Japanese Family Names
はじめまして、私 は 田中 です。(Hajimemashite, watashi wa Tanaka desu.)
means, "Nice to meet you, I am Tanaka" in Japanese.
What is Tanaka? It´s a Japanese family name which is quite common. You might as well heard Suzuki (鈴木), Sato (佐藤) or Nakamura (中村).
Apparently, Japan is the country where has the most family names in the world. There are 270,000 including the ones died out in these days. And yet, there are still 140,000 family names are in use in Japan.
This is a lot comparing to China which population is 1,300 million and has only 500 of them. In Korea, 55% of the population has the five most common family names such as Kim (金) and Yi (李) or in Vietnam, about 90% of people have the same family name Nguyễn (阮). There are so many family names in Japan and even I haven´t met even the half of 140,000 names.
The most common 5 names in Japan are 1. Satou (佐藤), 2.Suzuki (鈴木) 3. Takahashi (高橋) 4. Tanaka (田中) 5. Watanabe (渡辺). Have you met any of them? By the way my family name is Kurihara (栗原) and it was 192 th most common in Japan.
1. Place-name : Ito (以東), Uesugi (上杉), Narita (成田), Mouri (毛利). There was a famous shogun in the 16th century called Kenshin Uesugi (上杉謙信).
2. Profession : Inukai(犬養), Kaji (鍛冶), Hattori (服部), Yuzuri, Yumikezuri (弓削). Hattori was the people who made textile but one of the most famous Hattori I know is a chef, hihi.
3. Job role : Mikado (御門), Tatewaki/Obinata (帯刀), Takiguchi (滝口). Usually, family names with "御" were the family who used to work for the emperor family.
4. Yago (trade name) : Aburaya (油屋), Shiraki (白木), Takada (高田), Masuya (升屋). Aburaya is the shop sells oil.
5. Phenomenon : Todoroki (轟), Narumi (鳴海), Takanshi (小鳥遊). Takanashi is written as "little birds play". Why? Because there is Taka (hawk) Nashi (none), little birds can play around freely.
7. Name : Gen-nai (源内), Tamesada (為貞). Family names with Gen are a part of Genji (源氏) family or people related to them. And Gen-nai particularly had a role as a guard. In the same theory, Hiranai (平内) were the guard of Heisi (平氏) family.
8. Shorten of family names : Mune (宗), Mono (物). For example Mune can be a short version of Souda (宗田) and just took the first part 宗 and changed the sound to "Mune".
9. Religion : Jin (神), Miwa (三輪), Shaku (釈). The character for Jin means God, Miwa came from Mt. Miwa in Kyouto which has a legend related to Japanese old gods. Shaku was the Buddhist monks common name.
10. Combination of a few Kanji characters : Kume (粂), Maro (麿). Kume can be written with two kanji, 久米 but in this case, combined into one, so as Maro, it´s combined 麻呂 into one.
11. Title : Muraji (連), Omi (臣), Atai (直). These are hereditary titles called kabane (姓) in Japanese, which ancient powerful clans were given from the Imperial Court and put it after their family name. There were about 30 of them existed until Taika Reform in 645.
13. Double family name : Chousokabe (長曾我部), Hikitasaitou (疋田斉藤). Combination of two family names, the concept is the same as 11.
14. Foreign names : Kudara (百済), Hata (泰), Santos (三都主). Kudara was one of three ancient countries of Korea and the place where many Koreans lived in Japan was named Kudara. Hata came from a Chinese dynasty, Qín and Santos is a popular Brazilian footballer playing in Japan.
These are the basic structure of Japanese family name. In the case of 1, people took the name from the place name but the case 2-14, the place was named after the people´s family name because they lived and ruled there.
One thing, they share the same character but sometimes read it differently. Just remember, there may be another way of reading the family name even though they are written the same.
In the Japanese Family Names part 2, we will deepen more about each family name; its roots, history and so on.