= Japanese Names =
The first thing that needs to be
remembered about Japanese names is that the surname comes first. The first
Ashikaga shôgun, Takauji,
was thus Ashikaga Takauji, not Takauji
Ashikaga, despite the order sometimes given his name in many Western books. It
is a modern oddity that even today the names of Japanese, when appearing in
English, are often reversed (perhaps it looks foreign and therefore more
impressive to them?) and written in the correct order when using kanji. This
is a trend slowly being reversed by magazines and newspapers in
Another thing to keep in mind is
that Japanese is written with what some may consider ideographs or pictographs;
every element has not only a sound but a meaning. Consider the modern English
names Heather, Holly,
Even ancient names have meanings that can be understood if one knows the original language. They are just names, however. Just as a girl named Rose is not a flower, a man named Takeshi need not be brave, nor would a woman named O-gin actually be made of silver.
Japanese names are not random syllables strung together. Even today, where there is a habit to have girls’ names written in the kana syllabary rather than the ideogrammatic kanji, some will say “Oh, it doesn’t have a kanji,” when in point of fact, if it is a word, there is a kanji — they merely may not have thought of which of the synonymous kanji it might be.
This being said, let us take a look at names.
The structure of names changed
considerably over the nearly 1,500-some years of recorded Japanese history.
During the Heian and early
Those appointed governors of provinces would insert their title between sur- and given names. Hideyoshi, after he was made nominal governor of Chikuzen, was styled “Hashiba Chikuzen-no-kami Hideyoshi.” In SCA parameters, this should work well for landed barons of Japanese extraction; for example, the founding baron of the Trimarian barony of An Crosaire (meaning “The Crossroads” and rendered into Japanese as “Kiro”) would have been Sakura Kiro-no-kami Tetsuo. This is also one reason why I strongly feel that the use of “Naninani-no-kami” for “Lord Whatever” should be disallowed. It was and is quite clearly a landed title, even though often used only honorarily. (By the way, “naninani” is the Japanese equivalent of “whatever” or “such-and-such.”)
Later, in the Momoyama
Surnames (myôji) were the prerogative of the aristocracy, whether civil or military. Commoners did not bear surnames until the Meiji Restoration.
Quite a few surnames were for
descriptive reasons. The founder of the Fujiwara clan, a man originally named Nakatomi no Kamako, received his
new name from the field (in Japanese “hara/wara”)
of wisteria (
Many surnames are clearly geographical or point to a physical property. Usually such descriptive names with kanji AB means B of [the] A. For example, Yama·moto (= base of the mountain), Ta·naka (= center of the paddy), Naka·da (= middle paddy), Shima·mura (= island village), Hon·da (= original paddy), Ki·no·shita (= under the tree) etc.
Let’s take a look at ta/da (= rice paddy) as an example. Quite a few specify a plant or tree nearby to delineate the exact area: Takeda (= bamboo paddy), Fujita (= wisteria paddy), Matsuda (= pine paddy), etc. Others are location specific (Shimoda, lower paddy), possessive (= Murata, village paddy), or some other descriptive (Furuta, old paddy.)
As only samurai and the aristocracy had true surnames, everyone else was primarily denoted by what he did for a living or where he lived; Yaoya was the greengrocer. Yamanoue was the guy who lived on top of the mountain. Such a man would be styled as Komeya no Toku, “Toku the rice merchant.” In this, the names were similar to those of the aristocracy, and (e.g., if there were a nobleman whose surname was Yamanoue), it could have been confusing. In this more modern instance, the “no” would be the giveaway; it literally means “of”
One form of “surname” typical among
commoners also occurred; the appellation. These are nicknames, like Ethelred
“the Unready” or Charles “the Bald.” They are called “
The vast majority of surnames consist of two kanji; a few names use three or more, and there is a handful of one kanji names as well. Some of the latter — though by no means all, as such native Japanese names as Katsura, Minamoto, and Kusunoki show — point to possible Chinese or Korean ancestry, where single-kanji surnames are the rule. It has been estimated that there are some 1,300 – 1,400 possible kanji used in the initial position in surnames, but only some 100 commonly occur in the final.
