Japanese Names – What to Know About Their Origins, Pronunciations and Meanings
Japanese names? Why are they so attractive? Names have a specific power, and therefore it is essential to understand the meaning fully behind each one you meet as you begin to adopt them for yourself or your baby.
Nowadays, it is easy to find a person with the name of Tanaka, Sato or Yamada. And if you have ever wondered where these names come from and what they mean, you are not alone. I was wondering the same too.
The subject of Japanese name origins and meanings are very vast, and there is a lot more to discover. Part of Japan’s culture is the complex naming system. Let’s take some minutes to learn more about Japanese names and their meaning, spelling and pronunciation.
A Japanese name known as jinmei [人名] comprises mainly the family name and is followed by the first or personal name. Many acquaintances that are close enough use the first name. It can also be used on other private occasions.
How Do Japanese Names Work
In Japanese culture, people possess only two names- a surname and a given name. Surnames or last names are generally inherited from the father, and females typically change their surnames to their husbands after marriage.
In Japanese, the surnames precede the given names (first name). Therefore, a person with the last name (surname) Yamamoto and a given name (first name) Sanae is called Yamamoto Sanae. According to the English name order, this would be written as “Sanae Yamamoto.”
Japanese names are typically written in kanji (Chinese characters). Most surnames or last names are almost always in kanji. On the other hand, given or personal names are normally in kanji. However, some given names can be in katakana or hiragana.
Note that Japanese people do not have middle names, and middle names are not recognized in Japan, except for foreigners. See Do Japanese people have middle names?
What Are Some Japanese Names and Their Meanings
Have you ever paused to consider the meanings of Japanese names? Sometimes people have names of fruits, colours, numbers, but their name does not always mean that. See some examples below:
- Ichigo – Strawberry
- Sakura – Cherry blossoms
- Tsukushi – Weed, Horsetail
- Nana – Seven
- Juuichi – Eleven
- Hisoka – Secret, Reserved
- Kuro – Black
Did you imagine calling someone strawberry or black? Japanese does not usually have zillions of syllables and variations like Portuguese, so many words resemble others, but it does not mean that if your child is called a strawberry. Ichigo can also mean the first [一護] and not strawberry [いちご].
That’s why Japanese people use suffixes like [-san, -kun], so it prevents people from confusing someone’s name with fruit or other words.
In writing, this confusion does not usually happen, since in most cases, Japanese names are written with two or more ideograms:
- Sawako 爽子 – (子 KO – Child.) (爽 Sawa – Happy, refreshing, sweet.)
- Naomi 直美 – (美 – Mi – Beauty.) (直 No – Frankness, Honesty.)
How to Write Japanese Names
Like I earlier mentioned, most Japanese names are written in kanji, which are characters that typically originate from Chinese but are Japanese in pronunciation. The kanji Japanese names pronunciation comes with a unique set of rules. Parents can also explore the options of using either hiragana or katakana when naming their newborn child. Names penned down in hiragana or katakana are phonetic renderings and thus do not have the visual names meaning expressed in the logographic kanji.
There are various more rules when it comes to sound blends, but they are reasonably easy to grab fast.
You need to know how the Japanese letters sound before choosing some for your name. Use the five (5) vowel sounds – A, I, U, E, and O – as a base, as the vowel sounds stay the same for the rest of the letters. For instance, the “A” sound in “sa,” “ka,” “ta,” etc., is all the same.
Elongated Vowel Sounds
Sounds in Japanese tend to be pretty short. There isn’t much stress in Japanese words – all of the syllables tend to be the same length unless they are elongated. To elongate a sound in written form for your name, a hyphen-like symbol (ー) is simply added.
Here are few examples of words that have elongated vowel sounds.
サービス (sa–bisu) meaning “service.” Without the hyphen, the “sa” would be much shorter, making it sound more like “sabiss.” The elongation sounds more like “sah-biss,” and therefore, more similar to the original English word.
メール (me–ru), meaning “mail.” Again, the hyphen turns “meru” to “meh-ru.” (Note: There is no “L” in Japanese, so words ending in “L” in English are replaced with “ru.”
The Use of Sounds and Not Spelling
When writing your name in Japanese, go for the closest sound and not the nearest spelling because the vowels in Japanese do not change the way they do in English. For instance, if you bear the name “David” and you choose the nearest spelling possible, it would sound like “Dabiddo” (ダビッド). Instead, David would write “De–biddo” (デービッド) to attain the right vowel blend sound nearest to the original sound.
When a letter from your name doesn’t exist in Japanese
In Japanese, they don’t have “L,” “X,” “Q,” “V,” “TH,” or consonant mix such as “TR,” “PL,” “CR,” “SL,” among others. If your name has any of these, writing it in Japanese may be kind of challenging, but still possible. What you must do is to work out the alternative as shown below.
- L- is replaced with R
- X- is replaced with Kusu
- Q- is replaced with Kua or Ku
- V- B
- TH- S
- Tr- Tora
- Cr- Kura
- Sl- Sura
To write your name in Japanese, first, split your name into syllables. Usually, they are in one to four or even five syllables. As soon as you have separated your name, figure out which katakana sound is closest to the syllables in your name. Don’t forget to elongate vowels when necessary.
