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Mary Sisk Noguchi, Associate Professor
Human Studies Department, Meijo University

Human Studies Department Research Journal, Meijo University (名城大学 人間学研究 第一号)
December, 2003


Business cards (meishi) often provide visitors to Japan with their first look at Japanese surnames written in Chinese characters (“kanji”). When presented with a Japanese meishi, the recipient generally makes a quick inspection of the name on the card before moving on to the business at hand. At this juncture, Japanese people often clarify the correct pronunciation of the bearer’s name, particularly if it is a relatively uncommon one. Uncertainties about the pronunciation of names (both given and family) often arise, because virtually all characters used in Japanese names have more than one recognized pronunciation (O’Neill, 1972). Japanese people who are in frequent contact with foreigners often carry double-sided meishi: One side shows the presenter’s full name, title, affiliation, and address, all written in Japanese; the other side offers the same information printed in English and Romanized Japanese.

Since the pronunciations of Japanese monikers can prove challenging even for native speakers, with special dictionaries devoted to the problem (see Ohno and Fujita 1977, for example) it is not surprising that Japanese names can be highly perplexing to foreigners coming from non-kanji using countries. One way for beginning Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) learners to build the self-confidence necessary to approach Japanese names in their native written form (i.e.: not Romanized) is to first learn English keywords for Chinese characters commonly used in names, before dealing with their myriad pronunciations.

The purpose of this paper is to first provide an overview of Japanese names and naming customs, including an analysis of the kanji most frequently used in Japanese surnames. A short course designed for learning the shapes and English meanings of twenty-five core surname-kanji, using component analysis, is then provided. Knowledge of these twenty-five characters can give JSL learners a firm grip on the meanings of Japan’s twenty most common surnames, held by 19.5 million residents (nearly one-sixth of the total 125 million population). Some prior knowledge of the components comprising kanji, at a basic level, is required for learning the twenty-five kanji presented here.

General Information on Japanese Surnames
Estimates of the number of surnames currently used in Japan vary widely, from 100,000 to 300,000 (Morioka, 2003), depending on such factors as whether or not slight variations in pronunciation (e.g.: “Nakajima” and “Nakashima,” written with the same kanji) are counted separately. These are astronomically high figures, especially when one considers the number of family names used in two neighboring countries, China and South Korea. 520 million people in China (nearly half the total population) share a mere ten surnames, all of which are written with a single character. In South Korea, an estimated one-half of the nation’s population shares four of 225 available names (Morioka, 2003).

It is important to note, however, that even though there are between 100,000 and 300,000 possible Japanese surnames, many are relatively rare, in extreme cases used by only one household. In fact, it is estimated that 37% of the population in Japan shares 150 commonly-used surnames (Morioka, 2002).

The majority of Japanese surnames are composed of two or three Chinese characters, names such as 山田 (Yamada, Mountain-Rice field) and 五十嵐 (Igarashi, Fifty- Storms). Some surnames, however, are comprised of only one character, the three most common being 林 (Hayashi, Grove), 森 (Mori, Forest), and 原 (Hara, Plateau). Only the rarest of surnames in Japan are made up of four kanji.

Given Names
When the full name is written in Japanese, the family name appears first, followed by the given name. In choosing a given name for their newborns, parents may choose from a total of 2,230 legally permitted Chinese characters (1,945 general-use kanji plus 285 “name kanji” 人名用漢字jinmeiyoukanji). The number of possible pronunciations for these characters is virtually limitless. Many name experts (Tsuruta, 2001, Akizuka, 2000) caution against obscure pronunciations, but some parents still insist on a one-of-a-kind name. (Update: The number of “name kanji” 人名用漢字jinmeiyoukanji had been increased to 985 as of 2009).

Belief in the superstition that a child’s given name determines his/her fate and personality appears to be waning. Still, a majority of parents take the safe route and choose a numerically “lucky” name. This is a complex process in which charts are consulted to determine “luckiness” based on the number of strokes in a name’s kanji. Stroke number is also a consideration in that names with a high number of strokes are time-consuming to write. The name 遠藤麗奈 (Endou Reina--“Reina” means “Beautiful Nara”), for example, consists of a burdensome 58-strokes and thus may be avoided. Given names usually consist of between one and three Chinese characters.

