Japanese Family Names – Tanaka (田中) –

September 18, 2014 Juju Kurihara Culture, History, Vocabulary Tags: 4 Comments

myoujiWhile ago, I spoke about how Japanese family names were created. In ancient Japan, family names were only for the higher social class people and usual people didn´t have them. In  Meiji Jidai (明治時代), to be exact, in Meiji 3rd (1870), the government issued the law, “the permission to have family names for the common people (平民苗字許可令)”. However the people were suspicious that they would be asked to pay the fee and didn´t follow the law. The Buddhist monks didn´t follow either by saying they did shukke (出家- meaning “leave the family”, to become priest) and did not need a family name. So Meiji 5 (1872), Meiji government issued another law, “Chief Priest and Monks Family Name Selection Compulsory Act (住職僧侶苗字必称義務令)”. Still the people were suspicious and hesitated to have a family name. In Meiji 8 (1875), “Commoner Family Name Selection Compulsory Act (平民苗字必称義務令)” was issued.

myouji 3Many people had no idea how to create the family name and they would go to the local oracle or the monks for the advice. There must have been monks and oracles who were good at making family names but also there were those who weren´t. It´s said that many of strange family names were created by those who had trouble thinking names.

Today, I will talk about the origin of Tanaka (田中), the fourth common family name in Japan. Some may already know but 田 represents rice field and 中 means in or inside.


myouji 4

If you see the form of the rice field, you can imagine how the Kanji, 田 was created.  The family name Tanaka means the person who lives in (naka) the rice field and take care of it. People who lived in the rice field area formed villages and named themselves Tanaka. Considering that Japan was an agricultural country, it´s normal that there are many family names related to 田 such as Yamada (山田) , Yoshida (吉田) , Morita (森田) and so on. Among the 100 most common family names, 23 of them have the character of rice field.

The family name Tanaka is especially common in the western part of Japan rather than the eastern part. This is believed of the evidence that rice farming expanded from the western part of Japan to the north.


myouji 5Taking care of rice fields doesn´t mean they are all farmers. There are many different families and clans who had family name of 田中. In the Gozoku (豪族) Kudara (百済) who was one of the most powerful and wealthy clan in the 6-7th centuries, there were Tanaka families. One of them, Tanaka Murajikimimaro (田中連公麻呂) contributed to cast a huge statue of Buddha in bronze and received a title from the Imperial Court. Because of this, there are many Tanaka among the people who are responsible for the maintenance of Shinto Shrines.



The family name Tanaka also comes from the descendant of one of the ancient gods and of the Soga clan who was another powerful family in the era. Apart from these roots, there were many Samurai clans whose family name was Tanaka since they took the name where they came from. The places were Oumi (近江/now Shiga prefecture) , Harima no Kuni (播磨国/ now Hyogo prefecture), Awa no Kuni, Kaifu gun (阿波国海部郡/ now Tokushima prefecture), Mutsu, Namekata gun (陸奥行方郡/ now Fukushima prefecture), Hizen no Kuni, Sonogi gun (肥前国彼杵郡/ now Nagasaki prefecture) and more! You can imagine how rich Japan´s rice farming was in the ancient time.

tanaka kamon


Since the root of Tanaka is so diverse, there are many different Kamon (家紋/heraldry) for this family name. Each Kamon shows which origin the family belongs to.

I´m actually surprised how deep the history was for a family name. Remind you, this is only one of 140,000 Japanese family names. I think it´s an interesting subject to follow and I will show you little by little.

Do you know the origin of your family name? I like to hear it.


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  1. Jonnette Nielsen 2 years Reply

    My Grandmother ‘s maiden name was Tanaka so I was wondering what the meaning of the name was and where she came from. This information is very helpful but I don’t think I can find out where she originated from. I don’t have enough information to be able to find out.

  2. Cheche 3 years Reply

    My daughter’s name is Chihiro Tanaka. Her father is Japanese from Nara City. Her father told me about the meaning of TANAKA. I thought he was joking. And now I know . Thank you!

  3. Taro Tanaka 5 years Reply

    My last name is Tanaka how would I go about finding more in depth detail about what clan and such?

    • Juju Kurihara 5 years

      I will write about it then. Thank you for the suggestion.

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