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Japanese Names FAQ

Order of Family Name / Given Name

In Far-Eastern countries such as China and Korea, the family name is written first and the personal name is written last. This is true in Japan, too. In Japan, myoji, the family name comes first, and namae, the personal name comes last. For example, Tokugawa Ieyasu is Ieyasu of the house Tokugawa.

However, many modern Japanese prefer to write in the Western style — personal name first and the family name last — when they write in English. So you would see many Japanese names such as Akira Kurosawa , Akira of the Kurosawas.

This can be confusing: the names of historical figures are almost always written in family-personal order, but names of modern people are written in personal-family order. Usually.

Some people capitalize their family name, such as Gen-ichi NISHIO, Gen-ichi of the Nishios.

A Japanese has no middle name today, only a personal name and a family name. Historical figures before the 19th century often had many middle names, representing their occupation, etc.

The emperor has no family name. He has only a personal name, such as Hirohito , Akihito and so on. Members of the royal family also don't have family names. When a woman marries a member of the royal family, she loses her personal name.

Names for Historical Figures

Modern Japanese names are very different from those of 200 years ago.

Until the 19th century, only the nobles and bushi (samurai), representing abot 20% of the population, had family names. All other people, including farmers, merchants, craftmen, had only personal names. When the Edo Shogunate fell in 1853, the new Meiji government decided that all people must have family names.

Most women didn't have family names either. Even the daughter of a bushi was known only by her personal name because a woman couldn't be a successor of her house.

Historical Family Names

Famous Bushi Houses

Genji One of the two major houses in Heian era, and the house of Kamakura shogunate. It discontinued in 13th century. Famous members: Minamoto-no-Yoritomo , Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune .
Heike One of the two major houses in Heian era. They once grasped the very power of the government, they were destroyed by Genji in 1185. Famous members: Taira-no-Masakado , Taira-no-Kiyomori.
Hojo The regent house of Kamakura shogunate. When Minamoto-no-Sanetomo, the third shogun was assasinated, in 1219 he left no apparent successors. The emperor Gotoba raised his army to bring down the shogunate and get back the sovereignty. In this crisis, Hojo Masako , the mother of Sanetomo , became the regent of the shogun and defeated the imperial army in 1211 (the war of Joyku). Members of the house ruled Japan as regents until 1329. Famous members: Hojo Masako , Hojo Tokimune
Ashikaga The house of the Muromachi shogunate. After the war with the Mongols the Kamakura shogunate declined. The emperor Godaigo raised an army and destroy the shogunate but after the his victory, the leader of the army, Ashikaga Takauji, rebelled against the emperor. He drove Godaigo from Kyoto, installed a new emperor, and made himself shogun. The house Ashikaga ruled Japan for about 200 years. Famous members: Askihaga Takauji, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
Tokugawa The house of Edo shogunage, founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu. They ruled Japan for 230 years. Famous members: Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Yoshimune.
Matsudaira The original house of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was originally called Matsudaira Ieyasu, and changed his family name to found the new house. The hose Matsudaira was a powerful relative of shogun in the Edo era, and still exists today, though no longer as a samurai house.
Hosokawa A house with a long tradition. Founded as a noble house about 500 years ago, the house Hosokawa became a daimyo as a bushi family later. The house Hosokoawa still exists today. Its most famous member is the former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro (1993-1994).
Shimazu The daimyo house of Satsuma, the southern edge territory of the Japanese islands. One of the most powerful daimyo houses under the Edo shogunate. 270 years after the battle which saw them rise to power, house Shimazu rebelled against the shogunate, and finally destroyed it in 1867. Famous member: Shimazu Nariakira , Shimazu Hisamitsu

Other Family Names for Bushi

Here are the names of some clans which were not as powerful or high-profile.

