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Column #21 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, June 7, 2002
"Modern parents playing the 'Name That Baby' game"

"I simply cannot pronounce these children's names!" exclaimed my exasperated Japanese mother-in-law as she handed me this year's roster from her Tokyo day care center. "Okaasan" has been in this business for nearly fifty years and thus has witnessed Japan's changing trends in names.

After World War II, the majority of Japanese female babies were given names ending in Žq (ko, "child"), such as Yoko (—mŽq, Ocean Child), and Kazuko (˜aŽq, Peace Child). Boys often had traditional single-kanji names like Makoto (½, Sincerity). Reading names back then was a breeze for my mother-in-law.

Then, in the mid-1960's, the "Name That Baby" game started to become more complicated. For girls, names ending in ”ό (like –Ύ”ό, Akemi, Bright Beauty) and one-character names (ˆ€, Ai, Love) began to creep into annual lists of the Top 10 Names. More parents of sons began bestowing two-character monikers like ’ΌŽχ (Naoki, Straight Tree).

By the mid-'80s, Žq had disappeared from the Top 10. Some of the most popular names for newborn girls in 2001 were Mirai (–’—ˆ, Future), Nanami (Ž΅ŠC, Seven Seas), Mizuki (”όŒŽ, Beautiful Moon), and Moe (–G, Bud). For baby boys, favorites were Daiki (‘ε‹P, Big Radiance), Shou (γΔ, Soar), Kaito (ŠC “l, Ocean-Big Dipper), and Ren (˜@, Lotus).

Bestowing a kanji name involves a number of considerations. Today, many parents have abandoned the custom of going to a temple or shrine for guidance. Instead, they may purchase a do-it-yourself book, or consult a Web site-- such as www.emusu.net-- for help in navigating the tricky undertows of child-naming. (And here is a site in English that explains the meaning of the kanji in many popular boys' and girls' names).

A kanji name often reflects the parents' hopes for a child, but books advise against overdoing it with the likes of Ήl(Masato, Sacred Person). They also urge avoiding approximately 375 kanji such as —ά (tears), •X (ice), –A (bubble), ”½(opposite), and –ι (night).

The meaning, as well as the pronunciation, of a family's surname must be considered. The Morimuras (X‘Ί Forest-Village) would probably not name their daughter Žχ—’ (Juri, Tree Hamlet)-- too many trees! And nix on mixed seasons, such as the surname H—t (Akiba, Autumn Leaves) paired with ‰Δ”Ώ (Kaho, Summer Sails) and double numbers, such as ŽO‰YŒ’ˆκ (Miura Kenichi, Three Seasides/Healthy Firstborn). Repeating sounds within the full name (²ŽRΉ–λ Sayama Saya) and undesirable words popping up, like "banana" in ”nκ“ށX (Baba Nana), are also taboo.

The total number of strokes is also important. Mr. Yamaguchi (ŽRŒϋ, 6 strokes) might reasonably name his daughter Beautiful Nara (—ν“ή Reina, 27 strokes), but Mrs. Endou (‰““‘, 31 strokes) should probably reconsider: A 58-stroke name is time-consuming to write.

Belief in the superstition that a child's given name determines his/her fate and personality appears to be waning. Still, approximately 80% 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.

Moms and Dads may select from a total of 2,230 legally permitted characters (1,945 general-use kanji plus 285 personal name kanji). The number of possible pronunciations for these characters is virtually limitless. Many name experts caution against obscure pronunciations, but some parents still insist on a one-of-a-kind name.

Others find this kanji naming business overwhelming and--in the case of a female offspring-- opt for a name written in hiragana. In fact, the No. 1 name for baby girls in 2001 was Sakura (cherry blossoms). No, not χ, but ‚³‚­‚η. Even my son can read that one-- and he's only five.

Kanji Names Quiz
Match the following trendy first names with their meanings in English.

1. ˆŸ–ε Amon
2. —Α Ryou
3. —€ Riku
4. ‘ε‰Ν Taiga
5. ‹ΏHibiki

6. “V‰ΉAmane@
7. ”όg Miku
8. Ψ“ENatsumi
9. ˆ€—Airi

a. Beautiful Crimson b. Land c. Echo d. Pick Vegetables e. Asian Gate f. Superior Garment g. Cool h. Sound of Heaven i. Loves Logic j. Big River

Answers: 1.e 2.g 3.b 4.j 5.c 6.h 7.a 8.d 9. i 10.f

Read another column about baby names.