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 my 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, there was one unexpected difficulty I ran into. Names. Specifically, remembering names. While I understood what my student’s 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 to the rule. In this article, we’re going to discuss the history of names in Japan, as well as discuss how to use them and give people nicknames.

The origin of Japanese names

Japanese names are normally 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 and are then followed by the given name.

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

The reason for this is that people’s names were often tied to one’s work and rank in the past. For instance, if you worked in 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 or have their name changed. 侍 (Samurai – Japanese warriors) often had their name preceded with a clan’s name, to show who they fought for. For example, 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 oneself. Women had less 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 commonly 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 either. Honorifics are important when addressing people in Japanese. Honorifics are very similar to terms such as Mr and Mrs, though they are a little more complex than that. Let’s look at the most commonly used honorifics:

As you can see, there’s 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, in which certain Kanji characters have a certain pronunciation, and that’s that. Sadly, it’s considerably more difficult than that. Kanji characters can have many pronunciations, and names are the worst of the bunch.

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 they use. 実穂’s Kanji mean ‘Truth’ and ‘Ear of grain’. 美保’s mean ‘Beauty’ and ‘Care’. Parents will often pick Kanji characters that either they like the meaning of, or like the shape of. 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 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 names, some Japanese people may ask that they use their given name too. In their view, it would be rude to be the only one to use the other’s given name.

In conclusion…

Japanese names are tough, but beautiful. If you’re interested in 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!