Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links

A detailed analysis of Japanese surnames is available here.

Column #39 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, June 26, 2003
hTranslations reveal richness of kanji surnamesh

A few days after arriving in Japan for the first time, I began teaching at a private university in Hiroshima. Because I was 100 percent kanji-illiterate, the office staff kindly prepared special, kanji-free class rosters for me. The names in each class were listed alphabetically: gAndo,h gBaba,h gChino,h gDobashi,h gEguchi,h etc.

As a gget-to-know-youh exercise in English, I had the students explain the kanji that made up their surnames. A Mr. Suzuki chalked and on the blackboard and explained that his family name, the second most common in Japan, meant gBell-Tree.h Ms. Gold-Child (q, Kaneko) told me she was fond of her name, as did Ms. Thousand-Congratulations (, Senga).

As my own surname at the time, gSisk,h had no meaning that I was aware of, I took special interest in the idea that each Japanese person I was meeting had a surname with a clear meaning: gMrs. Two-Godsh (_, Futagami), gMr. Excess-Talkh (], Yogo), gProf. Feather-Stoneh (H, Haneishi), gMiss Spicy-Islandh(h, Karashima), gDr. Devil-Headh (S, Kitou). My first landlord was Mr. Five-Flavors (ܖ, Gomi). Names like these helped draw me into an enduring love affair with the meanings of kanji.

Estimates of the number of surnames currently used in Japan range up to 300,000, an astronomically high number when one considers that 520 million people in China (nearly half the total population) share a mere ten surnames--all of which are written with a single character. Most Japanese people bear surnames composed of two or three kanji, but some, like x (Hori-san, Mr. Ditch), and (Taira-san, Ms. Flat), have singletons printed on their meishi (business cards). Only the rarest of surnames in Japan are made up of four kanji.

Until the dawn of the Meiji Era in the late 1860fs, commoners--who formed over 95% of the population--did not have registered family names. When ordered by the government to register, many simply chose as their official family moniker the name of a nearby town, river, or other place name.

Japanese place and family names are bursting with nature-kanji. Thirty of the Top 100 most common surnames include R (mountain, yama) or c (field, ta): No. 13, Rc (Mountain-Field, Yamada), features both. Tree-kanji are star players in names like X (Forest-Island, Morishima) and (Little-Grove, Kobayashi). Rivers ( or ) can be seen flowing in ΐ (Stone-River, Ishikawa) and ͑ (River-Village, Kawamura).

Other names with aquatic themes include the likes of (Little-Fountain, Koizumi-- Japanfs current Prime Minister) and (Hot water-Swamp, Yuzawa). The animal world figures in names such as FJ (Bear-Valley, Kumagai) and T@(Turtle-Village, Kamemura). The most popular flower planted into family names--like (Satoh) and ɓ (Itoh)--is not the proverbial Japanese cherry blossom or chrysanthemum but wisteria , written with a blister-inducing 18 strokes.

All forms of rice pop up, in names such as ѓc (Cooked rice-Field, Iida), _ (Rice plant-Hedge, Inagaki), and (Rice wine-Well, Sakai). Like that very common surname in principally English-speaking countries, "Smith" (from gblacksmithh), some Japanese names reflect the profession of their earliest owners: The Hattoris (, Clothing-Division) were weavers, and the Inukais were gDog-Breedersh ().

Back in 1930, Shojiro Ishibashi (΋, Stone-Bridge) dubbed his new tire company gBridgestone,h now also internationally known for its bicycles. Just think, if plugging English keywords into the names of Japanese companies had become a trend, millions of drivers the world over might be cruising around not in gToyotas,h and gMitsubishis,h but in gRichfieldsh (Lc, Toyota), and gTriple Diamondsh(OH, Mitsubishi).

Delving into the meanings of Japanese and Chinese surnames is just one more way to immerse yourself in the fascinating world of Sino-Japanese characters. The next time you meet a Japanese or Chinese person, be sure to ask her what her family name means in English. Most people in the world are pleased to talk about their names, East Asians being no exception. In the process, you might learn to write a new kanji or two.

Flash quizzes on 516 high-frequency Japanese surnames are here.