On Feb 13, 1875, Japan’s new, modernizing, Westernizing Meiji government passed a law requiring all citizens to register under a surname.
Many, regardless of social status, had one already – officially or unofficially, legitimately or not. Those who didn’t had to make one up.
By Asian standards, Japan today is unusually rich in surnames. There are some 100,000 altogether, as against a few thousand in China (whose population is 10 times Japan’s), or a mere 200 or so in Korea.
The five most common Japanese surnames are: Sato, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka and Watanabe. Why? Where do they come from? Shukan Josei (Nov 6), does some checking. Its prime source is “Myoji no Himitsu” (The Secret of Surnames) by Hiroshi Morioka.
The “to” in Sato is the character for wisteria, "fuji" – which immediately suggests the historic Fujiwara clan, the power behind the throne throughout the Heian Period (794-1185). “Sa” is an alternate reading of “suke” – a bureaucratic title. Are all today’s 2 million Satos, then, descended from the Fujiwara? That is the claim, explicit or implicit, verifiable or not. The name is especially concentrated in eastern Japan – with three western exceptions: Hiroshima, Tokushima and Oita prefectures. Why? Because after Japan’s first civil war, that between the Genji and the Heike clans in the late 12th century, the western Heike were routed and their lands assigned to eastern Satos, who moved in and took over.
How many of today’s 1.8 million Suzukis know their name originally meant “rice straw bale” in a local dialect of the Kii Peninsula? Today, Suzuki is the most common name in eight prefectures in the Kanto and Tokai regions, and in the top 10 in 19 others.
Takahashi is the most common of numerous surnames derived from a place name – actually several place names. Takahashi means “high bridge.” Bridges are ubiquitous today but rare enough in ancient times to confer distinction on any place that had one. Today there are Takahashis all over the country. Other bridge-derived names are Hashimoto (literally “bridge source”), Ohashi (“big bridge”) and Ishibashi (“stone bridge”).
Tanaka’s origin is topographical. It means “in the middle of the rice paddy.” A family owning a broad paddy with a house in the middle naturally wanted to advertise its prosperity, and calling themselves Tanaka seemed a way to do it. It is today among the top 10 name in 34 prefectures.
Watanabe, like Takahashi, is originally a place name. It refers to a location in modern Osaka Prefecture settled by descendants of the 8th-century Emperor Saga. Modern holders of the name – some 1.4 million people – are therefore entitled (perhaps) to boast royal blood in their veins.
To round out the list of top 10 surnames, from number 6: Ito, Yamamoto, Nakamura, Kobayashi and Kato.© Japan Today