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How Japanese Names Work | 7 Things To Know

How do names work in Japan

Curious how Japanese names work? Well, read further to know more about how names and surnames are decided for a person in Japan. 

If you’ve any Japanese friends or acquaintances, I’m sure you must have wondered about their name. It sounds mysterious and follows a pattern, right?

How Japanese names work?

Japanese names typically come after the surname, unlike the western countries. Example: If the name is Suniyo and the surname is Yamamoto, it’d be written as Yamamoto Suniyo. The people are mostly referred to with their surnames or their titles. The Japanese name for males consists of Kanji characters whereas female names are popularly written in Hiragana or Katakana. The surname consists of one or two Kanji letters.

That’s right. Japanese names consist of two parts, surname and the actual name. Unlike in the west, surnames in Japanese come before the actual name. 

Keeping a middle name in Japan is not much of a trend. Japanese names are written in three different characters, Kanji (originated in China), Hiragana and Katakana (both originated in Japan).

I have many Japanese friends and I was initially confused about the origins of their names until a friend of mine explained it to me in detail. I later went back and read several books on Japanese names to quench my curiosity. 

Anyway, without further ado, let’s move on to explain to you how Japanese names work in detail.

How Japanese Names Work

Name 

Let’s begin with how Japanese names work and then move forward to surnames and titles. 

Like I said earlier, names in Japanese come after their surname. People are usually referred with their surname except for children, that’s how Japanese names work. 

For example: If the name is Shinnosuke and the surname is Nohara, it’d be written as Nohara Shinnosuke in Japanese. Surnames are usually taken from father but it changes to their husbands once they’re married off to a different family. 

This tradition is prevalent in many Asian countries like Korea, China etc. The names are written in Kanji but sometimes women may have a few name parts in Hiragana or Katakana.

Japanese names are difficult to read and pronounce which is why while filling forms have a phonetic guide the person has to mention called furigana. Japanese politicians often have their names in Hiragana or Katakana because they are easier to read than Kanji. 

How Japanese Names Work
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The names are also regulated in Japan. One person was questioned when they kept their son’s name as Akuma which means demon in Kanji.

First name of a person often contains two kanji. Both of the characters’ meanings have positive connotations like beauty, love, light, names of flowers, natural phenomena etc. 

Many of the first names are written similarly in kanji but might not have the same pronunciation, yeah! That’s how Japanese names work. It’s complicated but not so much. The genders of the person can often be guessed by the endings of their names. 

Example:  -ro, -shi, -ya, or -o are usually the endings in male names whereas -ko, -mi, -e and -yo are usually endings for females.

Some of the common names in Japanese are Kenji, Sachiko, Hiroshi etc.

Surname

According to the Enamdict electronic dictionary of Japanese names, there are 138,500 Japanese surnames. 

The Japanese surnames are commonly used to address each other. These typically have two kanji characters like Yamamoto but sometimes, people also have only one kanji character like Hara. 

Most of the Japanese surnames are easy to read but there are also difficult exceptions, that’s how Japanese names work. 

Sometimes the kanji you read might not be the kanji you pronounce, for example: 八月一日 is read as ‘hachigatsu tsuitachi’ but pronounced as Hozumi. 

Some of the most common surnames are Takahashi, Watanabe, Yamamoto, Ito etc. 

Surnames are usually derived from geographical features or locations, for example: yama (mountain), ki (tree), shima (island), mura (village) etc. 

Some Kanji used in common Japanese surnames are:

Kanji UsedMeaning Example
YamaMountainYamamoto 
Shima IslandMatsushima
KiTreeHaruki
MotoNearMorimoto
OkaHillOkada
Ta/daRice FieldHonda

Titles

Japanese are usually referred to with their titles. This is somewhat similar to addressing people with Miss/Mr./Mrs. in the west. It is quite essential to use proper titles when addressing people in Japan. That’s how Japanese names work, a little less valued than titles!

Some of the most common titles are: 

  • San- This is the most common and famous one. It is mostly neutral and can be used in most situations. Example: Yoko-san.
  • Chan- This title is used for children, close family members and friends. It’s quite informal. Example: Shin-chan.
  • Sensei- This is used for teachers, doctors and other learned men in society. Example: Sato-sensei
  • Kun- This is for boys who are younger than you. It is an informal title. Example: Yosuke-kun.
  • Sama- This is a polite form of san commonly used for customers formally. Example: Yoko-sama.

