While some parents are content to see which name sticks, others spend literal months fretting over the perfect moniker for their newborn. For many parents, especially those in intercultural relationships, the ideal name will be one that isn’t too tricky for non-Japanese people to pronounce and spell, but at the same time isn’t going to sound totally alien to Asian ears either.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Japanese baby names.
Foreign-friendly Japanese girl names
Generally speaking, parents of little girls have a lot more options than parents of little boys. A lot of common names for girls work in both English and Japanese, most notably あんな (Anna), えま (Ema), and にな (Nina).
There are also some less common names that make good equivalents to Western names. あん (An), for example, is not a common name in Japan, but foreign families may bring it back as it sounds exactly like Ann.
Luckily the success of Haitian-Japanese tennis player 大坂 なおみ (Osaka, Naomi) has made the name なおみ (Naomi) increasingly popular. Although the stress is different from the English name Naomi, it is close enough that with a slight switch of pronunciation, it works in both languages.
For those in love with Studio Ghibli’s creations, Totoro’s best friend, めい (Mei) could offer a cute name that works in both languages as, although it might not look like an English name, it is pronounced similarly to the Western name May. Another example of looking different but having similar pronunciation is はな (Hana).
Thanks to the Japanese ら, り, る, れ, ろ (Ra, Ri, Ru, Re, Ro) being pronounced somewhat similarly to the English-language “L”-sound, many names work even though they may be written with an “R.” For example, りさ works—despite the fact it is often spelled Risa—as an equivalent of Lisa.
りな (Rina), りん (Rin), れな (Rena) sound like Lynna, Lyn, and Lena thanks to this quirk, too. This also allows even names that have ridiculously different spellings such as りり (Riri), けいり (Keiri), ありさ (Arisa), えれん (Eren), えみり(Emiri), and かいり (Kairi) to sound similar to English names Lily, Kayle, Alicia, Ellen, Emily, and Kylie—even though the spellings may not suggest there could be any phonetic similarity at all.
Of course, the R/L rule works the other way and although a name like えりか (Erika) looks identical to the Western name Erika and かれん (Karen) looks like Karen, both are pronounced differently.
Some parents simply accept this problem and give their children names that look like Western names albeit with vastly different pronunciations. まりえ (Marie), まりあ (Maria) and まり (Mari) are all names that look deceptively Western; however, have very different pronunciations.
Similar problems exist with あみ (Ami) which is pronounced very differently to Amy despite looking similar. But there is a name that is pronounced similarly to Amy, written in Japanese as えいみ (Eimi).
Foreign-friendly Japanese boy names
While the new Star Wars movies haven’t been the best (IMO!) one advantage for parents is that the name Rey has started to appear as a girl’s name as well as a boy’s one in the West. Luckily れい (Rei) is a common nickname for female names like れいか (Reika) and male names like れいじ (Reiji) that makes a decent approximation to the name Ray despite the spelling.
One slight problem with the name れい is the L/R rule which makes its pronunciation a little different to the hard “R”-sound of the name Ray. Luckily the L/R rule is on the parents’ side for the name あらん (Aran) which both sounds like the Western name Alan and has the awesome bonus of having a romaji spelling that looks like a forgotten Lord of the Rings character!
“Behold!” Said Gandalf, “Sir Aran approaches.”
On the subject of mystical-sounding names, 譲二 (Jyouji) is becoming increasingly common in Japan. While this may not look like any Western name, it is pronounced much like the name George.
Another name that benefits from the L/R rule is the name れん (Ren) despite its Western equivalent, Len, typically being a nickname. If nicknames are no problem, parents also have けん (Ken) to choose from to give their child that Street Fighter edge of cool. Lastly, no list would be complete without the name のあ (Noa) which sounds close to the biblical name Noah.
It’s worth mentioning that a few names which don’t work in English sound similar to other country’s naming conventions. にこ (Niko) for example works in Japan and in Greece and many other Mediterranean countries that use the name, Nico.
Another name that is popular with Europeans is the somewhat uncommon Japanese name ゆご (Yugo) that doesn’t sound much like the name Hugo in English but does in countries like France where the h-sound is less prominent. Similarly, あさ (Asa) works in Swedish; for example, photographer and model Åsa Tällgård.
Of course, while these are names that work in multiple languages, many parents are choosing to embrace traditionally Japanese names. There is no shame whatsoever in embracing whatever name you want as no parent should feel forced to choose a name just because it can be slightly more easily understood by foreign people or because it makes Japanese people slightly more comfortable.
So while parents should be careful with the dangers of kira kira (modern, lit. “shiny”) names, famous athletes like ベイカー茉秋 (Matthew/Mashu Baker) and ケンブリッジ 飛鳥 (Asuka “Aska” Cambridge) show you can have a unique name and make your name cool because of who you are.