Understanding Japanese Names

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Japanese names have a rich and beautiful history, from their meanings to the characters used to write them. Understanding Japanese names will help you connect with your Japanese family as you discover your family history.

The History behind Japanese Names

Writer Mami Suzuki explains that as early as 300 BC, Japanese families were organized into clans. Clan names were used as family names, referred to as uji (氏). These names were often based on geographical features or occupations of clan members.

Over time, powerful clans emerged, with the Yamato being one of the strongest. Eventually the other clans united under the Yamato. In addition to their clan name, clans were given a kabane (姓), a type of aristocratic title. As a result, the combination of the uji and the kabane became a way to designate different clan groups within the Yamato kingdom. Japanese family names grew out of the uji-kabane system.

a historic japanese family

Conventions for Japanese Names

Japanese name order follows the East Asian style, putting the family name first and the given name second. For example, in the name Suzuki Hiroshi, “Suzuki” is the family name and “Hiroshi” is the given name.

By contrast, many Western nations—particularly those using the Latin alphabet—use given names followed by family names. Individuals from Japan who live in Western nations may follow the Western tradition of putting the family name second, especially when their names are written in Latin characters. For a time, even those living in Japan sometimes put their family names second when their names appeared in Latin characters.

a japanese family

Not everyone agreed with this adaptation, however, and on 1 January 2020, the government decreed that official documents should use the traditional order for names, even when those names are written in the Latin alphabet.

Traditionally, Japanese names do not include middle names. But Japanese couples who live in Western cultures or are of mixed ethnicity may adopt this practice for their children.

Japanese Honorifics

In Japanese culture, the correct use of honorifics, or titles, is very important. In fact, failing to use an appropriate title is considered a breach of etiquette.

Formal titles are added to a person’s family name and include the following:

  • San is an all-purpose polite title; it is appended to a family name and can be used for men or women, for example, Suzuki-san. It is very similar to the meaning of Mr., Mrs., or Miss.
  • Sama is a more formal version of san. It is used to address someone of a higher rank; it is also used to refer to customers, for example, Okada-sama.
  • Sensei is a title used for doctors, teachers, and others with similar professions, for example, Takahashi-sensei.  
japanese children showing deference to their parents.

Less formal titles are used for family members and friends or by those of a higher rank toward those of a lower rank or status. These titles are typically used with a person’s given name rather than a family name. Here are the most common informal titles:

  • Kun is typically used when addressing a young man or boy by his given name, for example, Hiroshi-kun. It is similar to giving someone named “John” the nickname “Johnny”.
  • Chan is most often used for young girls, although it can also be used as a term of endearment for another adult, for example, Haru-chan. It is similar to giving someone named “Susan” the nickname “Suzie”.

Kun and chan can also be added to a shortened version of a person’s given name, such as Ma-kun for Masato or Yā-chan for Yasuyo. Adding kun or chan to a shortened version of a name is considered more familiar than adding it to a full name.

Characters Used in Japanese Names

Japanese names may be written in three ways. The most common way is to use kanji, which are Chinese-based logographic characters given a Japanese pronunciation.

Names written in kanji usually consist of two characters. These names are governed by the Japanese Ministry of Justice’s rules on kanji use in names.

japanese kanji.

Since the kanji used in names can have multiple meanings and pronunciations, furigana may be helpful. Furigana are small kana characters written next to or above kanji that serve as a pronunciation guide. Furigana are most often used in children’s books, but they may also be used in adult books when a person’s name might be hard to read or ambiguous. Applications or other forms may have spaces for both kanji and furigana.

Names may also be written in hiragana, which is a Japanese syllabary—a writing system in which each symbol stands for a syllable rather than a sound or a whole word. Another Japanese syllabary, katakana, may be used for foreign names.

Japanese Family Names and Their Meanings

The Enamdict dictionary of Japanese Proper Names lists over 138,000 Japanese family names. Here are some examples of Japanese family names, with their kanji representation and meaning:

a young family

As in most countries, some family names are found in greater concentrations in certain regions of the country. For example, the names Chinen (知念) and Shimabukuro (島袋) are frequently found in Okinawa but not as often in other parts of Japan.

Japanese First Names and Their Meanings

While family names follow consistent rules, given names tend to vary more in both pronunciation and in the characters used. Unusual pronunciations have become more common since the 1990s.

As in other cultures, some names are more frequently used for boys and others for girls.

Japanese Names for Boys

Here are some examples of Japanese male given names with their meanings:

a young japanese boy with a japanese name

Boy names may include a number indicating the child’s birth order. For example, the name of novelist Oe Kenzaburō (大江健三郎) indicates that he is the third son.

Japanese Names for Girls

Below are examples of first names for girls and their meanings.

a japanese mother and daughter

These brief samples listed here give a window into the beauty and diversity of Japanese names. What Japanese family names do you have in your tree? Try searching some unfamiliar names, and then learn their significance to deepen your connection with your Japanese heritage.

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About the Author
Kathryn is a writer, teacher, and family history enthusiast. Her specialty is mentoring new family historians and helping them find success—and maybe even avoid some of the mistakes she's made. She believes that with the right guidance, everyone can learn to love and do family history.