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)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Names from My Travels

Hello, readers!

I’ve been posting quite a bit less because my once-sedentary lifestyle has been upended - I’m currently on an extended trip through East and Southeast Asia with my boyfriend! So far, I’ve spent two months in Japan (Tokyo, Nagano, Osaka, Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Kyoto), one week in Hong Kong, and one month in mainland China (Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Guilin, Yangshuo) working in hostels, exploring amazing cities, and meeting all kinds of new people - with excellent name stories. We’re exploring more of mainland China, then heading to Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam over the next 3-4 months - check out our travel blog at!

Ethan and me in Tokyo

Now, onto names: while traveling, I’ve been explaining my interest and study of names to all kinds of people, leading to some cool conversations about naming conventions in other countries. I’d like to explore name traditions for each country further, but with my current spotty access to wifi, I’ll just start with a list of cool names and stories I’ve come across so far.

Last names (and anything particularly identifying) have been removed!

Christopher called Kit
A good friend of mine told me how he got his nickname, one that’s unusual for our age group. He enrolled late in preschool when he was about three, and the teacher told him and his parents, “We already have two Christopher’s and two Chris’, you’ll need to pick a new nickname.” So they researched alternative options and found Kit! He likes his name, and it suits him well.

Sibset: Yua and Kanoa
These two sweet girls have equally sweet Japanese parents, who were very gracious about answering my questions about the kids’ names. They likes these names particularly because of their meanings, which I remember as “good help” and “kind help” (but Google is being unhelpful on confirming this!)

Frank’s family
An American friend living in Japan (who I miss dearly) comes from a big family - and he sent me a detailed explanation of all of their names! (One of the many reasons Frank is the best). Pretty much every child has been given names to honor a close friend or relative:
Frank Rowley, I'm named after a minister who lived… in Colorado and was as a grandfather to my mother. My father as a gift gave her the choice of my name and that was her choice.
Joseph Charles is next. Joseph is my mother's father's name and Charles is my father's father's name.
Mary Ellen Rose is the third child. (First name Mary Ellen) Her name is my father's mother's name and his grandmother's name.
Fourth is Billie Ann Margret. (Billie Ann is first name, double names for every girl actually) Billie Ann is my mother's mother's name, Margret is my mother's grandmother's name.
Fifth is George William, George is my father's name and William is my father's grandfather's name as far as I know.
Sixth is Helen Elizabeth Mae. Helen is my father's stepmother's name, Elizabeth and Mae I'm not sure about.
Seventh is Maureen Kimberly Alice. Maureen and Alice are my father's closest sisters name, and Kimberly is my mother's youngest sisters name.”

A fabulous Australian woman told me that she was supposed to be named Marissa, but her mother was helped by a kindly Kate whose birthday was near her baby’s due date. She said “If the baby is born on your birthday, I’ll name her after you,” not thinking that it could actually happen. Lo and behold, baby Kate was born on that exact day.

One of my favorite names! I met an Aya at a concert for the band YAY - she pointed out to me and the band members that it was her name flipped. Perhaps that’s why she attended?

Apolline (called “Apo” or “Apple”)
I was introduced to la belle Apolline while working with her a hostel in Ehime prefecture. Another worker told me her nickname was “Apo,” which I misheard as “Apple”. I definitely think that name-nickname set could work in the US! Note: the Japanese word for apple is ringo, and my boyfriend began referring to Apolline as “Ringo-chan,” much to the delight of our Japanese hosts.

A new Turkish friend told me her name meaning via email before I even asked - of COURSE we became friends. It means “origin,” and is used for girls in Turkey. She apparently gets called Ashley a lot, though.

Youhei, Kouhei, and Kyouhei
Three of our hosts in Ehime had VERY similar names, listed above - one of them joked we could call them all “The Hei’s.”

Twins: Sydney (f) and Tucker (m)
Their mom was ahead of the curve - these two are 25 years old, but their names sound incredibly modern. I like that the names fit well together but don’t feel matchy-matchy. Sydney recently had a baby girl named Maeve - a very stylish choice.

