How are historical names formed?

The order of family and personal names

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 Tokugawa.

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.

Names for Historical Figures

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.

Famous Bushi houses

There are several famous bushi houses.

Genji (源氏)
One of the two major houses of Heian era (794-1185), and the house of Kamakura shogunate. It ended in the 13th century. Famous members: Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune.
Heike (平家)
The other major house of the Heian era (794-1185). They once grasped power, and then were destroyed by Genji in 1185. Famous members: Taira-no-Masakado, Taira-no-Kiyomori.
Hōjō (北條)
The regent house of the Kamakura shogunate. When Minamoto-no-Sanetomo, the third shogun, was assassinated 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 Hojo Tokimune.
Ashikaga (足利)
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.
Tokugawa (徳川)
The house of the Edo shogunate, founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu. They ruled Japan for 230 years. Famous members: Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Yoshimune.
Matsudaira (松平)
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.
Hosokawa (細川)
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 ex-prime-minister.
Shimazu (島津)
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, Shimazu Hisamitsu.

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, Murakami

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 a shōgun, daimyō, or other high officials of the shogunate, two kanji characters with noble images were combined and used.

Choose two from the list below and combine them.

Sane-, -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, Denbe etc.

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.

Female Names

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

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