With the spotlight recently on Tokyo for the Olympic games, people have taken a renewed interest in all things Japanese: the language, the culture, the uniquely healthy diet...

For manga and anime fans, the fascination never stopped. From today's top manga - Nijigahara Tunnel and Toukaido Hisame to the timeless Fullmetal Alchemist, all of which contain remarkable characters (and stories!), those in the know know that even the protagonists' names carry special meaning.

Indeed, unlike many western cultures, the Japanese are far more meticulous in choosing what to call their children. That's not the only difference in naming conventions...

Let's explore the remarkable ways names in Japan are different from what we're used to.

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Japanese Names: What You Need to Know

"What's in a name?" - Romeo and Juliet

In this pivotal scene, Juliet lays out a logical argument: no matter what we call a rose, it would still smell sweet. Insofar as her thesis is concerned, she is right but, widening the focus, it's clear that her idea falls well short of the mark.

A boy's name may include information on whether he's the first, second or fifth son
In Japan, male given names often include references to their family position. Photo by Tsai Sen Yu on Unsplash

As it turns out, there really is a lot in a name, especially if you're talking about Japanese names.

  • The first thing you should know is that, in Japan, the surname is first and the given name follows. Thus, the baseball player Suzuki Ichiro's family name is Suzuki; the graceful, evocative figure skater Hanyu Yuzuru continues the Hanyu family line. Yuzuru is not his family name.
  • Oddly enough, when a westerner mentions a Japanese person's name, they reverse the order. That means we've been addressing the Japanese Prime Minister incorrectly: instead of Yoshihide Suga, we should be saying Suga Yoshihide - Suga being his surname.
  • As you've likely noted by just a few Japanese names listed so far, the Japanese do not assign a second given name, what we call a middle name.
  • In Japan, it would be highly unusual (and very rude) to address someone by their given name, even if you've known them a long time. It's far more culturally correct to call someone by their family name and attach 'san'. So, the proper way to address the Japanese Prime Minister would be Suga san.
  • Note that children may be called by their given names but, by the time the kids start school, they too are called by their surname + san.

We'll talk more about family names in a mo but there's one more fact about Japanese names to disclose: they are almost always written in kanji - Chinese characters. That can get confusing for people who speak and read Mandarin because the Japanese ideograms sound nothing like they do in Chinese; sometimes, they don't even have the same meaning.

For instance, the name Nakata (or Nakada), 中田, is a straightforward, relatively simple surname. However, a Mandarin speaker would read this name as 'zhong tian', meaning 'middle field'.

Indeed, sometimes they don't have the same meaning even when read in Japanese. That's not something you're likely to encounter in your Basics of Japanese learning course.

Furthermore, there's now a growing preference in Japan to write surnames in traditional characters. Nakata/Nakada wouldn't change; 中田 remains the same in either script. Still, traditional characters are much more elaborate and, if you're just getting used to reading simplified kanji, names may be harder to interpret.

Japanese Family Names

Unlike other East Asian cultures, Japan boasts more than 138,000 surnames. Compare that with China's 150 or so patronyms and Korea, a country with just over 280 surnames.

As mentioned above, these names are typically written in kanji, and they usually consist of only two characters, though some may contain only one - or up to four.

Japanese surnames are usually made up of words and phrases that often invoke natural elements: wood, bamboo, wind and water. They may also incorporate directions; anything from front and side to north and east. Topographical elements feature as well: pond, valley and hill, as well as fields, rice paddies and village.

In fact, Honda Motors founder's name (本田)translates to 'near (rice) field' if you look at just the characters.

Japanese surnames are patrilineal, meaning they are passed down on the father's lines. When women marry, they tend to take their husband's surname - although, just as in other cultures, the Japanese are (slowly) moving away from that practice.

Calling anyone but children by their given names is a grave insult in Japan
In Japan, children may be called by their given names but not in school. Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

Japanese Given Names

Practically every country has rules for what parents can and cannot name their child, Japan included. It's just that, in the Land of the Rising Sun, there can be some confusion about the intended meaning when written in kanji.

