What’s in a Japanese Name?

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Photo by Becca Takano
May 16, 2017

When I first arrived in Japan, I really struggled with Japanese names. Trying to get my tongue around even simple ones like 千秋ちあき and夏子なつこ were tricky. I still remember the disappointed looks on some of the kids’ faces as they asked me if I remembered their names only to be met with shrugs; despite the fact I’d been teaching them for the better part of a year!

It would have been a lot easier to remember their names, however, if I had known that a lot of them reflect the values that their parents wanted to impart on their child. The name 千秋, for example, is made up the kanji for thousand (千) and autumn (秋) and the name 夏子 is created from summer (夏) and child (子). Appropriately the girls in question matched these descriptions, as 千秋 was a serious, smart girl (my image of someone in permanent autumn) and 夏子 was a bright and happy girl.

As well as making people’s names easier to remember, this practice is also a useful way to learn some kanji. Shortly before my JLPT2 exam, I made a point of noticing the kanji in my students’ names. This tactic paid off in an unexpected way when 恵むめぐむ came up in my JLPT2 exam. A cinch as my girlfriend’s name is 恵仁 and I’d seen that kanji every time I’d sent her an email.

Taking note of the characters that comprise a name is not just for advanced learners, either. Intermediate learners should also take note of the popular kanji in women’s names. Many feature characters such as あい (love),  ひかり (light), はな (flower), かおり (scent), (peace), (beauty) and はる (spring), all of which come up in JLPT3. The learning curve is that many female names have the 音読み (the more difficult Chinese reading of the kanji) in them.

On the other hand, a useful way to remember male names is to look for the numbers in their names. Many Japanese boys are named by their order in the family as this used to be very important as only the eldest child could perform certain rites.

The eldest members of the family will usually have the いち (the number “one”) kanji in their name. One of the most famous examples of this is the baseball player 鈴木 一朗すずきいちろう. You will also find this character at the end, too, in names such as 山口 良一やまぐちりょういち, a classic Japanese タレント.

While 一 keeps its most common reading, いち, things get a bit more complicated with the subsequent numbers. Instead of に, the character 二 (two) is usually read じ in names; 三 is read ざぶ or ぞう; although, thankfully, 四 is read with its usual reading, し.

Common examples include ハチミツ 二郎じろう (a hugely popular comedian in the 2000s), 大江 健三郎おおえけんざぶろう (Nobel prize for literature winner) and 奥秋 四良おくあき しりょう (a marketing genius).

Some families can take this to extremes and you can come across the names 俊一しゅんいち, 俊二しゅんじ and 俊三しゅんぞう all in the same family! In the old days, when families were bigger, sometimes names all the way from 一郎 (the first son) to 八郎 (the eighth son) were found.

Other useful kanji that commonly appear in male names are 健太けんた (health and thick, respectively), けん (sharpen), けん (humbleness), きち (fortune) and こう (harbor). These are all common JLPT 2 and 3 kanji.

While Japanese names can be tricky to master, one of the keys is to look for these patterns and meanings and then link them to the person’s personality or looks. By imagining what their parents wanted for their children when they were naming them, you can work out what their names mean and learn some intermediate kanji in the process, too.

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