Last week I discussed Japanese naming conventions for first names. This week, it’s family land ville!
Most of you are probably familiar with the Eastern convention of putting the family name first, then the given name last. (Japanese people, at least, usually do not have middle names.) This puts prominence on the family name, which is a more important identifier than even the given name. Chances are, if you’re Japanese, you’ll be called only by your family name for most of your life – this includes by close friends, depending on your gender and dynamics. (Boys/Men are more likely to solely call each other by family name, whereas Girls/Women may use given names in close relationships.) Your last name will also probably give away what region you’re from.
Popularity and the Top 10
Here’s a quick and dirty skinny about Japanese family names: like given names, they come in “puzzle pieces,” although family names tend to go in any order. (You’ll see examples of this below.) Their kanji and associated meanings are almost always natural or geographical, and denote where a family may have once lived. (In contrast, think about how many Western names come from very old professions, like “Smith” and “Baker.”) There are some odd hundred-thousand possible family names in Japan, but, as you can imagine, some are WAY more common than others. To begin deconstructing family names, let’s start with the top ten family names in the nation, courtesy of here:
(Please note that almost all these family names have various kanji spelling and meanings. The ones used below are just the most common ones.)
1. Satou (佐藤) “Helpful Wisteria.”
2. Suzuki (鈴木) “Bud Tree”
3. Takahashi (高橋) “High Bridge”
4. Tanaka (田中) “Middle of the Field”
5. Watanabe (渡辺) “Crossing the Border”
6. Itou (伊藤) “That One Wisteria”
7. Nakamura (中村) “Middle of the Village”
8. Yamamoto (山本) “Foot of the Mountain”
9. Kobayashi (小林) “Small Woods”
10. Saitou (斉藤*) “Adjusted Wisteria”
*This is a difficult name to translate. The first kanji essentially means “equal,” “similar to,” etc.
As you can see, almost all these names have to do with geographical locations and natural elements. (“What’s with all the Wisteria?” you may be asking. The wisteria is a very popular flower appearing throughout Japanese history, and could be considered one of the visual icons of Japanese culture. “Tou” as a suffix appears in other Japanese names such as “Katou,” and as “Fuji” in many prefixes, like “Fujiko” for a girl’s name and “Fujita” for a family name.) Other geographical names including these pieces are “Yamada,” (山田) “Nakayama,” (中山) “Honda,” (本田) and “Nakata.” (中田) But of course, they don’t stop there. Cardinal directions (/Kita, Minami, Nishi, and Higashi) all make frequent appearances in Japanese surnames.
Meanings of Whole Names
So now that you’re familiar with both first names and last names in Japanese, we can take a look at how they affect a person’s whole name!
Remember Yuka (Gentle Aroma / 優香) and Ryota (Big Dragon / 龍太), two kids we had in our post last week? Let’s pretend they’re sister and brother and see what their names are like with some of the most popular surnames above!
1. Satou Yuka (佐藤優香) “Gentle Aroma of the Helpful Wisteria”
2. Suzuki Yuka (鈴木優香) “Gentle Aroma of the Bud Tree”
3. Takahashi Yuka (高橋優香) “Gentle Aroma From the High Bridge”
4. Tanaka Yuka (田中優香) “Gentle Aroma of the Middle Field”
5. Watanabe Yuka (渡辺優香) “Gentle Aroma Crossing the Border”
6. Itou Yuka (伊藤優香) “The Gentle Aroma of That One Wisteria”
7. Nakamura Yuka (中村優香) “Gentle Aroma From the Middle of the Village”
8. Yamamoto Yuka (山本優香) “Gentle Aroma From the Foot of the Mountain”
9. Kobayashi Yuka (小林優香) “Gentle Aroma Of the Small Woods”
10. Saitou Yuka (斉藤優香) “Gentle Aroma of the Adjusted Wisteria”
To save myself the typing, just take out “Gentle Aroma” from above and replace it with “Big Dragon.” Bam! Done.
Some of those meanings are kinda “what,” and that’s to be expected. I mean, think about us, most of us Westerners don’t even have a first and last name in the SAME LANGUAGE. *ahem* But yes, sometimes choosing a name for a child is more about the syllabic sound and flow, rather than the meaning. Recently whole name meanings tend to matter less, especially with the trend of first name meanings also mattering less.
Amount of Kanji
All the names above utilize a clean and even four kanji, which is the standard amount of kanji for any given person’s name. However, this is not a rule, or even a suggestion! Five and three kanji names are also common. But in my experience, names tend to balance out to around an even four. If a surname is only one kanji, then a person’s given name is likely to be three kanji long, and vice versa. Two kanji name exist, but are rare, similar to six kanji names. And since the kanji are ultimately what dictates the meaning of a name in Japanese, some parents have a lot to consider when naming a new child.
Familiarizing yourself with Japanese family names is one of the easiest ways to learn Japanese kanji, since many of them use simple and common ones. They are also likely to tell you the long-ago origin of a family, and in the case of very rare names, can even tell you what region of the country a person is probably from. “Hasegawa” is a common name in Gifu Prefecture not often as found in other places.
Of the ten names listed above, odds are 1/10 Japanese people have one of them. Probably more in actuality. The beauty of them is that they can be “spelled” in many different ways, just like Western names.
From A Writer’s Perspective
I both love and loathe picking out surnames for my Japanese characters. Most of them are so common that I have to be careful that two characters I don’t intend to be related have the same name, or even a name that sounds too similar. (Recently had this issue with a character who I wanted to name Nakayama, since I have another character already established with the name Nakamura.*) There’s also laws to follow and consider, such as any female character who gets married is required by law to change her name to that of her husband’s. (Isn’t that just lovely?)
*And nobody wants to be mistaken for that guy.
Hope you enjoyed part 2 of this series! Part 3 (and the final one) will come next week, where we’ll take a look at nickname conventions!