13/01/2022

Understanding Japanese Names and How to Use Them

Due to the language, Japanese names are carefully composed of characters that provide meaning for the name. There are also some rules to be followed when addressing someone. Learn the basics of the structure of Japanese names, recent popular examples and how to use them when speaking Japanese.


Table of Contents

  1. Basic Structure of Japanese Names
  2. Popular and Common Japanese Names
  3. Some Rules when Addressing Japanese Names
  4. Summary

Basic Structure of Japanese Names

Have you wondered how Japanese names are structured and why there’s sometimes confusion? 

Surname Before Given Name

Like many countries in Asia, Japan's naming system is different from the Western naming system. Japanese names are written with the surname first and the given name last.

For example, using the name of famous Japanese writer 太宰治 (Dazai Osamu), 太宰 (Dazai) represents his surname while 治 (Osamu) represents his given name. Note that it is written as Dazai Osamu rather than Osamu Dazai which is how Western names are written.

Also note that Japanese names rarely use middle names unlike in the West. If a person in Japan has a middle name, it’s likely that they grew up in a different country or one or both of their parents are not Japanese.

Tip: If you do have a middle name and it’s on your passport, it’s recommended to include it in all documents in Japan, especially legal ones. Some people end up having issues later on when the name on the passport doesn’t match legal documents exactly.

The Characters in the Name

Japan's writing system can be classified into two: Kanji, which is influenced by Chinese characters, and Kana which consists of Hiragana and Katakana.

Kanji

Most Japanese names are written using Kanji. Kanji characters can have different meanings despite sounding alike; such as the name Haru which can be written as :

  • which can mean light, sun, or male
  • which means spring
  • which means clear or sunny weather

This is how Japanese names can differ in writing and meaning even if they are pronounced entirely the same.

For more examples of first names:

  • Yoshi can be written as 吉 (good luck), 義 (righteous), and 良 (virtuous)
  • Yuki can be written as 幸 (happiness), 雪 (snow), as well as other combinations of characters for yu and ki separately; not to be confused with Yuuki
  • Jun can be written as 淳 or 純 (pure), or 潤 (prosper)

These names and characters can be a part of a longer name using a combination with other characters to further add meaning to the name. In fact, people will often describe the meaning or common use of the character when telling a person their name for the first time so that they can picture the characters used to write the name. 

Hiragana & Katakana Names

Some parents choose to give their children names with no kanji but in kana instead. So taking an example from above, they may decide that their child’s name Yuki is written ゆき. In that case, the meaning behind the name is not clear upon reading it; on the other hand, no one will misread it. At times, some parents may even mix kanji and hiragana in one name.

Katakana is usually used when the person’s name has a foreign origin. Most foreigners in Japan, unless from a country where their name is already written in Chinese characters, will spell out the pronunciation of their name in katakana. But some Japanese parents choose to use katakana as well. For example, the name Erika is popular both in Japan and overseas, so people can choose to use kanji, hiragana or katakana to write the name.

Gender Specific Characters in Names

Some kanji are specifically used for boy names and different ones for girl names. Thus these names make it obvious at first glance, for example on an attendance sheet for school, whether the student is a boy or girl.  .

For Japanese male names, they might include kanji that invoke the image of being strong or tough like a warrior while others specifically identify them as a boy or a son. For example:

  • , which can be read as Takeshi, Mamoru, Isamu in addition to other readings, means strong or warrior. It can also be combined with other characters when read as take or mu. 

  • , read as o, means man and is usually added to the end of a name, such as Tetsuo, Akio and so on.

  • , read as ro, means son and is added to the end of certain boy names, such as Jiro, Taro and so on.

For Japanese female names, they might use kanji that invoke images of something feminine or beautiful, such as flowers.

  • , read as ka, means flower and is often added to girls names such as Erika, Kanon, etc. The kanji on its own is read Hana and is also used as a name. 

  • , read as mi, means beautiful and is used in a variety of Japanese names for girls including Emi, Mio, Misaki and so on.

Of course, nowadays, parents are getting more creative with names and don’t necessarily use kanji like the above that are gender-specific. Names that also used to be more gender specific are also being used for both boys and girls, such as Jun.

Popular and Common Japanese Names

Common last names haven’t changed in a while. The most common last names in Japan are Sato, Suzuki and Takahashi and have been for a good while. Other common surnames include Tanaka, Ito, Watanabe, Yamamoto, Kobayashi and Kato.

First names, on the other hand, differ from generation to generation. People can often tell which generation someone is from just from the first name or what characters are included in the name. For example, the name Rin has become more popular recently both for boys and girls, but it’s not a name you’d likely find in older generations even though it might be used as a nickname from a longer name.

Recent Popular Japanese names

According to a 2020 survey conducted by Akachan Honpo, a baby and children’s goods retail shop chain, there were 36,816 babies born between January and October. 18,617 of them were boys while 18,199 of them were girls.

The top 5 names chosen by parents for their baby boy are: 

  • Ren written as 蓮, 

  • Haruto written as 陽翔, 

  • Minato written as 湊, 

  • Yuma written as 悠真, and 

  • So written as 蒼.

The top 5 names chosen by parents for their baby girl are: 

  • Himari written as 陽葵, 

  • Mei written as 芽依, 

  • Hina written as 陽菜, 

  • Yua written as 結愛, and 

  • Yuna written as 結菜.