Boy Names

Names like Junpei, Korosuke, Saruta-hiko are all japanese. So how Japanese names work for boys? Japanese names for boys often end with -hiko, -hei, -suke. They also end with -o sometimes, example: Akio, Suniyo, Teruo etc. 

Other endings could be from -shi, for example, Watashi, Takashi, Atsushi etc. Boys’ names often have kanji characters that mean brave, correct, luck etc. This is how Japanese names work for males.

japanese names boy
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During early times, Japanese baby boys were named with a numbering system. This was because they had several children. So if the child was a first born, he’d be named Ichiro. 

Ro means son in Japanese which was suffixed with the number in which the child was taking birth. The second son would be Jiro and so on.

Some popular Japanese number names for males are:

Kanji Numbers Meaning Examples
一 (ichi)1Ichiro
次 , 二 (ji)2 or nextJiro, Koji
三 (zabu, zo)3Zenzo, Kenjo
四 (shi)4Shiro 
五 (go)5Goro

Some common Japanese names for boys are Akikazu, Tomokazu, Koichi, Shigekazu, Hidekazu, Kyoichi, Eichi, Shuichi, Masakazu from -ichi and -kazu.

Sometimes, if a Japanese father passes away their son’s names are kept with the same kanji numbers, this is how Japanese names work!

Some common Japanese male names are Mamuro, Fumio, Akira, Akhiro, Taro, Takuya, Yukio, Yukata, Norihide, Norio, Michihiro, Kazuo etc.

Girls Name

After learning how Japanese names work for boys, let’s move forward to how Japanese names work for females. Japanese names for girls e, yo, mi and ko, written as 美 and 子 respectively. 

Some names are Doraemi, Tomoe, Miyoko etc. for the above letters. Other most common letters for how Japanese names work for females are -ka and -na, for example: Haruka and Madoka respectively.

Many female children’s names have -ko at the end of their names which means child. This ending is usually preferred by the modern females rather than the typical old ones. 

common japanese names
Source: Shutterstock

Some common Japanese names with -ko are Yuko, Atsuko, Keiko, Yoshiko, Tamiko, Seiko, Reiko, Fujiko, Nayoko etc. 

So, how Japanese names work with regards to letters? Commonly, female names are written in Hiragana or Katana as opposed to male names.

Other beautiful female names in Japanese are Shizuka, Miho, Aki, Kumi, Kiwa, Jun, Saya, Sayuri, Isako. 

Seimei Handan

Seimei Handan is one of the ways of fortune telling related to names. It was proposed after the Meiji era and came from China. The fortune telling is based on the number of kanji strokes the name has to predict fortune or personality. 

Japanese names
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So, how Japanese names work in Seimei Handan? It’s believed that the number of Kanji strokes indicate good luck and the total stores should be a lucky number. 

Here’s a list of things you can find out how Japanese names work for seimei handan number:

  • What disease you can get in your life
  • Kind of occupation that will suit your life
  • Luck in marriage and family
  • Romantic relationship and the type of your partner
  • Future life

Many people consult seimei handan to keep their professional names or their children’s names. There are various methods of how Japanese names work with seimei handan and the results are different in each method. 

Non- Japanese Names

Lastly, let’s check out how Japanese names work for foreigners? The names that belong to the west are usually written in Katakana and depend on how they sound and not their spellings. 

There are various rules to writing English names in Katakana for example, the plurals become singular, the vowels used are taken from British pronunciation rather than the American etc. 

However, only Japanese pronunciations are used for people with Chinese and Korean names in kanji.

Do you address Japanese by first or last name?

Japanese usually address each other by their last names and with suffixes like -san, -sama, etc. depending on the type of meeting. It’s quite unlikely to address people with their first name especially in business settings. 

Why do Japanese add SAN?

The Japanese use san to show respect to the other person. It can be used for both males and females and can be attached to names, surnames or occupations. San is a formal way of addressing someone.

Naming the Japanese Way

If you’re looking for name suggestions for your baby, you can pick one of the names I’ve mentioned or go for Seimei Handan before deciding the name. 

How Japanese names work might seem like a complicated process but trust me, once you start with it, you will know why it is the way it is. 

Hope this article- How Japanese Names Work helped you clear your doubts on how names are decided in Japanese culture!

Also Read: 

  1. Ways to say woman in Japanese
  2. Basic Japanese greetings to use
  3. Why Japanese don’t speak English
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