Common Japanese names, their meaning and history

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What’s in a name anyway? Well, if you grew up in Japan, a lot.

A rich history lives behind every Japanese family name. Each one tells a story linked to a historic clan of ancient days (though how reliable that story is another matter). Or your surname might give some clues about your ancestors’ place of origin. A name can even reveal the geography of the region it came from.

Japanese first names are equally complex. Popular Japanese names take sounds, meaning, and even a name’s “luck” into account before being given to a newborn. Add some complications with kanji into the mix and you’ve got yourself one fascinating rabbit hole to stumble down.

But don’t worry! By the end of this article, we’ll clear up everything you’ll ever need to know about Japanese names.

Most common Japanese names and their meanings 

Family names

There are about 100,000 unique Japanese surnames (family names). But, 10 of these are extremely common. Traditionally, these names reflected the geography of the family’s homeland. For example, Yamamoto (山本) means “base of a mountain.” And Ishikawa (石川) means “river of stones.” So, you’ll see clear trends in Japanese surnames by region

Let’s take a look at the top 10 most popular surnames to start.

  • Sato 佐渡. This name descends from an influential clan that gives it an aristocratic air. The first character, sa(佐), means to assist. While the second, (藤), represents wisteria. So perhaps the first family given this name were helpful and generous and lived near wisteria plants.
  • Suzuki 鈴木. The second most common surname, Suzuki(鈴木), has an unclear history. But the kanji may represent bell trees, bell wood, or bud trees.
  • Takahashi 高橋. A literal translation of this name means tall/high (taka – 高) bridge (hashi – 橋). The true origin remains unknown. But you might imagine families situated in a highland or deep valley near a famous bridge.
  • Tanaka 田中. This surname has a generic feeling and is sometimes used in the way John Smith or Jane Doe might be. Its humble origin represents a rice patty: ta (rice field – 田) and naka (within – 中).
  • Watanabe 渡辺. This name descends from a noble samurai clan created by the Minamoto family around the mid 10th century. It means to cross an area or border: wata (cross over – 渡) and nabe (area/border – 辺).
  • Ito 伊藤. This surname may be linked to an ancient class of imperial regents called the Fujiwara Clan. Their long and prosperous history stretches all the way to 1868. The name’s meaning is a bit ambiguous: i (this/that – ) and to (wisteria – ). Another interpretation is Iso no Fujiwara (the Fujiwara of Ise). 
  • Yamamoto 山本. This name has a simple kanji with a simple origin. It most likely represents the geography of the family’s area as described above. Yama (山)for “mountain” and moto(本) for “base.” 
  • Nakamura 中村. This 8th most common Japanese name is one more case of a simple representation. The kanji most likely refers to any person from a small village: naka (middle/within – 中) mura (village – 村).
  • Kobayashi 小林. This woodland name refers to a small forest: ko (small – 小) and bayashi (forest – 林) Besides being the surname for many notable artists, actors, writers, and poets over time, its origin is unclear. 
  1. Saito 斎藤. Sai (斉) refers to a meal taken by monks. It gives the name a divine, holy flavour. This final name also has links to the Fujiwara clan with its second kanji to (藤), the same character that represents wisteria. 

Japanese name plaque on a house saying "Fukaya"

First names

Like the western world, the sound of a name matters. Japanese first names that sound pleasant and harmonious are common. Unlike the western world, each Japanese name carries a significant meaning. The words chosen (usually 2 kanji) represent the hopes and values parents want to instill in their children.

For example, Yamato (大和) means great harmony – a fitting name for a peaceful person. And Atsuko (温子) means warm sincerity – a name given with the hope to raise a kind, honest child. 

The ending of a name gives some clue if it’s meant for a male or female. -Ro, -shi, -ya, and -o endings are usually reserved for boys. And -ko, -mi, -e, -yo endings are usually for girls.