Yvanne (Yiwan)
While her official name is Yiwan, meaning “beautiful cloud” in Chinese, Yiwan told me that she goes by Yvanne when working with English speakers since it’s easier for them. But once I heard her name’s meaning, I had to call her Yiwan!

While in Osaka, I met a friendly Frenchwoman named Nadia - which intrigued me, since I thought that the name wasn’t popular in France (checking the data, that’s an incorrect assumption!) She told me that she was named after Nadia Comăneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics. So cool!

Momen Morgan
Disclaimer: we were speaking at a loud open mic night, so there’s a chance I misheard his Chinese name! While talking with a family in Hong Kong, I met a man with two interesting name stories. His Chinese name, which I heard as Momen, means “no news” (can’t confirm online, but he probably knows better than Google). For years he didn’t know why his parents named him this, but as an adult his father told him the name comes from the saying “no news is good news,” echoing the virtues of peace and contentment with the present in Buddhism. His English name Morgan comes from a movie that his parents watched and loved, called “Morgan!” (1966) - but the main character spends the movie descending into madness. Sounds like this man’s parents were a kick!

Chun Nam 
I met Chun Nam (English name Stephen) in Hong Kong, and he gave us an amazing tour of the Kowloon Walled City - AND answered a bunch of my name questions! When he was born, his name was Tsin (展) Lung (龍), with the meaning of "an unfolding dragon, symbolising something good, like [positive] development in [his] life." However, another word (剪) also sounds like Tsin in Cantonese, meaning "scissors" or "cutting," making his name sound like "cutting a dragon in half." His parents, fearful of the implications of this inauspicious name, took him to a feng shui master to make a new name: Chun (震) Nam (楠). "Chun means shaking, like in an earthquake, and Nam is a very valuable type of good wood... The names means if you place the piece of wood in the river, it would resist the wave and stand still (won't shake)." I love this name history for all of the universal elements of naming it brings in - parental preferences, etymologies/meanings, aural confusion, and looking to outside professionals for help.

Sofi and Rumi
Alright, so these are border collies, but I found it delightful that in the middle of Guangdong’s (China) countryside, there were two dogs with such star names - with Sofia and Sophia being the world’s current favorite for girls, and Beyoncé making waves with a daughter named Rumi.

I met the incomparable Nicolai while in the Chinese countryside, and this Danish man surprised me with (what sounds to me like) a Russian name. He’s one of five children, and their sibset is fantastic - Rasmus, Nicolai, Frederik, Christina, and Josefine.

Fabian (f)
I met wonderful and Welsh Fabian while at a hostel in Guilin - her name is actually spelled creatively, but because it’s so unusual, I’ll simplify it for privacy’s sake. She’s the only female Fabian she’s ever met! She also comes from a great sibset: Seren (m), Phoenix (f), and Siaman (m) are her brothers and sister.

I met English Katy at the same hostel in Guilin, whose name sounds fairly popular - until she pointed out to me that no one in the UK spells her name correctly (Katie is preferred). The midwife wrote the incorrect spelling on her birth records, and it stuck!

We met while working at an English school in Yangshuo, China. He’s from Egypt, and when I asked him how many Mohamed’s he knows, he said “More than you can ever imagine.” (HA!) He was born on the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday (peace upon him), hence his first name (his middle name is after his father, Ayman). He told me some great stories about his siblings’ names too: it’s customary for the grandmother to name the first child, but since Mohamed (firstborn) was named by his father, his grandmother insisted on naming his next oldest sister - Sarah. His brother Yousef was given one of the more popular names of his birth year, and in Egypt the name Yousef implies strength, handsomeness, and kindness. His youngest sister is Dina, but Mohamed couldn’t remember why that name was chosen :) His mother's name is Ghada, meaning "graceful woman" in Arabic.