or katakana (see 1.1. and ).

Japanese people do not have middle names, and middle names are not recognized in Japan, except for foreigners.

Surnames

There are a great number of possible surnames in Japan. The enamdict electronic dictionary of Japanese names contains more than 138,500 surnames.

Japanese surnames are written in kanji (Chinese characters). A typical Japanese surname consists of two characters, such as Suzuki (鈴木) or Yamamoto (山本). They may also have one kanji, like Hara (原) or Tokoro (所), or more than two.

Most surnames are relatively easy to read, but there may be more than one way to read the same kanji spelling. For example 中田 may be read either as Nakata or Nakada. Some are very difficult, such as 八月一日, which appears to read hachigatsu tsuitachi, "the first of August", but is read Hozumi. Many Japanese also insist on using traditional forms of characters in their surnames rather than the modern simplified forms (see 1.2.12. Why do some kanji have alternative forms?).

Many surnames are also place names, and the rules for forming names follow similar patterns.

Some of the typical kanji used in surnames are
Romanization Kanji Meaning Examples
asa shallow Asano (浅野)
mae front Maeda (前田)
yoko side Yokoyama (横山), the tyre manufacturer
nishi 西 west Nishimura (西村)
kita north Kitano (北野), the surname of film director and comedian "Beat Takeshi".
kuro black Kurosawa (黒澤), the film director's surname, meaning "black swamp"
iwa rock Iwashita (岩下)
ishi stone Ishibashi (石橋) "stone bridge", the name of the founder of the "Bridgestone" company.
matsu pine
sugi cedar
take bamboo
ki tree Kinoshita (木下)
ita board
yone rice Yonekura (米倉) "rice store", the surname of model and celebrity Ryoko Yonekura.
hayashi, bayashi woods Kobayashi (小林), "small woods", the name of a famous Japanese physicist, Nobel prize winner in 2008.
ue, kami upper Murakami (村上), the surname of novelists Haruki Murakami and Ryu Murakami.
shita, shimo lower Matsushita (松下), "under the pine tree", the common surname and name of the big electronics company.
hashi, bashi bridge Hashimoto (橋本), "near the bridge", the surname of the ex-prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
mori forest Morita (森田) "forest rice field", the surname of Akio Morita, founder of Sony.
tsuka mound Tezuka (手塚), "hand mound", the surname of comics artist Osamu Tezuka.
mizu water Mizutani (水谷), the husband and wife authors of Japanese textbooks.
moto 本, 元 near Morimoto (森本), "near the forest"
naka in Nakata (中田), "in the rice field", the surname of the professional footballer
uchi in
yama mountain Yamamoto (山本), "near the mountain"
oka 丘, 岡 hill Okada (岡田)
saka slope Sakamoto (坂本), the surname of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the musician
no plain Noguchi (野口), the surname of Hideo Noguchi, the scientist featured on 1,000 yen banknotes.
ike pond Koike (小池), "small pond", the surname of celebrity Eiko Koike.
kawa river Kawabata (川端), "river edge", the surname of novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who wrote "Snow Country".
tani valley Tanizaki (谷崎), "valley edge", the surname of novelist Junichiro Tanizaki.
sawa, zawa 沢 (澤) creek Ozawa (小澤), "small creek", the surname of conductor Seiji Ozawa.
numa marsh
hata crop field
ta, da rice field Honda (本田), the car manufacturer (named after its founder).
shima, jima 島 (嶋) island Matsushima (松島), the surname of Japanese actress Nanako Matsushima, star of "The Ring"
mura village
saki, zaki cape/edge Kawasaki (川崎), the company famous for motorcycles

The character 藤, meaning "wisteria", is often used, pronounced either as fuji, as in Fujiwara (藤原), the surname of actress Norika Fujiwara, or as / as in Kondō (近藤) and Satō (佐藤).

Personal names

In Japan, the given name is used very rarely except for children. Most of the time, people are referred to using their surname only.

Japanese personal names are usually written in kanji, although some people, usually women, may have all or part of their name in hiragana or katakana. Some name kanji are ateji chosen to match the syllables of the child's name. (See 1.2.6. Why do some words have ? for more about ateji.)

Many Japanese personal names are difficult to read or ambiguous. Forms which require filling in of a name usually also require a phonetic guide to be written, called furigana (see 1.3.3. What is ?). Japanese politicians often use hiragana versions of their names, rather than kanji ones.

The kanji which may be used in personal names are regulated. The Jinmeiyō and Jōyō Kanji lists are the basis of characters which are permitted (see 1.2.4. What are the ?). Registration of some names has been refused, for example one family was refused when they tried to name their son Akuma (悪魔), meaning "demon". However, there is no regulation on what pronunciation may be given to the kanji names.

Boy's names

Names ending in hiko, such as Katsuhiko (勝彦), suke, such as Keisuke (慶介) or hei, such as Junpei (淳平), are usually male. Male names also often end in o, written in kanji as 夫, 雄, or 男, as in Teruo (輝夫) or Akio (昭雄), or shi, as in Atsushi (敦). Male names tend to contain characters such as 勇, meaning "brave", 勝, meaning "win", or 正, meaning "correct".

Boys may be named by a numbering system, with the Chinese character for "one" appearing in the name of the first son, the character for "two" appearing in the second son's name, and so on. Novelist Kenzaburo Oe (Oe Kenzaburō (大江健三郎) is the "third son".