Here are some common first names for boys and girls and their meanings (in no particular order):

  1. Masako (雅子) – elegant child, graceful, refined
  2. Shota (翔太) – healthy, stable, prosperous
  3. Takeshi (健) – healthy
  4. Yuko (優子) – gentle child
  5. Keiko (恵子) – lucky child
  6. Kazuo (一雄) – first born
  7. Akemi (暁美) – natural beauty
  8. Yuna (結愛) – connected in love
  9. Midori (緑) – green
  10. Miki (美紀) – beauty

How Japanese names are chosen 

Traditional naming

Japanese parents draw inspiration from a few places to choose a name. Birth order is the simplest. This tradition was common for boys’ names, for example:

  • Yoichi (陽一) – first son
  • Shinji (真二) – second son
  • Saburo (三郎) – third son

You’ll find plenty of nature-related kanji in popular Japanese names too (another huge inspiration in naming).

Nature Examples

  • Ayaka (彩華) – colourful flower
  • Haru (陽, 春) – sunlight, springtime
  • Sakura (桜) – cherry blossom 

Physical and personality traits are another big source of inspiration. These are the positive attributes Japanese parents wish upon their children.

Personality Examples

  • Daisuke (大輔) – big help, very helpful
  • Kei (慧) – wise, intelligent
  • Yuki (幸) – fortune, happiness

Luck is the final consideration when naming a child the traditional way. Certain kanji are “luckier” than others. Etymology, the number of strokes (called seimeihandan – 姓名判断), and other factors beyond the scope of this article can affect a name’s luck.

Japan bans some kanji because of their extreme bad luck and negative connotations. Words like aku (evil -悪), shi (death – 死), and yamai (illness – 病) have no place in Japanese names.

Modern naming

It’s still uncommon. But more Japanese parents use hiragana and katakana in names in modern times. However, they are never mixed. These types of names feel inauthentic, especially as a surname. 

Using hiragana gives a name a soft, pure, and feminine quality. And katakana gives names a futuristic, sophisticated feel. Foreigners living in Japan also use katakana in non-Japanese names.

In eras past, the current emperor affected the popularity of names. For decades now, the names of popular characters in manga or anime, actors and artists have been more trendy.

Writing Japanese names

Kanji packs Japanese names with meaning – and makes them look beautiful too! But, there’s one problem. It’s hard to know how to pronounce someone’s name without furigana, which is the small hiragana above the characters. 

There are some kanji with identical pronunciations in different characters. Some have the same meaning in different characters. And some have identical meanings and sounds, but different characters.

On official documents you’ll always see a small space above someone’s name to write in the furigana. This is one reason exchanging name cards is still so common in business. On the phone, Japanese people have to “spell” their names as a westerner might to clarify which kanji to use. 

For example, if your name were Haruki (春) you would say “haru as in harumaki (春巻き) and ki as in kido (輝度).”

Person standing at window looking down on Shibuya crossing

Calling others by name

It’s extremely rare to call someone by their first name alone in Japan. Unless they’re a very close friend, lover, or a child. The culture is slowly changing, but Japan is still very much a “last name” culture. You should avoid using anyone’s first name on its own, especially in a professional setting. 

Instead, you’ll add an honorific title to the end of a name. This makes it sound smoother and shows respect. Let’s check out some common titles below.

Common Titles

  • -san(さん): The all-purpose honorific meaning Mr. or Ms. When in doubt, use -san.
  • -chan(ちゃん): A cute honorific. Used for close female friends, children.
  • -kun(くん): Showing your junior respect. Also has a cute sound when used for younger boys or friends.
  • -sama(様): This is a very polite honorific showing great respect. In a business setting, customers or clients get this honorific.

Read more about Japanese honorifics in our article here.

When can I use someone’s first name?

This is a tricky dance and a source of frustration for a lot of westerners. The rule of thumb here is to observe and follow. If someone is called a nickname or goes by a first name by everyone, you might ask what they prefer you call them.

Otherwise, go with their last name plus -san unless you’re told something else.

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