Kaga, Date, Maeda, Kuki, Asai, Shibata, Kato, Takeda, Saito, Honda, Ii, Tanuma, Ooka, Miyamoto, Suwa, Hattori, Chosokabe, Ukita, Mori, Ishida, Fukushima, Oda, Kuroda, Hachisuka, Okubo, Watanabe, Takigawa, Murakami

Noble Family Names

These noble (but non-warrior class) families were ranked beneath the bushi:

Konoe, Takashi, Kujo, Ichijo, and Gojo were the five major noble houses called Gosetsuke . Hirohata, Daigo, Kuga, Oimikado, Saionji, Sanjo, Imaidegawa, Tokudaiji, Kaoin

Then there were also other noble houses such as:

Masachika, Shigenoi, Anenokoji, Shimizudani, Kawashi, Nakayama, Nanba, Asukai, Nomiya, Konjo, Matsuki, Jimyoin, Shijo, Yamashina, Aburakoji, Washio, Minase, Reizei, Kajuji, Karasuma, Inokuma, and Rokujochigusa.

Historical Personal Names

Personal Names for Bushi

For a high-ranking bushi , such as shogun, daimyo , high officials of shogunate etc., two kanji characters with noble images were combined and used.

Choose two from the below and combine them (for example, Yorihisa , Kanemori , Sanetoki)

Beginnings Beginnings or Endings Endings
Sane Yoshi, Tada, Ie, Tsuna, Yasu, Yori,
Mochi, Taka, Kane, Tomo, Nobu, Naga,
Katsu, Toki, Masa, Mitsu, Hisa, Hide,
Toshi, Sada, Kuni, Aki, Shige Nori
Mune
Uji
Mori
Tsugu

There was a wide variety of names for lower-ranked bushi.

and their variations such as Chojiro, Kanzaburo , Heishiro , Daigoro, etc. were commonly used.

-emon, -ji, -zo, -suke, -be are also common suffixes, giving names such as Kuemon , Hikozaemon, Goemon, Heiji, Heizo, Kinnosuke, Kanbe, Hyobe, Denbe etc.

People who are neither the noble or bushi such as farmers, merchants, craftsmen, have only their personal names, but not family names. So they called each other by their personal name with place names or shop names. For example, Ryobe of Honda village, Kansuke of Echigoya cloth store, etc.

Their names were similar to those of low ranked bushi.

There was a wide variety of names for women. Here are some famous women in Japanese history:

Sei, Shizuka, Tomoe, Masako, Ichi, Yodo, Kasuga, Nene, Koi, Tsukiyama, Matsu, Tama, Tara, Man, Sen, Yoshi

The word hime means "princess", so a woman named Koi could be called Koihime if she was of a noble family and not yet married. The suffix gozen was used for a wife of a bushi, such as Shizuka-gozen .

-In is the suffix for a nun. When a bushi died, his widow usually became an ama (nun) in a amadera (convent). Such a widow would rename herself, and add -in to her new name. Here are some famous nuns in Japanese history:

Hoshun-in, Kenbai-in, Kensei-in, Koudai-in

Names for Modern Japanese

Modern Family Names

There are thousands of family names in Japan. The most common family names are Suzuki, Tanaka, Yamamoto, Watanabe and Saito.

Many common family names consist of two kanji. For example, Tanaka is Ta-Naka, Ta means "ricefield" and Naka means "in". Maybe ancestor of Tanaka-san lived near a ricefield.

A list the kanji used most frequently in family names follows. Choose two from the list below, catenate them, and you will get a Japanese family name (or a name that sounds like one).

Examples: Mae-kawa (in front of the river), Kita-mura (northern village), Iwa-moto (near the rock) and so on.

Beginnings Beginnings or Endings Endings
aka (red)
ao (blue)
asa (shallow)
fuka (deep)
higashi (east)
ishi (stone)
iwa (rock)
kita (north)
kiyo (pure)
kuro (black)
mae (front)
matsu (pinewood)
minami (south)
nishi (west)
sugi (cedar)
take (bamboo)
yoko (side)
yone (rice)
hashi/bashi (bridge)
hata/bata (cropfield)
ike (pond)
kawa (river)
mizu (water)
mori (forest)
moto (near)
mura (village)
naka (in)
no (plain)
oka (hill)
saka (slope)
saki/zaki (cape/edge)
sawa/zawa (creek)
shima/jima (island)
ta/da (ricefield)
tani (valley)
tsuka (barrow)
uchi (in, house)
yama (mountain)
hayashi/bayashi (woods)
ita (board)
ki (tree)
numa(marsh)
shita/shimo (lower)
ue/kami (upper)