※ Akachan Honpo, "2020 Akachan Honpo Name Ranking"

Japanese "Kira Kira Names”

キラキラネーム, or “Kira Kira name” are names that stand out a lot by how they are read and pronounced - after all “kira kira” translates to shiny in English. But what kind of names are they? Kira kira names can be anything from names that haven’t traditionally been used before, to names with interesting kanji that are read differently than expected.

It’s easier just to give you examples. These are not necessarily common names, as most are extreme:

  • Names taken from popular characters such as Pikachu (光宙), Naruto (ナルト) and 泡姫 (Written Awahime but read as Ariel - Awahime translates to “bubble princess” as in the original story of the Little Mermaid, the mermaid princess turns to sea foam or bubbles when her love is unrequited)

  • Tetris written as 凸 which looks like one of the blocks in the game

  • Cute names taken from things parents like such as Mocha and Cocoa or the example in the photo above, where the parents love sakura (桜, cherry blossoms) and want their son to shine (輝く) so they named their son Ouki 桜輝 which is not a common name while 桜 (Sakura) for girls is. 

  • Names with kanji usually read as other things but with original reading: 一番 (Usually read ichiban meaning number one but read as “Toppu” or Top), 偉人 (usually read ijin meaning great person but read as “Gureito” or Great)

These Kira Kira Japanese names totally stand out and shine on their own but it affects the lives of those children who bear the name more than their parents who chose it. On one hand, these names certainly make an impression and are hard to forget, but sometimes it draws unwanted attention - whether it be from people unable to say the name correctly at first try, teasing from other kids, or being called out as a Kira Kira name to their face or behind their back. Some people go as far as to change their name when they get the chance. 

English Equivalent of Japanese names

Some Japanese names are harder to pronounce for people unfamiliar with the Japanese language. For Japanese people who live overseas or multiethnic families, this is another aspect to consider when choosing their kid’s names. Some people will give an English first name and Japanese middle name, or vice versa. Or just have a name they go by depending on where they are at the time.

There are also Japanese names that can easily be used as an English name. Examples of these are:

  • Hana - Hannah or Hanna 

  • Maya

  • Jin -  Gene or Jean (However, Jin is usually a boy’s name in Japanese)

  • Shion or Shun - Sean

Many mixed race kids have these names, or parents who want their names to be easily accessible in both languages.

Some Rules when Addressing Japanese Names

Japanese names aren't used or addressed as it is, like you’d do in English. There are certain rules followed and honorifics used that you must learn before addressing anyone in Japan. 

Some of the Typical Rules 

In Japan, the way you call someone can measure your familiarity with the person. Most certainly when you call someone by their first name in Japan without properly being acquainted would result in an uncomfortable situation and be what most Japanese would consider rude.

Given names can be only used by close friends and families in Japan and it is not common in the workplace. Most likely each person would be referred to with their surnames while in a professional workplace, titles can be used to replace their names. For example:

  • If a person's name is Akutagawa Ryunosuke, you would refer to that person as Akutagawa-san if you're not personally acquainted.

  • If you want to refer to a person with a higher authority in a workplace, you could refer to that person with their title like Bucho for the head of the department, Sensei for teachers, doctors and other professionals, and Senpai for upperclassmen or older colleagues.

Titles 

Titles or honorifics in Japan are attached with the names to indicate respect and acknowledgement for the person. Some of the most commonly used titles are -san, -sama, -kun, -chan, -senpai, and -sensei.

  • San - This is the most commonly used honorifics in Japan. You can use it regardless of the person's age, gender, and status. Its equivalent in English is Mister and Miss/Mrs. If a person's name is Nakahara Chuya, you can address that person as Nakahara-san if you're not acquainted and Chuya-san if you're more familiar and they allow it.

  • Sama - This is the most formal way of addressing someone in Japan. You mainly use it for someone who has a superior status or for your clients and customers. It is also used for Japanese gods referred to as Kami-sama. Its closest equivalent in English is Sir and Madam. If a person's name is Mori Rintaro, you need to address them by their surname like Mori-sama. If you don’t know their name and they are a customer, you would call them お客様 (okyaku-sama).

  • Kun - This is mainly used for younger men, men that are your friends, or men that are lower than your position at work and you have a closer working relationship. It can also be used for younger women in special cases. If a person's name is Nakajima Atsushi, you can either address that person as Nakajima-kun or Atsushi-kun.

  • Chan - This is mainly used for children and younger women. This is also used if you're familiar with the person you're addressing. If a person's name is Tanizaki Naomi, you can address that person as Naomi-chan. Note that this is rarely used with full last names, but is sometimes used with shortened last names, like Tani-chan for Tanizaki.

  • Senpai - As mentioned previously, this is used for addressing upperclassmen or older/superior colleagues. It is mainly used for Senpai-Kouhai (upperclassmen/lowerclassmen) relationships in schools and at workplaces. If a person's name is Kunikida Doppo, you can address that person as Kunikida-senpai or Doppo-senpai if you have a closer relation.

  • Sensei - As mentioned previously, this is used for addressing people with professions like teachers and doctors. If a person's name is Edogawa Ranpo, you can address that person as Edogawa-sensei.

For specific work titles, please check out our article here:
Defining Job Titles and Positions in Japanese

Summary

Names are valuable in Japan just like any name in the world. Each name has its own meaning and purpose that the person bears throughout their life. However, you can't easily address a person simply by their name because you need to learn the honorifics and rules before addressing someone. Knowing about the specifics can keep you from committing faux pas while also perhaps leading to a fun discussion about the meaning and background story behind names.

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