Some surnames of families active prior to 1600
Surnames of kuge families
Those in the SCA who deliberately choose their persona to be not of the aristocracy or samurai class need to have a locational descriptive, job title, or adana rather than a true surname, as only the upper classes had surnames.
Those desiring to simply identify
themselves as being of a particular place will make use of the “no”
particle. The form, given a man who, in English, would be named Jirô of Mutsu, would be Mutsu no Jirô. Remember that the
rule is, the “possessor” — or larger element — comes first; in this case, the
“Surnames” of the Buddhist clergy
had special rules, so those desiring to be monks or such should pick a temple
to be from (e.g.; ”Enryakuji
no Tosabô,” meaning Tosabô
[= a monk from Tosa] of
Given names: men
Up until the seventh century, many
names for men of the upper classes — and this is pretty much all we have on
record — often ended in ~maro or ~ko
(e.g.; Muchimaro, Nakamaro,
Kamako, etc.). Their names generally reflected their
characteristics, or their background. In post-Nara years, naming patterns would
change; partly influenced by the Chinese system, partly influenced by
The most common type of name for children was the yômyô (or dômyô) — specifically a child’s name — which was conferred with due ceremony six days after birth. This name usually ended with the suffix ~maru, ~maro (written either with one or two kanji that have the same pronunciation), ~o, or ~waka. Occasionally, there would be similarities to the names of adults of the Nara Period.
is a suffix denoting affection, and often appears on the names given swords, as
well. It survives today in the naming of ships; virtually all non-military
Another naming habit was taking positive character traits — adjectives or verbs — and making them names. Examples are names like Takeshi (= brave), Manabu (= study), and Susumu (= go forward). Those of the lower classes kept these names all their lives. What this does is point to the plebeian origins of names such as Takao, Hideo, and all of the other names making use of the noun or adjective element and the “male” suffix ~o. It also indicates that such names would not likely be acceptable for any but late-Period usage for those in upper classes.
zokumyô, (confusingly enough also
called tsûshô, kemyô,
or yobina) generally reflected the
numerical order of birth the child had in the family. This name was taken upon
the genpuku (coming of age) ceremony, and was
the one by which men were commonly known to their close friends and family
members. The numerical order names were often altered in some way with the
addition of an auspicious adjective before it, such as Dai~ (big), Chô~ (long), Ryô~ (good), or
something similar. In Heian
All things considered, this name structure produced examples like Daigorô (= big fifth son), and Chôzaburô (= long third son; the S here mutating to Z), etc. To simplify things, in the late 1500s some people started leaving off the ~rô, especially with first sons. This left names like Ryûzô (= dragon third), Genpachi (= original eighth), and Ryôichi (= good first).
Often one might bear a name like “Saburôjirô” — implying that he was the second son (jirô) of a third son (saburô). If he was the third son of a third son, his name might be “Matasaburô” — “mata” meaning “again.”
The late great actor Mifune Toshirô has a name taking
the form of a classic zokumyô. Admiral
Yamamoto Isoroku, of
Names ending in ~suke or~nosuke (actually, either
element was written with a variety of kanji), ~emon,
or ~zaemon, though historical-sounding and
aristocratic as they are, are in large part post-Period, as they came from a
habit of naming people after titles (~suke was deputy
governor, and ~emon was a guard title). There were a
few famous people in the sengoku period who bore such names, but the fashion really took off in the
Members of the upper or privileged classes would have both a zokumyô and a nanori (see below).
The formal adult name, taken along with the zokumyô at the genpuku ceremony, was called nanori (or jitsumei, “true name”). It usually consisted of two kanji (very, very rarely more; hardly ever one) producing a four syllable name — pronounced with the Japanese reading of the characters — which had auspicious or otherwise positive tones.
