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A detailed analysis of Japanese surnames is available here.

Kanji Clinic #40, The Japan Times, July 17, 2003
gThe kanji behind the most common Japanese surnamesh

Business cards (meishi) are almost as gJapaneseh as sumo wrestling and kimonos. These handy bits of paper help to oil the squeaks out of potentially awkward first-time encounters in Japan, promoting smooth starts to business and social relationships.

Japanese people who are in frequent contact with foreigners often carry double-sided meishi: Side 1, for native consumption, is chock full of kanji; Side 2, meanwhile, is printed in English and Romanized Japanese. If you want to make a special impression on a new Japanese acquaintance, flip their meishi over to Side 1 the moment you receive it, and get excited about trying to translate their surname into English.

Pronunciations of names can be a headache, even for native speakers, but approaching surnames through English keywords can build your self-confidence. Incidentally, surnames are a piece of cake compared with given names, which are more likely to include obscure kanji.

Mastering the shapes and English meanings of 25 core surname-kanji will give you a firm grip on the meanings of Japanfs 20 most common surnames, held by 19.5 million people (nearly one-sixth of the population):

R c { g n

If you have completed an introductory Japanese course, you probably know 12 of the 25 already: (tree), (grove), R (mountain), c (rice field), (water), (well), (entrance), { (origin), (center), (above), (small), and (high).

By using mnemonic stories, the next eight of our kanji surname building blocks are a relative snap to remember [Most of the following memory aids come from Joseph R. De Roofs 2001 Kanji (Bonjinsha)]:

(pine tree): Tall trees were planted along public highways so that government couriers would not stray off them at night.

(village): Moving through a wooded area, a traveler sees trees chopped off short (= gjust a bith) and knows a village must be nearby.

(bridge): A wooden structure built so high that the first two strokes of tall have been replaced by sky V.

(add): Strength depends on continuing to add food to the mouth .

g (good luck): A samurai m opens his mouth wide with joy at his lucky lot in life.

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

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

n (cross over): When the water level (x = gdegreeh) is low, travelers can cross the river.

The remaining five characters are most commonly found in surnames: (phonetic for gih) and (assistant) both feature the gpersonh component . You can distinguish between these two by finding (lefth) in (gan assistant stands left of the person he is helpingh). Look for the ggoldh in (bell), the gplanthcomponent in (wisteria), and the glettersh topping (a religious ritual).

Ready to test yourself? Japanfs Top 20 surnames are listed in order of popularity below. Match each name with its meaning in English. Answers are at the end of the column.

No. 1. 2. 3. 4.c 5.n 6.ɓ 7.R{ 8. 9. 10.֓ 11. 12.gc 13.Rc 14.X 15.R 16.{ 17. 18.ؑ 19. 20.

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. gih-Wisteria
t. Tree-Village

Todayfs 25 kanji can also be recombined to make scores of other popular surnames, (such as { Hashimoto, c Fujita, and c Matsuda). For a kanji thrill, try thumbing through a Japanese telephone directory--you will be surprised at how often todayfs surname kanji appear, page after page.


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