Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Japanese name

A modern 'Japanese name' (日本人名) consists of a family name, or surname, followed by a given name. In almost all cases both are written using Kanji. Some names are pronounced according to the usual readings of the characters (with kunyomi generally being used for the surname and either onyomi or kunyomi for the given name). Others use readings which are never found except in names, and still others use kanji which are never found except in names. Additionally, a name written in kanji may have more than one common pronunciation, only one of which is correct for a given individual. This makes the collation and romanization of Japanese names a very difficult problem.

Quite a few Japanese names, particularly family names, include a dated or unusual Chinese character. These are often outside of the Unicode character set, widely used in the western computer community, which causes severe difficulties in representing them on the computer. [example?] Those who have such a name usually compromise by substituting other characters. An example of such a name is Saito. Most Japanese have adopted a custom of maintaining names with Furigana or ruby characters on the address book, for example. Japanese nationals are required to give a romanized name for their passport. This complication is also found in Japanese place names. Expressing them in Hiragana instead of Kanji is acceptable among lower grade students but usually seen as a disgrace otherwise. Whether to accept students using Hiragana for names in formal situations such as exams is sometimes controversial. This can be seen as similar to the problem of misspelling in languages with alphabets.

When written in Japanese characters, the family name always precedes the given name. As this differs from the ordering used in many other parts of the world, some, particularly academics, adopt the convention of writing the family name in upper case when the name is romanized: for example, Takuya MURATA or MURATA Takuya. Artists whos works are distributed in English outside of Japan often opt for a western ordering on the English editions of their works (e.g., Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shunji Iwai, Haruki Murakami).

Within families, younger family members generally refer to older family members by title rather than name, e.g. kaasan "mother" or niichan "big brother". Older family members refer to younger family members by given name. Outside of the family people are generally referred to by family name (Murata-san), by position (e.g. sensei, "teacher"), or by a combination of the two (Murata-sensei). Given names are used when referring to adult friends or to children. Names are almost never spoken or written without some sort of honorific, either a title like sensei or a general honorific like san, kun, or chan. Honorifics are omitted only in intimate relationships.

During the period when typical parents had several children, it was a common practice to name sons by numbers suffixed with ro (郎, "son"). The first son would be known as "Ichi (one) ro", the second as "Ji (two) ro" and so on. Girls were often named with ko (子, "child") at the end of the given name (this should not be confused with the male suffix hiko 彦). Both practices are now outdated.

Some Japanese, particularly celebrities, have a kind of nickname combining their real names. For example, Kimura Takuya, a famous Japanese actor and singer, becomes Kimutaku and Ito Jyunichi, a prominent Japanese hacker, can be Itojyun. Many Japanese celebrities have a name combining Kanji and Katakana. One such is Beat Takeshi.

Many ethnic minorities living in Japan adopt Japanese names to ease communication and, more importantly, to avoid discrimination. But a few of them still keep their native name. Among them are Chang Woo Han, a founder and chairman of Maruhan Corp., a large chain of pachinko parlors in Japan. The Japanese government requires immigrants to Japan to adopt a Japanese name without exception.

Common surnames in Japan include Sato (佐藤), Kato (加藤), Suzuki (鈴木) and Takahashi (高橋). Surnames often vary from place to place. Common surnames in Okinawa include Tamagusuku (玉城).

Many Japanese family names derive from features of the rural landscape; for example, Ishikawa (石川) means "stony brook", Yamamoto (山本) means "the base of the mountain", and Inoue (井上) means "above the well".

The Japanese Emperor has no surname for historical reasons, only a given name such as Hirohito (裕仁). In ancient times, people in Japan were considered the property of the Emperor and their surname reflected the role in the government they served. Many surnames originated from Chinese and Korean names. Examples are Kaneshiro (金城) (Chinese) and Chang (Korean).

Further reading and External Links

P.G. O'Neill. Japanese Names 1972 ISBN:0834802252 Weatherhill Inc.

See also: Name, Chinese name, Korean name, Historical Japanese name