In order to create a favorable balance between the family and given names, the meaning, as well as the pronunciation, of both names must be considered. The 森村 (Morimura, Forest-Village) family may avoid naming their daughter 樹里 (Juri, Tree Hamlet) because of the semantic similarity of the two names. As other examples, seasonal characters would likely not be mixed, such as the surname 秋葉 (Akiba, Autumn Leaves) paired with 夏帆 (Kaho, Summer Sails). Repeating sounds within the full name (佐山沙耶 Sayama Saya) and undesirable words popping up, like “banana” in 馬場奈々 (Baba Nana), are also avoided.

After World War II, the majority of Japanese female babies were given names ending in 子 (ko, “child”), such as 洋子 (Yoko, Ocean Child), and 和子 (Kazuko, Peace Child). Boys often had traditional single-kanji names like 誠 (Makoto, Sincerity). Then, in the mid-1960’s, names ending in 美 (like 明美 Akemi, Bright Beauty) and one-character names (愛 Ai, Love) began to creep into annual lists of the Top 10 Names for girls. More parents of sons began bestowing two-character monikers like 直樹 (Naoki, Straight Tree) and 昌人 (Masato, Prosperous Person).

By the mid-‘80s, 子 had disappeared from the Top 10. Some of the most popular names for newborn girls in 2001 were 未来 (Mirai, Future),七海 (Nanami, Seven Seas), 美月 (Mizuki, Beautiful Moon), and 萌 (Moe, Bud). For baby boys, favorites were 大輝, (Daiki, Big Radiance), 翔 (Shou, Soar), 海斗 (Kaito, Ocean-Big Dipper), and 蓮 (Ren, Lotus). Given names for girls may also be written in hiragana: The No. 1 name for baby girls in 2001 was さくら “Sakura (Cherry Blossoms), written in hiragana instead of its kanji form, 桜.

Kanji Comprising Common Japanese Surnames: Elements in Nature
While some commoners--who formed over 95% of the population of Japan--possessed family names before the dawn of the Meiji Era (late 1860’s), these names were not officially registered. When ordered by the government to register a moniker, many households who did not already possess one chose the name of a nearby town, river, or other place name. This helps to explain why certain areas may have a high concentration of families sharing the same name. The relatively small number of families who had Imperial connections throughout the centuries preceeding the Meiji Era had already been bestowed with official surnames (Morioka, 2003).

An interesting feature of Japanese place and family names is their high-frequency use of kanji representing elements in nature. Traditionally an agricultural nation, comprised largely of mountainous terrain, thirty of Japan’s Top 100 most common surnames include 山 (mountain, yama) or 田 (rice field, ta). The family name ranked No. 13, 山田 (Yamada, Mountain-Rice field), features both. Other examples include the following:

No. 26 山下 (Yamashita, Mountain-Under)
No. 29 前田 (Maeda, Front-Rice field)
No. 43 福田 (Fukuda, Good luck-Rice field)
No. 62 柴田 (Shibata, Firewood-Rice field)
No. 85 小山 (Koyama, Little-Mountain)

Kanji representing other topological features, including “hills 岡” and “valleys 谷,” may be seen in common names such as 岡田 (Okada, Hill-Rice field, No. 32) and 谷口 (Taniguchi, Valley-Entrance, No. 73).

Japan is an archipelago, comprised of four main islands-- Honshu, Kyuushuu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido-- as well as several thousand smaller ones. It is natural that many place names in Japan, and thus surnames, would include the character for “island,” 島. The top five most popular “island” surnames are:

No. 22 中島 (Nakajima, Middle-Island)
No. 61 小島 (Kojima, Little-Island)
No. 117 福島 (Fukushima, Good luck-Island)
No. 144 大島 (Ooshima, Big-Island)
No. 176 川島 (River-Island)

Kanji representing trees and the areas where they grow (木 tree, 松 pine, 林 grove, and 森 forest) are heavily represented in the Top 100, in names such as 鈴木 (Suzuki, Bell-Tree, No. 2) and 小林 (Kobayashi, Little-Grove, No. 9). Other examples include:

No. 16 松本 (Matsumoto, Pine -Origin)
No. 18 木村 (Kimura, Tree-Village)
No. 19 林 (Hayashi, Grove)
No. 60 森田 (Morita, Forest-Rice field)
No. 70 高木 (Takagi, Tall-Tree)

Rivers (which may be written 川 or, less commonly, 河) can be seen flowing in the likes of 石川 (Ishikawa, Stone-River, No. 28), and 河野 (Kawano, River-Field, No. 78), as well as in:

