Column #86 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, June 19, 2007
"Ranking popular kanji baby names is no picnic"

Every year a ranking of popular names for American newborns appears on the U.S. Social Security Administration Web site, with the winners arrayed in one easy-to-read chart. In 2006, the number one name for boys was Jacob, followed by Michael then Joshua. For girls the favorite was Emily, then Emma and Madison. Here on the other side of the Pacific, where individual Japanese kanji--especially those used in personal names--can possess multiple pronunciations, ranking baby names is a considerably more complicated task.

With access to the names of its policyholders' new offspring, (8,500 of them in 2006), insurance giant Meiji Yasuda Life is ideally situated to monitor the popularity of Japanese baby names, and has been making its findings public since 1989 ( The company provides two separate rankings: one for kanji names irrespective of pronunciation and the other for the most popular name pronunciations.

The top kanji name for girls last year, exhibiting remarkable staying power (number one for the third time since 2003), was z (gsun-rape planth), followed by H (gbeautiful-wingh), and (beautiful-blossomingh). Pronunciations for z include Hina, Haruna, Hinata, and Akina, none of which emerged as the top-ranking name pronunciation for girls. That honor went to Haruka, a name written in such a wide variety of ways that not one of them appeared in the top 10 kanji name list. y (meaning gdistanth) came in at number 17, ͂邩 (the hiragana version) was number 55, and z (gsun-fragranceh) and t (gspring-fragranceh) ranked #73 and #74 respectively. Haruka likely owes some of its steam to NHKfs popular 2005-06 serial drama g̃nJh (Kaze no Haruka, in which the heroinefs name is rendered in katakana).

The number one name pronunciation for boys in 2006 also featured haru: Haruto, which managed to topple six-consecutive-year champ Yuuki. Like Haruka, Haruto can be written in a dizzying variety of ways: z (gsunh), y (gdistanth), (gbigh), (gclear uph), and I (gsereneh) for haru, andl (gBig Dipperh), l (gpersonh), and (gsoarh) for to, are some of the less obscure options.

The grand champion among kanji names for boys in 2006, rising from number 14 to number 1 in just one year, was single-character (glandh). has only one common pronunciation, gRiku,h and perhaps this appealed to parents hoping to avert kanji confusion. Others may have chosen it for its ginternational flavor,h overlooking the fact that while Riku is spelled similarly to the English name gRickh it also sounds dangerously like the word gleakh-- as in gtake a leak,h American slang for urination. replaces last yearfs number one (gbig-soarh). Perhaps Japanese parents are starting to hope that their sons will keep their heads out of the sky, feet firmly on the ground, and become financially independent 20 or so years down the road.

I (haru, yuu, yu, hisa) saw a sudden rise in popularity for use in boysf names when the baby son of Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko was given the name Im (Hisahito, gserene-virtuoush) last year.

The given name of Boston Red Sox pitcher Matsuzaka Daisuke (known as gDice-Kh in the U.S.), (Daisuke, gbig-helperh), sped like his famous gyro pitch into the number 41 position in 2006 after being unranked in the top 100 for years, and young figure-skating sensation Mao Asadafs ^ (Mao, gtrue-centerh) glided into the girlsf top 10.

^ was one of the few top monikers for females last year that did not feature plants/trees (e.g., #6 Aoi, ghollyhockh; #11 An, gapricot treeh; and #14 Kaede, gmaple treeh) or love (e.g., #5 Ai/Mana, gloveh; #10 Ami, glove-beautifulh; and #15 Yui/Yua/Yume, gbinding-loveh). gKoh (q,hchildh) is out (only two names ending in q landed in the Top 100), and gna,h (, grape planth) is in: a whopping 13 of the girlsf top 100 end with yellow-flowered .

You might expect someone who writes a column on kanji to have children with carefully crafted kanji names. But my Japanese spouse, who has endured a lifetime of inconvenience because of his own obscure given name, insisted on giving our children English names rendered in katakana. gA Japanese family name is enough for them,h he argued, and that is how we ended up with sons V[ (Noguchi Sean) and [JX (Noguchi Lukas). Fortunately, both boys tell me they are fond of their names.

Another column on baby names is here.

Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links