Numbered names for males
Number Chinese character Pronunciation Example
1 一 (one) ichi, kazu Ichiro (一郎), Tomokazu (友一)
2 次 (next), ニ (two) ji Jirō (次郎), Kōji (浩二), forename of soccer player Koji Nakata.
3 zabu, Kenzaburō (健三郎), Zenzō (善三)
4 shi Shirō
5 go Gorō (五郎)
Common names ending in -ichi or -kazu include
Eichi, Gen-ichi, Jun-ichi, Ju-ichi, Ken-ichi, Koichi, Kyoichi, Ryoichi, Ryuichi, Seiichi, Sen-ichi, Shin-ichi, Shoichi, Shuichi, Shun-ichi, Yoichi, Yu-ichi, Akikazu, Hidekazu, Hirokazu, Masakazu, Nobukazu, Shigekazu, Takakazu, Tomokazu, Toshikazu, Yasukazu, Yoshikazu

Sometimes succeeding sons are named using the same kanji characters plus the numbering.

Other Japanese male names include

Akihiko, Akihiro, Akihito, Akira, Fumio, Fumihiko, Hideaki, Hidekazu, Hirofumi, Hirohisa, Hiroshi, Hisashi, Hitoshi, Jotaro, Katsuhiko, Katsumi, Kazuhiko, Kazuki, Kazunori, Kazuo, Kazushi, Kei, Ken, Kensaku, Kosaku, Kotaro, Mamoru, Manabu, Masafumi, Masaharu, Masahiko, Masahiro, Masaki, Masami, Masao, Masashi, Masayoshi, Akio, Michihiro, Michio, Naoki, Noboru, Nobuhisa, Nobuo, Nobuyoshi, Noriaki, Norihide, Norihisa, Norio, Osamu, Rintaro, Ryosei, Ryutaro, Satoru, Satoshi, Shigeaki, Shigeki , Shintaro, Sumio, Masayuki, Tadao, Tadashi, Takaaki, Takafumi, Takahiro, Takao, Takashi, Takayuki, Takeshi, Takuya, Taro, Teruo, Tetsuhiko, Tetsunori, Tetsuo, Tetsuya, Tetsuyuki, Tomohiko, Tomoyuki, Toru, Toshiharu, Toshio, Toshiyuki, Tsutomu, Yoshifumi, Yoshimitsu, Yoshiyuki, Yukio, Yutaka

Girl's names

Names ending in e, yo, mi, usually written 美 and ko, written 子, are usually female. For example, a combination of tomo and these endings, as in Tomoe, Tomoyo, Tomomi or Tomoko, produces a typical Japanese female name. Other typical female endings include na, such as Haruna, and ka, such as Haruka. Female names are more likely to be written in hiragana than male names.

Many modern female names end in -ko, which means "child." For example

Aiko, Akiko, Asako, Atsuko, Ayako, Chikako, Emiko, Eriko, Etsuko, Fujiko, Fumiko, Haruko, Ikuko, Junko, Katsuko, Kazuko, Keiko, Kimiko, Kumiko, Kyoko, Machiko, Maiko, Makiko, Mamiko, Mariko, Masako, Mayako, Mayuko, Mayoko, Michiko, Mihoko, Minako, Misako, Mitsuko, Miyoko, Momoko, Mutsuko, Nahoko, Namiko, Nanako, Naoko, Natsuko, Nayoko, Noriko, Reiko, Rieko, Rikako, Rinako, Risako, Ritsuko, Rumiko, Ryoko, Sachiko, Saeko, Sakiko, Sakuko, Sakurako, Sanako, Satoko, Sayoko, Shoko, Seiko, Tadako, Takako, Tamiko, Tokiko, Tomiko, Tomiko, Yoko, Yoshiko, Yukako, Yukiko, Yumako, Yumiko, Yuriko, Yutsuko

Some female names end in -mi, which usually means "beauty." For example,

Ami, Asami, Emi, Harumi, Honami, Kazumi, Kumi, Manami, Mami, Masami, Masumi, Mayumi, Mutsumi, Nami, Nanami, Naomi, Narumi, Natsumi, Nomi, Remi, Romi, Satomi, Yumi

Here are some other names and what the name (usually) means.

Ai, Akane, Aki, Arisa, Ayame, Chiaki, Chika, Chisato, Ema, Eri, Fumi, Fumie, Fumiyo, Hatsue, Hatsuyo, Hitomi, Ikue, Isako, Izumi, Jun, Katsue, Kazue, Machi, Madoka, Mai, Maki, Mari, Maya, Mayu, Mayo, Megumi, Miho, Mina, Mio, Misa, Misato, Miya, Mizuki, Naho, Namie, Namiyo, Nana, Nao, Narumi, Natsumi, Nozomi, Rie, Rina, Risa, Rui, Sachi, Sae, Saki, Sakura, Saya, Sayuri, Sayo, Shinobu, Shiori, Tamiyo, Tokie, Tokiyo, Yayoi, Yu, Yui, Yuka, Yukari, Yuki, Yuma, Yuri, Wazuka

Names and fortune telling

Personal names are often chosen so that the stroke count of the kanji in the child's name will be a fortuitous number.

Names for non-Japanese

Names for foreigners are usually written in katakana as are other foreign words. See 5.1. How do I write an English word in Japanese? for the rules of transcription. Chinese and Korean people, who have names based on kanji, may also be referred to by their kanji names, often with a Japanese pronunciation.

References


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