No. 34 長谷川 (Hasegawa, Long-Valley-River)
No. 49 中川 (Nakagawa, Middle-River)
No. 106 市川 (Ichikawa, City-River)
No. 121 川口 (Kawaguchi, River-Mouth)
No. 122 川崎 (Kawasaki, River-Cape)

Family names with aquatic themes are not limited to those composed of “rivers,” as seen in the likes of 清水 (Shimizu, Pure-Water, No. 20) and 小泉 (Koizumi, Little-Fountain, No. 219, the family name of Japan’s current Prime Minister). Other common surnames comprised of kanji representing bodies of water, both fresh and salt, and the areas adjoining them, include:
No. 23 池田 (Ikeda, Pond-Rice field)
No. 45 三浦 (Miura, Three-Seasides)
No. 105 浜田 (Hamada, Beach-Rice field)
No. 145 小沢 (Kozawa, Little-Swamp).
No. 146 広瀬 (Hirose, Broad-Shallows)

The animal world figures in names such as 馬場 (Baba, Horse-Place, No. 150), 熊谷 (Kumagai, Bear-Valley, No. 158), and 亀井 (Kamei, Turtle-Well, No. 389). The most popular kanji representing a flower planted into family names is not the proverbial Japanese cherry blossom (the most popular with 桜 being No. 93 桜井 Sakurai, Cherry blossom-Well) or chrysanthemum (the most popular name with 菊 being No. 114 菊池 Kikuchi, Chrysanthemum-Pond) but wisteria (藤, written with a blister-inducing 18 strokes). In fact, the most common surname in Japan, 佐藤 (Sato, Assistant-Wisteria), held by nearly two million residents of Japan, includes this character, as do a total of nine other surnames in the Top 50. These include:

No. 6 伊藤 (Itou, Phonetic for “i”-Wisteria)
No. 10 斎藤 (Saitou, Religious ritual-Wisteria)
No. 11 加藤 (Katou, Increase-Wisteria)
No. 31 藤田 (Fujita, Wisteria-Rice field)
No. 33 後藤 (Gotou, Behind-Wisteria)

Most surnames containing the kanji “wisteria 藤” have their roots in the family name ”藤原 Fujiwara.” The Fujiwaras were a high-ranking family with strong Imperial connections beginning in the Heian Era. Many of the households associated with the Fujiwaras assumed variations of their name (Morioka, 2003).

Other Kanji Commonly Used in Surnames
While kanji representing features of the natural world feature heavily in Japanese surnames, other types of characters are also seen. For example, the traditional religions of Japan, Shinto and Buddhism, are reflected in surnames including the Chinese characters for Shinto shrine, 宮, and Buddhist temple, 寺: 宮崎 (Miyazaki, Shrine-Cape, No. 64), 宮本 (Miyamoto, Shrine-Origin, No. 68), and 寺田 (Terada, Temple-Rice field, No. 226), for example.

Another structure made by humans, “bridge 橋,” appears in the third most popular Japanese surname, 高橋 (Takahashi, High-Bridge), and “wells 井” feature in names like 井上 (Inoue, Well-Above, No. 17) and 石井 (Ishii, Stone-Well).

Kanji representing various forms of Japan’s staple food, rice, appear in names such as 飯田 (Iida, Cooked rice-Rice field, No. 123), 米田 (Yoneda, Raw rice-Rice field, No. 303), and 酒井 (Rice wine-Well, No. 65). Like the very common surname in principally English-speaking countries, Smith (from “blacksmith”), some Japanese names reflect the profession of their earliest owners: The Hattoris (服部, Clothing-Division, No. 131) were weavers, and the Inukais (犬飼, No. 1225) were “Dog-Breeders," for example.

Of the four directions, the kanji for “west” is the most commonly used in Japanese surnames, appearing in seven names among the Top 200:

No. 42 西村 (Nishimura, West-Village)
No. 103 大西 (Oonishi, Big-West)
No. 112 西田 (Nishida, West-Rice field)
No. 113 西川 (Nishikawa, West-River)
No. 129 中西 (Nakanishi, Middle-West)
No. 171 西山 (Nishiyama, West-Mountain)
No. 193 小西 (Konishi, Little-West)

Only three surnames among the Top 200 include kanji for the other three directions: 北村 (Kitamura, North-Village, No. 115), 東 (Higashi, East, No. 124), and 南 (Minami, South, No. 200).