After the tenth century, the practice of the father or godfather (that is, the genpuku sponsor) granting one of the kanji in his name to the young man during the genpuku ceremony began; this is why so many of the Ashikaga shôgun have Yoshi~ as the first element in their names, and the Tokugawa family Ie~. Looking through a book of Japanese names or an encyclopedia will show many occurrences of kanji repetition in a single family. In the Minamoto, there was Yori~ and Yoshi~: Yoritomo, Yorinobu, Yorimasa, etc.; Yoshitsune, Yoshiie, Yoshichika, Yoshinaka, etc. The Oda clan used Nobu~ frequently, and the Hôjô regents used Toki~. (This is one reason the Laurel Sovereign of Arms may wish to consider allowing the names of exalted families but restrict any using given name elements common to those clans.)
The order of kanji placement could have gone either way, but one given a kanji which is first in his godfather’s name seldom puts it second in his; one could, however, be given the second kanji instead. This would have been no slight, either; different families followed different traditions, and different kanji have different meanings. Yasunobu and Nobuyasu, written with the same two kanji, merely transposed, are both perfectly acceptable names.
The chart below provides the principal kanji for the most common elements used in nanori. As many name elements have different meanings, depending on the kanji used, it is difficult to provide a complete list of choices. I have only provided a few of the most common. The chart will enable you to produce thousands of combinations of nanori.
Keep in mind that the “meanings” are only cursory at best — few name kanji parse one-to-one with an English concept, especially when that kanji is being used as a name. For example, most words dealing with “law” relate to Buddhist concepts of order and so forth; and the second kanji for “Toshi” below can be roughly translated as ”agile, alert, ” etc., but it pehaps most closely resembles the English concept “on the ball.”
Nanori consisting of a single kanji are either read with the Chinese pronunciation and sounding monosyllabic to Western ears though in actuality two syllables (e.g.; actor Matsudaira Ken); or the Japanese pronunciation utilizing verbal or adjectival forms and are tri-syllabic (e.g.; Takeshi, brave; Tadashi, correct; Shigeru, luxuriant). On the whole, such names seem more modern, as they are more common today than in days past.
Given names of two kanji,
when read in the Chinese fashion (with Japanese version of the Chinese
pronunciation), are more formal-sounding, and lend an academic, cultured (and,
yes, often clerical) feel to the name. Such names are called azana. Often they are usually indicative of artists,
performers, or men of letters. They are not unlike a medieval man named Karl
Putting it all together
Taking Yoshitsune as our example, his myôji was Minamoto, his yômyô was Ushiwakamaru, his zokumyô Kurô, his nanori Yoshitsune, and an azana would be Gikei. All this for a name which should be registered in the SCA as Minamoto no Kurô Yoshitsune.
The chart above provides enough fodder for making several hundred names in Japanese. Another way is to look through a name encyclopædia (the most accessible in English is probably P.G. O’Neill’s Japanese Names, finally available in paperback from Weatherhill, or Lady Solveig Thorardottir’s Jinmei chimei techô, a catalogue of names). The only problem here is that unless you speak Japanese, there is often no telling what the names mean or if they are Period or acceptable; O’Neill and others suffer greatly for this, although Jinmei chimei techô breaks down names by the meaning of the principal kanji element and provides a date for at least one occurrence for each name.
Given names: women
A warning on women’s names needs to be given before anything else is done.
Most of the “names” of women known
It should be remembered that few women’s names of the Heian Period have come down to us save those of empresses or the like; other women’s names never made it into the early genealogical charts.
Women did not change their names as did the men upon reaching a certain age; they kept theirs for life. The only likely time a woman would change it would be if, say, she became a nun. Their names were usually written in kana rather than kanji; the latter were generally reserved for men, though there is nothing wrong with using them for a woman’s name. Kana were (and still are) just assumed to be more feminine.
Although it is often assumed that all Japanese women’s names end in ~ko, this is not the case. Historically, very few women had the ~ko ending on their names. (It was originally a male naming element, in fact.) Women of the highest ranks had it from the Heian Period onwards, but rarely. As late as the 1880s, only three percent of Japanese women had ~ko names. By the 1930s, for various reasons, it was around eighty percent. For Period usage, we in the SCA use it far too much.
