Japanese surnames are generally written in kanji. Despite it being incredibly difficult to learn, kanji names tend to have deep roots that hint at how life was like back in ancient Japan, and it’s absolutely fascinating being able to trace a person’s lineage just by reading them.
The folks at Myoji-yurai (literally “surname origin”) recently compiled a list of Japanese names released by the government and ranked them according to their rarity. There are 5,000 entries (and probably more), but for the sake of brevity, we’ve listed the top ten most common Japanese surnames as well as their meanings below. Be prepared for a brief lesson in history and kanji.
10. Kato – 893,000 people (加藤)
This name can be traced back to the Asuka period, when Emperor Tenji bestowed the surname Fujiwara (藤原) to a famous Japanese politician (Nakatomi no Kamatari) who helped centralized the government. He was from the old Kaga (加賀) province in Ishikawa Prefecture, and so the name Kato is a combination of “Ka” of Kaga province with the “Fuji” of Fujiwara, which means “Fujiwara of the Kaga province”.
9. Kobayashi – 1,036,000 people (小林 means “little forest”)
8. Nakamura – 1,053,000 people (中村 means “central village”)
7. Yamamoto – 1,060,000 people (山本 means “foot of the mountain”)
6. Watanabe – 1,073,000 people (渡辺 means “crossing the river”)
5. Ito – 1,084,000 people (伊藤)
Similar to Kato, the name Ito borrows the “I” from Ise in Mie Prefecture and the “Fuji” from Fujiwara, which means “Fujiwara of Ise”.
4. Tanaka – 1,346,000 people (田中 means “the center of rice fields”)
3. Takahashi – 1,425,000 people (高橋)
Takahashi literally means “high bridge”, and people back in ancient Japan marveled at bridges high enough to cross over rivers and connect two separate regions together.
2. Suzuki– 1,809,000 people (鈴木)
Translated literally into “bell wood”, its origin stems from an ancient practice where farmers would entice the god of rice to bless their crops, using a bell mounted on a wooden pole stuck in the middle of rice fields.
1. Sato – 1,894,000 people (佐藤)
The Fujiwara clan spread quite far indeed, for the most common surname is none other than Sato, a combination of “Fuji” from Fujiwara and “Sa” from Sano in Tochigi Prefecture. Which, you guessed it, means “Fujiwara of Sano”.
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