Prepositions such as “above 上,” “below 下,” “in front of 前,” “behind 後” and “inside 内” are commonly used, as seen in names like 井上 (Inoue, Well-Above, No. 17), 山下 (Yamashita, Mountain-Below, No. 26), 前田 (Maeda, Front-Rice field, No. 29), 後藤 (Gotou, Behind-Wisteria, No. 33), and 竹内 (Takeuchi, Bamboo-Inside, No. 54).

Other adjectives (in addition to the commonly used “big 大” and “small 小”) utilized in surnames include “tall 高” (高木, Takagi, Tall-Tree, No. 70), “round 丸” (丸山, Maruyama, Round-Mountain, No. 76), and “flat 平” (平野, Hirano, Flat-Field, No. 87). “Near 近" and “far 遠” appear in common names such as 渡辺 (Watanabe, Crossing-Near, No. 5) and 遠藤 (Endou, Far-Wisteria, No. 39). Kanji representing colors may be seen in the likes of 青木 (Aoki, Green-Tree, No. 40) and 黒田 (Kuroda, Black-Rice field, No. 164).

Learning the Meanings of Japan’s Top 20 Surnames
As mentioned above, knowing the meanings in English of twenty-five Chinese characters can give kanji learners a firm grip on the meanings of Japan’s twenty most common surnames. The kanji to be learned are:

木 山 田 水 井 口 本 中 上 小 高 林 松 村 橋 加 吉 辺 清 渡 伊 佐 藤 鈴 斎

Kanji learners who have completed an introductory Japanese course will likely already be familiar with the following twelve kanji. All (with the exception of ”well 井”) are graphically simple characters learned by Japanese first- and second-graders:

木 (tree)
林 (grove)
山 (mountain)
田 (rice field)
水 (water)
井 (well)
口 (entrance)
本 (origin)
中 (center)
上 (above)
小 (small)
高 (high).

Through the use of mnemonic stories, another eight of the kanji surname building blocks are relatively easy to remember. Most of the following memory aids come from Joseph R. De Roo’s 2001 Kanji(1980), which takes a component analysis approach to learning kanji:

松 (pine)
Tall trees 木 were planted along public 公 highways so that government couriers would not stray off them at night. These tall trees were pines.

村 (village)
Moving through a wooded area, a traveler sees trees木 chopped offshort (寸= “just a bit”) and knows a village must be nearby.

橋 (bridge)
A wooden 木 structure built so high that the first two strokes of tall 高 have been replaced by sky 天.

加 (add)
Strength 力 depends on continuing to add food to the mouth 口.

吉 (good luck)
A samurai 士 opens his mouth 口 wide with joy at his lucky lot in life.

辺 (boundary)
Roads are sliced up with swords 刀 to create boundaries.

清 (pure)
Sometimes water is so pure it appears to be blue 青.

渡 (cross over)
When the water level (度 = “degree”) is low, travelers can cross the river.

With the exception of 伊, the remaining five characters (like the twenty explained above) are general-use (常用, jouyou) kanji. All five are most commonly seen in place and family names:

伊 (phonetic for “i”)
佐 (assistant)
Both of these kanji feature the radical for “person,” . One can distinguish between them by finding 左 (the kanji meaning “left”) in 佐 (“an assistant stands left of the person he is helping”).

鈴 (bell)
藤 (wisteria)
斎 (a religious ritual).
For help in identifying these surname kanji, learners may look for the “gold 金” component in 鈴, the “plant ” component in 藤, and the kanji meaning “letters,” 文, (those read during a religious ritual) topping 斎.

The Top 20 Japanese Surnames
Japan’s Top 20 surnames are listed in order of popularity below, along with their pronunciations and meanings in English. All are comprised exclusively of the twenty-five kanji introduced above.

