Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Name Conventions - Japan

Konnichiwa, readers!

I'm currently on an extended trip through East and Southeast Asia, working and traveling for a year with my boyfriend. One of my favorite parts of this experience is the chance to talk to so many different people about their names - how they got them, what their cultures dictate, and what they think about them. In addition to collecting name stories, I'm going to take this opportunity to study first name conventions for each country I visit!

I'm currently in China, but my first stop was two months in Japan, so I'll start there. If you're Japanese and/or you have a Japanese name, please tell me your story in the comments!

The Basics:

Japanese names usually include just a family name and a given name (middle names aren't common). Unlike most Western styles, Japanese names are said as "family name - first name," such as Kurosawa Akira. Unlike current trends in the English-speaking world, very few surnames can become given names, so they're usually easy to differentiate.

As seems to be the global trend, first names in Japan are increasingly unique. Since names are written primarily with kanji - complex characters of Chinese - the same kanji can have different readings depending on the context. This means that the same name can be written a multitude of ways, or that the same character can be read as different names.

Example: The unisex name Ryō (written phonetically in hiragana asりょう) can be written with the following kanji, each with a different meaning.

了: "completion"
涼: "cold"
燎, "to burn", "to illuminate"
椋: Aphananthe aspera (a species of tree)
良: "goodness"
亮: "light"
綾: "silk"
諒: "forgiveness"
龍: "dragon"
遼: "distant, far"

Because so many names can be read in so many different ways, many Japanese individuals also write their name in the katakana phonetic alphabet - Ryō isリョウ - or romanize it (Ryō).

Boys vs. Girls:

As in Western culture, first names are usually male, female, or unisex. Japanese laws currently do not dictate that names match the assigned gender at birth, but they do have a list of approved "name kanji" and "commonly used characters."

Historically, many Japanese boys had names ending with -ro ("son" or "bright") and many Japanese girls had names ending with -ko ("child"), though this is no longer a rule. Within the name, certain elements have historically denoted gender, such as -ichi- and -kazu- for boys, both referring to "first [son]." Boys were often named via a numbering system, with characters meaning "one," "two," and so on included in the written name. Other traditional endings include -ta ("great"), -hiko ("boy" or "prince"), and -suke ("assistant") for boys, and -mi ("beauty"), -ka ("flower"), and -na ("greens") for girls.

A recent trend is for parents to choose names for their daughters written in hiragana (one of the phonetic alphabets) for various reasons, one being that the script has historically been seen as "feminine" and was the only form of writing taught to women for centuries. Even today, few boys' names are written in hiragana.


In the past few decades, traditional forms of naming have been on the decline; for example, the -ko suffix is rarely used for girls today. At the same time, Western names written in kana have been trending: Emirii (for Emily), Merisa (for Melissa), and Kurisu (for Chris).

Another trend is using a traditionally written name with an alternative pronunciation. The boys' name 大翔 was historically pronounced "Hiroto," but pronunciations "Taiga" and "Masato" (among others) have recently appeared. This also allows parents to get around the approved lists by choosing traditional kanji, but pronouncing them in a variety of ways.

A current extreme example of this trend is the "kira-kira" phenomenon. "Kira-kira" is an onomatopoetic word meaning "shiny," and it's a style of naming in which parents choose both an unusual sounding-name and a written kanji form that can't be pronounced without context. One example I've heard multiple times is as follows: "Cheri, pronounced not sherry but cherry and written with two characters, one of which is 'sakura,' or cherry blossom" (Japan Today). This style of naming is debated passionately - many people dislike the difficulties in reading/speaking, but many parents like the idea of unique and inspiring choices.

Another fun name-choosing route is through seimei handan, a "fortune-telling" practice that correlates luck with the number of written strokes in name kanji. While it's no longer a common practice, it is a cool aspect of a written name to consider.

Current Top Five (2016):

My source for this list is Sora News 24, through data collected by Japanese company Tamahiyo. If you know where to find a more accurate (preferably government-issued) data set, please let me know!


  1. Ren (蓮), meaning "lotus"
  2. Hiroto (大翔), meaning "big flight"
  3. Haruto (陽翔), meaning "good flight"
  4. Minato (湊), meaning "harbor"
  5. Yuma (悠真), meaning "calm truth"
  1. Himari (陽葵), meaning "good hollyhock"
  2. Hina (陽菜), meaning "good greens"
  3. Yua (結愛), meaning "connected love"
  4. Sakura (咲良), meaning "blossoming well"
  5. Sakura (さくら), meaning "cherry blossom"
None of these names have ranked in the US top 1000, though feminine Wren has. My personal opinion is that Ren and Yuma could get fans in the States - Ren for its simple sound and unisex appeal, and Yuma for its place-name connection and its similarities to Noah and Ezra

*I read quite a few articles online for this post, and I've listed them below. Please let me know if you see anything amiss! I recognize that the Internet is sadly not completely reliable.*

Behind the Name - Kanji Readings
How do Japanese names work?
Japanese Miscellany
Japanese Naming Conventions 1
'Kirakira' names still excite strong passions
Let's write your name in Chinese characters - TarchBlog
Quora - Japanese Names of Western Origin
Seimei Handan - Nancy's Baby Names
Top Japanese Baby Names for 2016...
Wikipedia - Japanese name
Wikipedia - Ryō (given name)

1 comment:

  1. There is this website that I use fairly often to find out how popular or rare a particular name - link is While it's not government-based, only goes from 1989-2009 and not really a full set of data (the total number in the data changes by year but mainly decreases), it's the most extensive bit of name statistics that I can find from Japan.