Japanese names explained

When I moved to Japan, I already spoke some basic Japanese. I felt confident that I knew enough to get by in daily life and didn’t expect any difficulties in my job as an English teacher, given that classes were to be conducted primarily in English. And for the most part, that was how it went.

However, I ran into one unexpected difficulty. Names — specifically, remembering names. While I understood what my students’ names were, remembering all these new, unheard-of (to me) names was a difficult task.

Most foreign countries have unique naming conventions, and Japan is no exception. This article will discuss the history of names in Japan, how to use them, and how to give people nicknames.

The origin of Japanese names

Japanese names are usually written in 漢字 (Kanji – Japanese characters of Chinese origin) but can be written in ひらがな (Hiragana – Japanese syllabary based on the phonetic alphabet) and カタカナ (Katakana – Japanese syllabary used for foreign words) too. In contrast to much of the world, Japanese names start with the surname, followed by the given name.

Surnames commonly use Kanji characters relating to nature in them. An example is the popular name 山田 (Yamada). The first character means mountain, and the second one means rice field.

The reason is that, in the past, people’s names often derived from their work and social rank. For instance, if you worked in a rice field, you would often have the character 田 (Ta – Rice field) somewhere in your name.

In the past, there were many ways one could receive a name or have one’s name changed. 侍 (Samurai – Japanese warriors) often had their name preceded by that of their clan to show who they fought for. An example is 山本の大河 (Yamamoto no Taiga – Taiga of the Yamamoto clan).

Men would often change their names when they reached adulthood too, taking a more masculine name for themselves. Women had fewer opportunities to do so but could change names in certain scenarios, such as marriage.

Japanese names in modern-day Japan

Naming conventions in modern-day Japan have relaxed a lot, meaning that people can call their children what they like. That’s not to say that there aren’t popular conventions that people follow. Let’s go through a few now.

When it comes to naming sons, there are many Kanji characters that give a masculine feel to a name which are commonly used. Characters such 男, 夫, and 郎 are all inherently male. They mean Man, Husband, and Son, respectively.

The top five rated names for sons in 2020 were:

Girls also have a number of common Kanji characters in their names. Names ending in 子 (Ko - Child), 美 (Mi - Beauty), 花 (Ka - Flower) and 香 (Ka - Fragrance) are very popular nowadays.

The top five ranked female names in 2020 were:

The difficulty with Japanese names

As with most aspects of Japanese culture, manners and hierarchy play a large role in how you should address people too. For instance, the Japanese words あなた (Anata – You) and きみ (Kimi – You) are considered terms reserved for only those one is closest with. Therefore, when addressing someone in Japanese, you should address them by their surname.

That’s not all. Honorifics are important when addressing people in Japanese. Honorifics are similar to terms such as Mr and Mrs, though they are a little more complex. Let’s look at the most commonly used honorifics:

As you can see, there are quite a few honorifics to choose from, and this isn’t even all of them! If you’re ever lost on which one to use, さん is generally used the most and won’t be considered rude.

Another difficulty to take note of is how to read Japanese names. You might think it would be similar to English, that each Kanji character would have a specific pronunciation, and that would be that. Sadly, it’s considerably more difficult. Kanji characters can have many pronunciations, and names are the worst in this regard.

Let’s take the name Miho as an example. It can be written in the following ways: 実穂, 美保, 美帆, as well as many other ways. You might be wondering why people would use different Kanji characters for the same names —I know I did.

The secret is in the meanings of the Kanji characters that form the name. The Kanji characters in 実穂 mean ‘Truth’ and ‘Ear of grain’; those in 美保 mean ‘Beauty’ and ‘Care’. Parents often select Kanji characters that appeal to them in terms of meaning or shape. It’s certainly complicated.

What’s all the fuss about given names?

All this discussion regarding given names might make you wonder ‘Why bother making these names if they’re going to go by their surnames all the time?’. Well, people do use their given names in Japan.

For instance, when visiting a friend’s house, you can’t refer to everyone in the house by the same surname, as it would be confusing. In that case, you would normally call your friend by their given name, but if you’re close, you could refer to the mother/father of the household by that title instead too.

Additionally, people can ask you to call them by their given name too. A lot of close friends do so, which helps them feel friendlier and closer. Foreigners in Japan are a unique case. As most foreigners prefer to go by their given name, some Japanese people may ask them to use their given name as well —because, in their view, it would be rude to be the only one to use the other’s given name.

In conclusion

Japanese names are complicated but beautiful. If you’re interested in the Japanese language or culture, they’re inevitably something you will come across and have to use, so you better get studying! It’s not only difficult for foreigners, but Japanese people too, at times, so don’t be disheartened. Good luck!