Modern Male Personal Names

Ichiro is a name for a first son. Jiro is one for a second son, Saburo is for a third son, Shiro for a fourth son, and Goro for fifth son. Some modern male names end in an -ichi or a -kazu suffix, both of which mean "the first son", such as:

Eichi, Gen-ichi, Jun-ichi, Ju-ichi, Ken-ichi, Koichi, Kyoichi, Ryoichi, Ryuichi, Seiichi, Sen-ichi, Shin-ichi, Shoichi, Shuichi, Shun-ichi, Yoichi, Yu-ichi, Akikazu, Hidekazu, Hirokazu, Masakazu, Nobukazu, Shigekazu, Takakazu, Tomokazu, Toshikazu, Yasukazu, Yoshikazu

And a -ji suffix means "the second son", a -zo means "the third son", such as Eiji, Shunji, Ryozo, Senzo . Some names consist of a combination of those above, such as, Eichiro, Kojiro, Yushiro, Yugoro.

More Japanese male names:

Akihiko, Akihiro, Akihito, Akira, Fumio, Fumihiko, Hideaki, Hidekazu, Hirofumi, Hirohisa, Hiroshi, Hisashi, Hitoshi, Jotaro, Katsuhiko, Katsumi, Kazuhiko, Kazuki, Kazunori, Kazuo, Kazushi, Kei, Ken, Kensaku, Kosaku, Kotaro, Mamoru, Manabu, Masafumi, Masaharu, Masahiko, Masahiro, Masaki, Masami, Masao, Masashi, Masayoshi, Michihiro, Michio, Naoki, Noboru, Nobuhisa, Nobuo, Nobuyoshi, Noriaki, Norihide, Norihisa, Norio, Osamu, Rintaro, Ryosei, Ryutaro, Satoru, Satoshi, Shigeaki, Shigeki, Shintaro, Sumio, Tadao, Tadashi, Takaaki, Takafumi, Takahiro, Takao, Takashi, Takayuki, Takeshi, Takuya, Taro, Teruo, Tetsuhiko, Tetsunori, Tetsuo, Tetsuya, Tetsuyuki, Tomohiko, Tomoyuki, Toru, Toshiharu, Toshio, Toshiyuki, Tsutomu, Yoshifumi, Yoshimitsu, Yoshiyuki, Yukio, Yutaka

Modern Female Personal Names

Many modern female names end in -ko , which means "child".

Aiko, Akiko, Asako, Atsuko, Ayako, Chikako, Emiko, Eriko, Etsuko, Fujiko, Fumiko, Haruko, Ikuko, Junko, Katsuko, Kazuko, Keiko, Kimiko, Kumiko, Kyoko, Machiko, Maiko, Makiko, Mamiko, Mariko, Masako, Mayako, Mayuko, Mayoko, Michiko, Mihoko, Minako, Misako, Mitsuko, Miyoko, Momoko, Mutsuko, Nahoko, Namiko, Nanako, Naoko, Natsuko, Nayoko, Noriko, Reiko, Rieko, Rikako, Rinako, Risako, Ritsuko, Rumiko, Ryoko, Sachiko, Saeko, Sakiko, Sakuko, Sakurako, Sanako, Satoko, Sayoko, Shoko, Seiko, Tadako, Takako, Tamiko, Tokiko, Tomiko, Tomiko, Yoko, Yoshiko, Yukako, Yukiko, Yumako, Yumiko, Yuriko, Yutsuko

Many also end in -mi , which means "beauty". For example,

Ami, Asami, Emi, Harumi, Honami, Kazumi, Kumi, Manami, Mami, Masami, Masumi, Mayumi, Mutsumi, Nami, Nanami, Naomi, Narumi, Natsumi, Nomi, Remi, Romi, Satomi, Yumi

More Japanese female names, some with meanings:

Ai (love), Akane, Aki, Arisa, Ayame (sweet flag flower), Chiaki, Chika, Chisato, Ema, Eri, Fumi, Fumie, Fumiyo, Hatsue, Hatsuyo, Hitomi (eye), Ikue, Isako, Izumi (fountain), Jun (pure), Katsue, Kazue, Machi, Madoka, Mai (dance), Maki, Mari, Maya, Mayu, Mayo, Megumi (charity), Miho, Mina, Mio, Misa, Misato, Miya, Mizuki, Naho, Namie, Namiyo, Nana, Nao, Narumi, Natsumi, Nozomi (hope), Rie, Rina, Risa, Rui, Sachi, Sae, Saki, Sakura (cherry), Saya, Sayuri, Sayo, Shinobu (perseverance), Shiori, Tamiyo, Tokie, Tokiyo, Yayoi (March), Yu, Yui, Yuka, Yukari, Yuki, Yuma, Yuri (lily), Wazuka

Deriving the Meaning of Japanese Names

Many people want to know what a certain Japanese name means. Finding this out is fairly simple, as long as you have the right information.

Basically, it is impossible to know what a Japanese name means without knowing which kanji it is composed of. Knowing the romanization is completely inadequate, as is knowing the kana.

Complicating matters, there are often several different sets of kanji which can be used to write a single name. For instance, there are about 19 different kanji which can be used for the "Mari" in "Mariko".

You must know the exact kanji used.

Once you do know this, simply look up the kanji in a dictionary.

Suffixes in Japanese Names

People are often confused about the use of suffixes with Japanese names. In a nutshell, they serve to illustrate the relationship between people. Below are some tables containing several classes of suffixes and explanations of each.

There is one very important rule concerning suffixes:

Never use them after your own name!

You are just you. Your relationship will be defined by the suffixes you use with other people and - unless you are very important or very unimportant - it will change from person to person.

Everyday Suffixes

sama Most formal. Very respectful; shows great deference. Doesn't translate very well into English, which results in people saying things like "Most honored grandfather" in movies. Probably most commonly seen in kami-sama, the generic term for god in Japanese (if you're an anime fan you probably know it from Aa! Megamisama!). In modern life, employees of businesses like banks append sama to customer's names to show extreme politeness.
san The default suffix. Often translated as "mister", and that's about as close as you can get in English. Mountains also get san appended to their names, and Japanese think it's funny when foreigners use yama (the actual word for "mountain") instead. Mount Fuji is Fuji-san, not Fuji-yama. Also, there has been some discussion lately over whether corporations should be addressed as san. . .that's one debate I am totally unqualified to take sides on.
kun Used with co-workers, classmates and other colleagues which you have a closer-than-average relationship with. It shouldn't be used automatically just beacuse you work with someone though - doing so would definitely seem a bit odd. Has no direct, or even roundabout translation in English. Gives a feeling of being friends.
chan Often translated as "little" or "cute", chan is the diminutive suffix, analogous to nik in Russian. Everyone appends it to the names of small children, who in turn tend to refer to all older children as onii-chan (older brother) or onee-chan (older sister). It also gets used with one's grandparents. Adressing people outside your family this way would indicate an extremely close friendship, though not neccessarily a romantic one. It can also be used in a derogatory manner (e.g. calling a woman ojo-chan is pretty much the same as calling her "little lady" in English).

School-related Suffixes

sensei Everyone knows this one: teacher. It actually has a wider range of application than just within the educational context, however. It translates literally as "before life", meaning "one who has come before you", and can be applied to teachers, professors, people with PhDs, martial artists running dojos and master craftsmen. And just as your professors will always be called "professor" even long after you are out of college, your sensei will always be your sensei.
sempai Roughly translates to upperclassman. Used when addressing people who are ahead of you in school and certain other similar situations. Like sensei, sempai is for life. Once someone is your sempai, they always will be. This isn't as derogatory as it may sound because sempai are expected to help their kouhai out in a show-them-the-ropes kind of way should they ever meet again (both working in the same company, for instance).
kouhai Lowerclassman; counterpart to sempai.

Archaic Suffixes

dono Equivalent to adressing someone as "My Lord" or "My Lady". Sounds very courtly. I've never heard it used in any modern context.
ue Ue is actually the preposition meaning "above". It is used as a term of extreme respect. I've only ever heard it used in reference to other people's parents (haha-ue, chichi-ue).

NOTE: This FAQ was originally found in the soc.culture.japan.moderated newsgroup with no attribution to the original author. I have adopted and extended it over the years.

ContextCat: CultureSub: Mod: 2002-08-04 02:42

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