As mentioned before, names can be ambiguous if the focus is solely on the ideograms; that's why many official documents also require people to write their names phonetically. That's called furigana, in case you were wondering.

You don't have to be an expert in the Japanese alphabet to recognise names' phonetic spelling but, to read family names and most given names, you have to know at least kanji... but that's if the name in question is for a male. Female names are sometimes written in hiragana or katakana.

The Japanese government maintains lists of approved names to select from. Should a new parent want to give their child a name not on those lists, they run the risk of being refused, especially if the name is derogatory or infamous. Generally, unconventional names demand a lot of explanations and, even then, might be rejected.

Still, the Japanese have plenty of names to choose from, even if there's little chance at a non-gendered name.

Japanese Names for Boys

Typically, boys' names will end in either -suke, -hiko, -shi or -hei - for instance, Keisuke and Tetsuhiko. Satoshi, the mysterious Bitcoin pioneer, exemplifies the -shi ending.

Other standard suffixes for boys' names include -ichi and -kazu. Beware, though, that Ichi- and Kazu- may also be prefixes that proclaim that boy to be the firstborn child (Ichiro, for instance).

Whereas, typically, one cannot name their child Five or Thirteen - numbers and symbols are not on the list of acceptable names, boys' names may contain numbers. For instance, the third son's name may include 三, meaning three.

A good rule of thumb: if the name ends in -o, the child is likely male. Another good indicator that the name bearer is male: if it conveys strength and power. Boys' names often invoke bravery, winning, correctness and so on.

Japanese Names for Girls

Where male given names evoke power and strength, girls' names reflect beauty and virtue. Indeed, beauty (-mi, 美) is one of the most common suffixes for Japanese girl names: Masumi, Satomi and Narumi among them.

Child (-ko, 子) is the second most popular girl-name suffix: Etsuko, Miyoko, Seiko...

Just like many other cultures - including ours, many Japanese female names end with -a; boy's names hardly ever do. So, if a child's name ends in -na or -ka, it's a fair bet that the child in question will be female. Other endings for female names include -e, and -yo.

Female children are not accorded any numbers, as boys' names are. So, while a family might have sons named Tomokazu (kazu=1st), Koji (ji=2nd) and Zenzo (zo=3rd), that family's daughters will not be thus-counted.

A final interesting fact about given names in Japan: fortune-telling.

In many Asian cultures, certain numbers are considered luckier than others. Some numbers are avoided at all costs because they are considered ill omens. For instance, the number four (四, shi) sounds like 'death' - in Chinese, Korean and, of course, Japanese.

When casting about for a suitable name for their child, boy or girl, parents will prefer those that have a 'lucky' number of strokes. Eight is considered the most fortuitous number so any name that requires eight strokes of the pen to write it would be eagerly considered while one with nine strokes would be immediately rejected.

This method of name selection is called seimei handan.

To understand why you have to know about Japanese numbers...

Counting pen strokes can result in a lucky Japanese name
Japanese names are considered fortuitous by the number of pen strokes it takes to write them. Photo by Denis Umpleby on Unsplash

Japanese Names for Foreigners

All words of foreign origin are transcribed in katakana, wherein each syllable receives an approximate pronunciation in Japanese. That includes everything from hamburgers to other countries' cities - London becomes Rondon (ロンドン). The same applies to names.

The name Naomi presents an interesting case in point.

Naomi is on Japan's list of acceptable names and it's a fairly popular one because it ends with -mi. However, a Japanese person named Naomi (Nēomi) will pronounce their name differently than a Naomi-named foreigner (Nau o mi), even though the Japanese Naomi is closer to the English name's pronunciation.

For non-Japanese whose names are written in kanji - the Chinese and Koreans, their names don't need conversion; they only need to mind the difference in pronunciation.

If you, like so many others, plan to work or study in Japan, you'll have to figure out what to call yourself. Saying your name with a Japanese accent likely won't get you very far; it's best to know ahead of time how to convert your name into hiragana.

That way, you can introduce yourself with confidence. What a great way to get off on the right foot!

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