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
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And yet in virtually all the Japanese 101 and 102 books, it's "Tanaka-san" who rules Japan.
One of my favorite unusual Japanese surnames is written simply with the character for 'one', but pronounced 'ni-no-mae' (or 'before two'). And who says the Japanese don't have a sense of humor!!
Any Japanese surname with three kanji characters is considered rare and usually considered to have some historical significance.
I find Japanese male given names to be even more interesting. They are modular, so you can combine any two in either order and come up with a name, e.g., Aki + Hiro or Nori + Masa or Fumi + Taka, etc. It's almost like drawing the components from a hat.
If they were descended form the Fujiwara, wouldn't they have the surname Fujiwara? Isn't it more likely they are descended from retainers/hangers-on?
Sato is written 佐藤, the characters for 'assistant' and 'wisteria'. Sugar is 砂糖 - same sound, but quite different.
Suzuki is today usually written 鈴木, or 'bell tree' (didn't know it originally meant 'rice straw bale', that's my daily knowledge boost for today), while the fish is 鱸or just written in hiragana because the kanji is so complicated - but the left-hand side gives you the clue that it's a fish.
One surname that always makes me giggle is 'Oku', which with the honorific -san prefix has big burly men being called 'okusan' - missis.
Thanks all for the kanji lesson. Shows the perils of being lazy with written Japanese.
I knew a guy whose name was just "I". I-san had it rough when he would call someone on the phone and have to just say, "I desu". "Eh?" "Ya ano, I desu kedo." "Eh? Nani ga ii desuka?"
@Probie - I meant that both are acceptable family names. I of course used the name he introduced himself with, which was Futamura, but I observed that people referred to him as Nimura, and that when someone spoke to him as Nimura, he didn't correct them. My story was an example of how the various readings of names can be a problem.
Interesting, Dutch names used to be based on ones profession. Apparently there are a lot of Fishers and Bakers (Visser and Bakker respectively) there. Imagine if we'd still do it today heh
I wonder what some of the rarer names are and what the sources for those would be.
Surprising Ito is not among them (top5)
Wakarimasen: don't feel bad for thinking it meant sugar. Just be happy that you didn't write a recipe for your mother-in-law and accidently put in the wrong kanji. At least she has a great sense of humor about it and asked where I should get this sato.
Cleo: That is halarious! I would love to meet someone with that name. Have you ever heard of Inugai as a family name? I found that one to be quite cute sounding.
sakurala - I once knew a lady whose surname was Torigai, which I suppose is similar. While she was a very nice lady, unfortunately she was very house-proud and refused to have any critters, furry or feathery, in the house.
(and ~san is of course a suffix, not a prefix. Hits self over head with large dictionary)
Honda has some interesting Kanji usages.
There are more Toyotas than anything, if you count the cars and trucks.
I am also interested in finding out the top 100 rarest names! Probably learn a lot more kanji from those names!
Sato is written 佐藤
This is just one way to write the surname Sato. It is probably the most common but it can be written in other ways. For example, 佐東, 左藤 and 左東
Actually no, because there is no "Toyota" surname in Japanese. Actually there is a surname 'Toyota'。 The reading 'Toyoda' is more common but there are some Toyotas out there. Also, 豊田 can be read as 'Tomita".
Oh geeeez, exactly! I have to have met 20 each of these guys with these surnames. Exactly....futsu....
How about Inomata - in the Google translator it says "boar crotch"... oh NOoooooooo! What a terrible name to have!!
What about first names? Taro, shintaro, gintaro, Ryutaro and momotaro?
Laurenço Iscariot Shells
That's pretty cool. I know that a few Japanese surnames are also surnames in other countries
武藤 Japan Muto Italy
One thing; War of the Genji and the Heike was NOT civil war. I think, it was as like Wars of the Roses in 15th England. Just like Lancaster and York... Anyway, I am so glad to know, YOU are interested in Japan and Japanese surnames! - From maiden-name Kobayashi ("small grove/copse") :)
Also known as the Galton-Watson process, a random process named after the extraordinary polymath Sir Francis Galton.
Quoting from Wikipedia:
Here is another name that is playing with kanji, written 小鳥遊 it's read Takanashi. The kanji means little birds playing while Takanashi can mean no hawks around.
Many Japanese men's names come from a combination or correlation to their father's name. Their father's pass down a part of their own name written in kanji to their sons.
When we learned "sugar", it was written as "satou" in Romaji. Hold that "o" sound for an extra half-beat.
That sounds more like the reason the car company changed the name rather than proof that the Toyota surname never existed.
Although the sonant version Toyoda is more common, there is no rule that suggest that Toyota cannot be used as a surname other examples are Takada and Takata, Yamazaki and Yamasaki, Hamazaki and Hamasaki all being a sonant version.
By the way the city name Toyota was actually changed through strong suggestion by Toyota in 1959, the original city name was called Komoro.
The 'uncommon' surname Takenouchi has a nice ring to it.
"Watanabe"... Why did my ex-gf's last name HAVE to be WATANABE... I see the name EVERYWHERE.. Every time i see the name, i remember her.. Aaaaah, i just want closure ("-")!
I used to work with a ma called 二村, and nobody ever knew whether to call him Futamura or Nimura, as both are acceptable; also, and rather oddly, he would answer to both.
Sato doesn't mean sugar? In my poor Japanese comprehension that is what I assumed. And Suzuki = sea bass.
Actually no, because there is no "Toyota" surname in Japanese. The surname is Toyoda (豊田), but they changed it specifically because the katakana looked nicer, and had a 'cleaner' sound
I had a girlfriend once with the family name Suzuki... I didn't realise it was such a common name.
I thought Yamada would be up there somewhere.
Er... how about asking him? And both are not "acceptable", it's a NAME. If someone is called Mr. Johnson, it's not acceptable to call him Mr. Smith. He probably answered to both because he was sick of telling people which one it was, especially people he works with and should have the manners to call him by his proper name.
Talking about names, I like the name 'Kimura Takuya' which is shortened to 'KimuTaku' because he is a celebrity. Anyone have other famous examples?
Because the two languages have strong sounds, there a lot of names in both that are ridículously funny in the other. I once met an Osako-san, literally "the balls" in Portuguese. Oku-san mentioned above is "the ass". On the other hand, Gomes, a popular name in Portuguese was more than once joked "gomi". There are many more dirty examples. The dirtiest one is when Jspanese studying Portuguese learn to ask: "você ta boa?" - how are you doing? - used to address women. Due to difficulty of saying V, they say "boce ta boa?". Literally "nice pussy?" Lol. Languages are treasures!
Your wording was confusing. Sorry. But, still, the mouthbreathers who worked with him and didn't have the manners to learn his name are disgusting.