For instance, “James” is technically one syllable in the English Language, but it is three in the Japanese Language because of the many sounds in that name. The syllables for James are written as Je – mu zu.
“Je” must be elongated because the first two letters in the name “James” are stressed. “Je – mu zu” in Japanese should look like this: ジェームズ
Examples of simple names:
- Lisa (Ri sa) リサ
- Jack (Ja kku) ジャック
- Harry (Ha ri –) ハリー
Japanese Last Names
Japan has a vast number of surnames. The Enamdict electronic dictionary of Japanese names contains over 138,500 surnames.
Japanese surnames are usually written in kanji – Chinese characters. Typical surnames have two characters- For instance Suzuki (鈴木) or Yamamoto (山本). Moreover, they can also be available in more than two kanji or just one, like Hara (原) or Tokoro (所).
Most last names are relatively easy to read, but there may be more than one way to read the same kanji spelling. For example, 中田 may be read either as Nakata or Nakada. Some are very difficult, such as 八月一日, which appears to read hachigatsu or tsuitachi, “the first of August,” but is read as Hozumi.
Some Japanese use traditional forms of characters in their surnames rather than the modern simplified ones.
Many surnames are also place names, and the rules for forming names follow similar patterns.
Some of the typical kanji used in surnames are:
- Romanization: yoko
- Kanji: 横
- Meaning: side
- Examples: Yokoyama (横山), the tyre manufacturer
- Romanization: iwa
- Kanji: 岩
- Meaning: rock
- Examples: 岩谷 (Iwatani), the surname of Toru Iwatani, video game designer who created “Pac-Man”
- Romanization: saki, zaki
- Kanji: 埼
- Meaning: cape/edge
- Examples: Kawasaki (川崎), the company famous for motorcycles
- Romanization: asa
- Kanji: 浅
- Meaning: shallow
- Examples: Asada (浅田), the surname of figure skater Mao Asada
- Romanization: kita
- Kanji: 北
- Meaning: north
- Examples: Kitano (北野), the surname of film director and comedian “Beat Takeshi.”
- Romanization: nishi
- Kanji: 西
- Meaning: west
- Examples: Nishikawa (西川), the surname of comedian and politician Kiyoshi Nishikawa
- Romanization: yone
- Kanji: 米
- Meaning: rice
- Examples: Yonekura (米倉) “rice store,” the surname of model and celebrity Ryoko Yonekura.
- Romanization: shita, shimo
- Kanji: 下
- Meaning: lower
- Examples: Matsushita (松下), “under the pine tree,” the usual surname and name of the big electronics company.
- Romanization: moto
- Kanji: 本, 元
- Meaning: near
- Examples: Morimoto (森本), “near the forest.”
- Romanization: ike
- Kanji: 池
- Meaning: pond
- Examples: Koike (小池), “small pond,” the surname of celebrity Eiko Koike.
Japanese Boy Names
Names ending in hiko, like Katsuhiko (勝彦), suke, like Keisuke (慶介) or hei, like Junpei (淳平), are usually for the male gender. Male names also typically end in o- written in kanji as 夫, 雄, or 男. For instance, Teruo (輝夫), Akio (昭雄) or shi, Atsushi, Kiyoshi, or Takashi. Most male names tend to include characters like 勇- meaning “brave,” 勝- meaning “win,” or 正- meaning “correct.”
Boys are most likely named by a numbering system, using the Chinese character for “one (1)” appearing in the first son’s name, the symbol for “two (2)” appearing in the name of the second son, and the numbering continues forth. For instance, Novelist Kenzaburo Oe (Oe Kenzaburō (大江健三郎) is the “third son.”
- Number: One numbering system
- Chinese character: 一 (one)
- Pronunciation: ichi, kazu
- Example: Ichiro (一郎), Tomokazu (友一)
- Number: Two numbering system
- Chinese character: 次 (next), 二 (two)
- Pronunciation: ji
- Example: Jirō (次郎), Kōji (浩二), forename of soccer player Koji Nakata.