Almost completely neglected are other ending elements (~e and ~yo) or names with no suffix at all. (Women with ~ko would in fact often use their names without the ~ko in Period, recognizing it as an honorable suffix; this usage is no longer the case, however.) In the court, names ending in ~ko were actually apparently often pronounced in the Chinese fashion (~shi), so the name of the imperial consort commonly read “Sadako” today was in the court known as “Teishi.”
An interesting note is that names of more than two syllables were never finished off with a ~ko suffix; it was deemed simply too much name. Women were usually given two syllable names as well, without the suffix, although in the court three syllable names (no suffix) were not uncommon.
Frequently the names of plants, things from the arts, seasonal elements, and other “feminine” things were taken for use as women’s names. For example, in the film Ran, the bitch-figure is Kaede (maple). The 1500s saw the introduction of the honorific prefix O~, thus names like O-matsu (pine), O-gin (silver; final n being a syllable in Japanese), O-haru (spring), etc. Modern naming practice would render that last as “Haruko.”
Common second-characters for women’s names were ~e (branch), ~e (bay), ~e (a great amount of ~), ~no (plain, field) and ~yo (age, generation), and even the lowly ~me (woman).
Women of noble families — take O-matsu, daughter of Takeda Shingen, for example — when addressed, would typically be called Matsu-hime. The “-hime” means essentially princess (and indeed is an address for one), but in rule of use it functions similarly to the SCA use of “Lady.” She would generally not be called “O-matsu-hime,” as that might be considered an incongruous and redundant combination of honorifics.
Japanese seem inordinately fond of pseudonyms.
While it is not uncommon for an entertainer in the West to take a new name upon mounting the stage, it is an extreme rarity for a Japanese not to do so. Just about every field of endeavor has alternate naming traditions.
Men interested in clerical personae or the Buddhist militant clergy should note that that up until the 1500s, monks generally took as their “given name” the region they were born, and added to it the suffix ~bô (= or monk), thereby very Buddhistically severing their ties; they no longer had names. Musashibô Benkei was such; he came from the Musashi region (as did a certain famous swordsman several centuries later) and his chosen name was Benkei. Alternatively, they could add a Chinese-pronounced name called a hômyô (= Dharma name) related to Buddhist doctrine or teaching. The lay nobility kept their family names, and merely adopted Chinese-pronounced hômyô (e.g.; Takeda Shingen, whose original name was Harunobu, and Hôjô Sôun, whose was Nagauji).
Buddhist names may be followed by the epithet nyûdô (”one who has entered into the way”). An example would be Raizen Nyûdô; the usage is really not too dissimilar to “Brother So-and-so” or “Father So-and-so.” Nyûdô, unlike traditional monastic clergy, were “lay clergy” — though they lived a monastic life (at least in theory), they typically had their own homes and lives. For this reason, “nyûdô” is often translated as “lay monk.” Shingen and Kenshin were both Nyûdô, as was Taira no Kiyomori, the patriarch of the Taira clan at the start of the Genpei War. The concept of “lay monk” was strictly male: women who became monastics (”ama” — nun) simply became monastics, regardless of their actual living conditions.
Names taken by artists and members of the literati were collectively called azana. Warriors took gô, painters took gamyô, haiku artists took haimyô, entertainers geimyô, etc. The implication behind the new name is that the artist belongs to a higher life. (Of course, there were also instances when the artistic career would be potentially damaging to one’s reputation if the true name were known.) The artist would keep his regular name, at any rate, but all his work would be signed with his art name. (This, of course, would play hell in the SCA in establishing a reputation of an artisan or craftsman if you were involved in other areas as well, unless you sign everything in kanji, so it is the same person, same name; only the reading is different.) These names would often end with such suffices as ~dô (hall), ~ka (retreat), ~tei (pavilion), ~kaku (tall building), etc.
Many followers of the Pure Land Sect, or other followers of Amida Buddha, showed their attachment to Amida by appending ~a or ~ami to a single kanji read in the Chinese style in either their given or surname (e.g.; the famed playwright Zeami, and the artist family of Hon’ami).
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