Sato is the most common surname in Japan, according to a survey conducted by Meiji-Yasuda Seimei, a major insurance company in Japan.
Meiji-Yasuda said on its website that it surveyed 5.96 million customers and revealed that Sato was the most common surname with 91,487 persons so named. This was followed by Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka, Watanabe, Ito, Nakamura, Kobayashi, Yamamoto and Kato rounding out the top 10.
By prefecture, Sato was especially popular in northern Japan, where it was No. 1 in nine prefectures, including Hokkaido, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Niigata, Yamagata, Fukushima, as well as Oita and Tokushima.
The most popular name consisting of only one kanji character was Hayashi, followed by Mori and Hara, Meiji-Yasuda said.
The system of determining surnames dates back to 1875, when 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), according to “Myoji no Himitsu” (The Secret of Surnames) by Hiroshi Morioka.
So why is Sato such a popular name?
According to 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. After Japan’s first civil war, that between the Genji and the Heike clans in the late 12th century, the Heike were routed and their lands assigned to 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?
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.
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.
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.© Japan Today