(Part 1 will deal with given names. Please see next week for Part 2, which will be about family names!)
To the unfamiliar ear, Japanese names may sound, well, foreign. By this I mean they’re hard to remember (woe to your new Japanese friends) or just plain weird sounding. Of course, to the Japanese (and people who have been involved with the language and culture for even a short amount of time) most of them make perfect sense and may even be easy to determine the meaning of. Like with most things Japanese language related, you begin to see patterns and start to realize how mundane some names really are!
In this week’s article about Japan, I’m going to take a look at typical Japanese naming conventions: their trends, their meanings, and how easy they are to get the hang of. Many names in Japanese are like literal little puzzles – they are made up of separate sounds often quashed together for certain meanings (or because they sound pretty/tough.)
It helps to have a common grasp of Japanese pronunciation and how the syllabic alphabets work before we begin. If you know absolutely nothing about “ka ki ku ke ko,” I suggest you take a brief look at this awesome explanation here. It’s easy, I swear!
Now that you’re already familiar with the most common sounds in Japanese, let’s jump in!
Names are heavily regulated in Japan. There is a set list of kanji (symbols) parents can use to name their children. In a recently infamous case, one Japanese couple tried to name their newborn son “Akuma,” which means “devil/demon.” Local government basically said “No, don’t. Don’t even think about it.” So unlike in, say, America, where you meet kids named after naughty body parts and encounter more than one “Qhriztayll” (That”s pronounced Crystal, by the way.) Japan keeps a lean and mean track of what you’re naming your children. However, this doesn’t mean you can only choose between Tom, Dick, and Harry. There are thousands of names to choose from…and many of them sound frustratingly alike.
Trends and Suffixes
The easiest place to begin looking is at the trends themselves – shockingly, Japanese names, like almost every other set of names out there, follows trends in every generation. Just like we might say “Barbara” is very Baby Boomer, or “Edna” is very Baby Boomer’s Mother, some names sound “old” or “very stylish” in Japanese.
Whether or not a Japanese name sounds “old” or “young” often resides in the suffix, or final syllable, in a name. Below is a list of common suffixes between girl and boy names, what they (usually, it depends on which kanji used) mean, and what generation they may be attributed to. (Please note that there are MANY more, these are just some of the MOST popular.)
-ko (子) “Child.” Often associated with older generations, with the trend tapering off in the 80s. A common source for this trend is the tradition of every female member of the Imperial family having this suffix in their name.
-mi (美) “Beauty.” Like “ko,” it had its heyday in the older generations, but still prevails on maybe moreso than “ko” these days.
-ka (香) “Scent.” “ka” seems to have replaced “ko” in the newer generations as the go-to “k” sound. The difference between “Yuko” and “Yuka” can be as much as taking twenty years off your age!
-na (菜) “Plant.” “na” is especially a younger sounding suffix these days, and has probably the biggest amount of kanji variants on this list. Usually, I find, it doesn’t mean anything and basically acts as an “empty sound.” A possible origin for this suffix as a feminized name is the trend of women saying “na?” at the end of questions. (And, indeed, one of the most common kanji I find for this name suffix means “what?”)
-ki (木) “Tree.” “Ki” has wallowed among popular names for a while, but never started hitting bigger numbers until the current generation. Please note that instead of just “ki” the name might actually end with “tsuki,” (月) which means “moon.”
Now that we know five of the most common female name suffixes, let’s play a little game that shows off how “puzzle piece” like these names can get.
Let’s take the name Yu(u). (優)Common girl’s name on it’s on. Usually it means “gentle,” but, depending on the kanji it can mean almost anything. But let’s go with the common “gentle” for now. Using it as a prefix, let’s mash it up with all our suffixes above!
Yuko – 優子 Gentle Child
Yumi – 優美 Gentle Beauty
Yuka – 優香 Gentle Aroma
Yuna –優菜 Gentle Flower
Yuki – 優木 Gentle Tree (also Snow (雪) and, Bravery (勇気) Also doubles as a common boy’s name!)
BONUS: Yuri – (百合) Lily.
You can do this with just about any common prefix, including some of those suffixes you see above! “Mi” is a super common prefix as well. And yeah, I’ve seen girls named 美美. (Double the beauty, you know.)
The five names (plus one) you see above are so common, odds are that in any group of Japanese female friends you have, about half of them will have one of the names above. Now, imagine trying to run an English class full of nothing but Yukas, Yukos, and Yukis. Good times.
–shi (史) “History.” Very popular in war-time baby names. This one has mostly died off in current generations, but still sometimes pops up now and again.
-suke (介) “Concerned With.” This kanji/sound basically enhances the meaning of the prefix. Started appearing in the mid-20th century with regularity, and is now one of the more common suffixes for boys.
–ta (太) “Big.” Particularly common with two-syllable male names. Like “suke,” it usually increases the meaning of the prefix.
–to (人) “Person.” Similar to “ta” in its function. It’s survived a long time by keeping under the radar.
–ya (哉) “What?” Yes. You read that right. I’m guessing this is mostly an “empty” sound suffix, but let’s keep looking…
Let’s play another game! Meet “Ryo(u)” (龍) a boy whose name means “Dragon” for our exercise. Also a common prefix for boys…especially today!
Ryoshi – 龍史 History of Dragons
Ryosuke – 龍介 Having to Do With Dragons
Ryota – 龍太 Big Dragon
Ryoto – 龍人 Dragon Amongst Men / Dragon-Man
Ryoya – 龍哉 What a Dragon!
Some of those names sound silly, but I’ve met at least one boy for every name up there…sometimes ten.
As you can see from these two brief exercises, Japanese given names are usually broken up into parts, or syllables associated with a kanji of a special (or not so special) meaning. Girl names tend to have more “fragile” meanings while boy names are more concerned with strength, size, and intellectual pursuits. (Hey! Sound familiar?) This list does not include one kanji names that may have up to three syllables. In general, Japanese given names center around a good feeling mixed with natural elements. This will be even more expanded upon next time when I tackle family names.
From a Writer’s Perspective
Part of the reason I’ve studied Japanese given names so much and for so long, aside from having meet thousands of Japanese people in my life (whether at school or at work), is because at the moment I’m writing mostly about Japanese characters. In order to make them as realistic as possible, I’m also taking their names into account. Do their names make sense for the generation they were born into? (Most of my characters currently were born either during war-time or the 70s!) Do they match the character? Particularly for girl names, since I mostly write about lesbians. Many masculine Japanese women drop their suffixes because they’re too feminine. You’d be hard pressed to find a stone cold butch still going by “Yuko” with the kanji I provided above.
And then there’s the AWFUL part! Yes, there’s an awful part. With SO many Japanese women running around that need different names, you can see how easy it is to accidentally make too many characters with too similar names. Want to name a character Yuko? Too bad, I already have one named Yuri. I have to keep in mind that most of my readers probably won’t be familiar with these conventions, and while I may be okay keeping track of who’s who among Yuka / Yuko / Yuki (once, I was paid to!) I’m not going to expect any readers to. It creates quite the headache come time to name characters.
How about y’all, who made it this far? Do you have any favorite Japanese names? Wanna dissect them and pick apart their meanings? Throw em at me. Should be fun!