- Number: Three numbering system
- Chinese character: 三
- Pronunciation: zō, zabu
- Example: Kenzaburō (健三郎), Zenzō (善三)
- Number: Four numbering system
- Chinese character: 四
- Pronunciation: shi
- Example: Shirō
- Number: Five numbering system
- Chinese character: 五
- Pronunciation: go
- Example: Gorō (五郎)
Other common Japanese male names are:
Meaning: Morning sun, rising sun
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 朝陽, アサヒ
Popular Namesakes: Volleyball player and politician Kentaro Asahi
Meaning: Light, spring, clear weather
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 陽, 春, 晴, はる
Meaning: Spring trees
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 樹, いつき
Meaning: Going through and beyond, sea and soaring
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 海斗, 海翔, 介渡, かいと
Popular Namesakes: Voice actor Kaito Ishikawa
Meaning: Healthy and strong
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 健太
Popular Namesakes: Baseball player Kenta Maeda
Meaning: Sincerity or truth
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 誠, 真
Famous Namesakes: Obstacle course “ninja” racer Makoto Nagano, animator Makoto Shinkai
Meaning: Discipline, study
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 修
Popular Namesakes: Animator Osamu Tezuka, author Osamu Dazai
Meaning: Smart, clever
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 伶, れお
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 竜, 龍, Ryusei
Popular Namesakes: Painter Ryusei Kishida
Meaning: Third son
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 三郎, Saburo, Saburō
Popular Namesakes: World War II Japanese naval flying ace Saburō Sakai, diplomat Saburō Kurusu
Meaning: Just, correct, right
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 正
Popular Namesakes: Businessman Tadashi Yanai, fashion designer Tadashi Shoji
Meaning: To be iron, to be devoted, to be a philosopher
Alternative Spellings & Variations: 哲也, 徹也, 鉄也
Popular Namesakes: Print artist Tetsuya Noda, record producer and songwriter Tetsuya Komuro
Meaning: Big man
Alternative Spellings & Variations: 陽太, ヒナタ、ヨウタ、ハル タ, Yota
Popular Namesakes: Wrestler Yota Tsuji
Meaning: Rich, relaxation, fertile
Alternative Spellings & Variations: 豊, 寛, 穣
Popular Namesakes: Musician Yutaka Ozaki
Meaning: Distant, leisurely person
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 悠人, ユウト、ハルト, Yuto
Popular Namesakes: Scenario writer Yuto Tonokawa
Japanese Girl Names
Female names usually end in e, yo, mi, written as 美 and ko, written as 子. For example, a mix of tomo and these suffixes, as in Tomomi, Tomoe, Tomoko, or Tomoyo, results in a familiar Japanese female name. Other common female names suffixes are, as in Haruna, and ka, as in Haruka. Japanese female names are often written in hiragana than male names.
Many modern girl names end in -ko, which means “child.” For example,
Aiko, Akiko, Ayako, Chikako, Emiko, Etsuko, Fujiko, Haruko, Junko, Kazuko, Kumiko, Maiko, Mamiko, Masako, Mayoko, Mihoko, Misako,Momoko, Nahoko, Nanako, Natsuko, Noriko, Rieko, Rinako, Ryoko, Saeko, Sakuko, Sanako, Shoko, Tadako, Tamiko, Tomiko, Yoshiko, Yukiko, Yumiko.
Some Japanese girl names end in -mi, which usually means “beauty.” For example, Ami, Emi, Honami, Harumi, Kazumi, Manami, Masami, Mayumi, Nami, Naomi, Natsumi, Nomi, Romi, or Yumi.
Other common female names include
Meaning: Combines words for clear red or either cold, profit, plum, or pear tree.
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 丹凛, 明里, 明梨, 明理, 朱里, 朱莉, 亜香里, あかり
Popular Namesakes: Actress and singer Akari Hayami
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 杏 (kanji), アン (hiragana), アンズ(katana), An
Popular Namesakes: Actress Anzu Lawson
Meaning: Thousand generations, thousand worlds
Alternative Spellings & Variations: 千代, 千世
Popular Namesakes: Haiku poet Fukuda Chiyo-ni, kimono designer and author Chiyo Uno
Meaning: Beautiful child
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 恵美子, -笑子
Popular Namesakes: Filmmaker Emiko Omori
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 花, 陽菜 (kanji), ヒナ、ヒナタ、ハナ、ハルナ、アキナ、ヒナノ, Hinata, Haruna, Hina, Hinano, Akina
Popular Namesakes: Artist Hana Usui
Meaning: Benevolent sunflower or long jasmine, home of light and love
Alternative Spellings & Variations: ひまり, 久茉莉, 仁葵, 光愛里
Meaning: Guidance, pear
Alternative Spellings & Variations: 栞奈, Kana
Popular Namesakes: Actress and singer Kanna Hashimoto
Meaning: Heart, mind, soul
Alternative Spellings: 心
Famous Namesakes: Voice actress Kokoro Kikuchi
Meaning: Dance, linen robe, real love
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 舞, 麻衣, 真愛
Popular Namesakes: Marathon runner Mai Ito
Meaning: hopeful truth or hopeful heart
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 希実, 希心
Popular Namesakes: Author Nanami Shiono
Meaning: Cherry blossom
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 桜, サクラ、ハル
Popular Namesakes: Singer Sakura Miyawaki
Meaning: Quiet child
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 静子
Popular Namesakes: Actress Shizuko Hoshi, Peruvian politician Susana Shizuko Higuchi Miyagawa (former wife of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori)
Meaning: Virtuous child, beautiful child, joyous child
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 良子, 芳子, 悦子
Popular Namesakes: Textile artist Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, spy Yoshiko Kawashima
Meaning: Archery bow child, cause a beautiful child
Alternative Spellings and Variations: 弓子, 由美子
Popular Namesakes: Professional wrestler Yumiko Hotta
Phew! That’s a lot, right? Thanks for sticking with us to the end of this blog post. Also, we have collections of boy and girl names for your newborn or a name change.