1. 佐藤 Satou 

2. 鈴木 Suzuki

3. 高橋 Takahashi

4. 田中 Tanaka
Rice field-Middle

5. 渡辺 Watanabe

6. 伊藤 Itou
Phonetic for “i”-Wisteria

7. 山本 Yamamoto

8. 中村 Nakamura

9. 小林 Kobayashi

10. 斎藤 Saitou

11. 加藤 Katou

12. 吉田 Yoshida
Lucky-Rice field

13. 山田 Yamada
Mountain-Rice field

14. 佐々木 Sasaki
2 Assistants-Tree

15. 山口 Yamaguchi

16. 松本 Matsumoto

17. 井上 Inoue

18. 木村 Kimura

19. 林 Hayashi

20. 清水 Shimizu

The twenty-five kanji presented in this analysis of Japan’s most popular family names can also be recombined to produce many other popular surnames not among the Top 20, including the following:

No. 25 橋本 (Hashimoto, Bridge-Origin)
No. 31 藤田 (Fujita, Wisteria-Rice field)
No. 36 村上 (Murakami, Village-Above)
No. 41 藤井 (Fujii, Wisteria-Well)
No. 48 松田 (Matsuda, Pine-Rice field)

Learning five more first-grade kanji-- 下 (under), 石 (stone), 川 (river), 小 (small), and 大 (large)-- will allow Japanese name neophytes to decipher the English meanings of ten additional surnames in the Top 100.

Match each name with its meaning in English. Answers are at the end of this paper.

No. 1.佐藤 2.鈴木 3.高橋 4.田中 5.渡辺 6.伊藤 7.山本 8.中村 9.小林 10.斎藤 11.加藤 12.吉田 13.山田 14.佐々木 15.山口 16.松本 17.井上 18.木村 19.林 20.清水

a. Mountain-Entrance
b. Add-Wisteria
c. High-Bridge
d. Rice field-Center
e. Grove
f. Pure-Water
g. Lucky-Rice field
h. 2 Assistants-Tree
i. Center-Village
j. Ritual-Wisteria
k. Crossover-Boundary
l. Well-Above
m. Small-Grove
n. Bell-Tree
o. Mountain-Origin
p. Pine tree-Origin
q. Mountain-Rice field
r. Assistant-Wisteria
s. “i”-Wisteria
t. Tree-Village

Many of the kanji used in Japanese family names are among the most basic and common of the general-use characters. For this reason, delving into the meanings of Japanese surnames is an excellent way for beginning Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) learners from non-kanji using backgrounds to make use of their emerging kanji skills. Learning the English meanings of surname kanji should be especially motivating for those who have frequent opportunities to make new Japanese acquaintances.

The more challenging task, learning the myriad pronunciations of surnames, can be tackled gradually. As JSL learners are exposed to increasingly large numbers of surnames, they will begin to discern pronunciation patterns will begin to emerge. Like native Japanese speakers, they can then begin to make educated guesses as to the likely pronunciation of the names of Japanese people they encounter.

As the learner’s kanji repertoire increases, discerning the meaning in English of surnames like “Two-Gods” (二神, Futagami),“ Excess-Talk” (余語,Yogo), “ Feather-Stone” (羽石, Haneishi), “Spicy-Island”(辛島, Karashima), “ Devil-Head” (鬼頭, Kitou), and Five-Flavors (五味, Gomi) should continue to be a motivating exercise. It will also provide the JSL learner with insight into Japanese culture, as reflected in the names of the Japanese people.

A flash quiz on 516 high-frequency Japanese surnames is here.

De Roo, Joseph R. (1980). 2001 Kanji. Tokyo: Bonjinsha.
O’Neill, P.G. (1972). Japanese Names. New York: Weatherhill, Inc.
秋月智朱 (2000) 「すてきな名前の事典」 成美堂出版.
大野史郎、藤田豊 (1977). 「難読姓氏辞典」 東京堂出版.
鶴田黄珠 (2001) 「名づけ親のための命名事典」大泉書店.
森岡浩 (1998). 「全国名字辞典」 東京堂出版.
森岡浩 (2002). 「日本人の名字ランキング」 新潮社.
森岡浩 (2003). 「名字の謎」 OH!文庫.
日本の苗字七千傑 http://www.myj7000.jp-biz.net
Several well-known rankings of Japanese surnames have been published in the past several decades. The first nationwide ranking, published in 1962, was the Sakuma ranking (佐久間ランキング). It was highly evaluated for reliability at the time, but was virtually replaced in 1987 with the first ranking to utilize computer technology, the Daiichi Life Insurance Company ranking (第一生命ランキング). The most recent ranking, and the one the author used for the purpose of writing this paper, is the Murayama ranking (村山ランキング), which appeared in 2001. Murayama utilized advanced computer technology and telephone directory data bases in compiling his ranking. For further information on these rankings, see Morioka, 2002.

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