Japanese Family Names

October 12, 2011 Juju Kurihara 7 Comments

greetingI´m looking at a Japanese text book for foreigners. It starts with the sentence saying,

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.


kenshinThis time, I just like to explain how Japanese name has been made. Although 80% of Japanese family names´ origin is a place-name, and there are 14 types of structures.

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.

6. directionsDirection : Higashi (東), Minami (南), Kitagawa (北側), Tarsumi (辰巳). Tatsumi is Japanese old way of saying the directions and means Southeast.

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.

12. Artistic names : Zen-ami (善阿弥), Kouwaka (幸若), Kinjousai (錦城斎). Zen-ami was the famous artistic gardener, Kouwaka was the master of dance and Kinjousai were lecturers in Edo period.santos

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.


  1. Colleen Ohira 3 years Reply

    My family is looking for our family mon for Kurihara. My grandfather came from Japan to Hawaii.

    • Juju Kurihara 3 years

      Hi Colleen, just a quick reply for now. It’s interesting that you are looking for a mon for Kurihara. Do you know where your grandfather was born in Japan? 

      I am Kurihara too. My family may have a lantern with our mon on it. Give me some time, I will check with my mum. 

  2. Pancawan 5 years Reply

    After my father died 10 months ago my grandmother tell me that my grandpa is a japanese with family name tanaka. Can you help me how to search the history of tanaka people that ever come to east indonesia as a soldier ( like capt ).
    I only know the family name was Tanaka, doesn’t have a picture also.
    (Sorry if my english not good enough to write)

  3. roger 7 years Reply

    looking for the name “JIO” and name characters. can you help me?
    Thank you

    • juju.kurihara 7 years

      Hi Roger

      Thank you for contacting me. Is Jio a Japanese family name and do you want to know how to write?

  4. Mare 7 years Reply

    My mother’s mom die when she was three years old, therefore, a cousin of her mother raised her. The last name of the family who raised her is Omoya オモヤ, which means the core or center of a manor, according to some research I made on the internet. This may be wrong I am not sure. However, we would like to have more information about the Omoya family. If you can please help in any way, we would appreciated greatly!

    Thank you very much in advance.


    • juju.kurihara 7 years

      Hi Mare,

      Thank you for your inquiry. I´ve tried to see what sort of Kanji used for Omoya. Can you find out? Is it 主屋, 母屋, 重屋? 

      I love to help you but I need a bit more clue.


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