N is for Names

Names are interesting things: we place so much weight upon them as a part of who we are, even though we had absolutely no say in the name we reeived. It’s easy to forget that your name is a label to identify you by, essentially. And yet it takes on so much of who were are that our name is quite literally who we are, even though it’s just a bunch of scribbles in writing and a string of sounds when spoken. And this is the reason why I was carted out of philosophy taster course on a stretcher.

Anyway, Japanese people have names too, as you may have guessed. And yet what is interesting is, compared to their western counterparts at least, they don’t seem to hold that same weight of self-representation. It’s really difficult to describe: its subtle thing, difficult to put into words, but I feel as though your name factors less into the makeup of who you are in Japan.

Which is weird, because the variation of surnames across Japan is staggering: an estimated 100,000 in use across Japan today (which is not quite as numerous as English surnames, yet if we consider the population of the Anglosphere to be 5 times that of Japan, it is still impressive). On top of that, when you break down the meaning of many Japanese surnames, the literal meaning is delightful. Here’s some examples of common surnames:

‘Saito’ (斎藤) means Pure Wisteria

‘Yamamoto’ (山本) means Base of the Mountain

‘Suzuki’ (鈴木) means Bell Tree

‘Takahashi’ (高橋) means High Bridge

‘Mori’ (森) means Forest

‘Aoki’ (青木) means Blue Tree

‘Fukushima’ (福島) means Lucky Island

It really is fascinating to dig into the base meanings of surnames, and the sharp among you will have noticed that many of these names are rooted in elements of nature, compared to many western surnames that are based in professions (Smith, Fletcher, Archer and so on).

And yet the super-sharp reading this may have picked up on the hints of the lack of uniqueness I was talking about. Look at that list again. It is only a small list, and yet notice that there is a repetition of a name element: the ‘Ki’ in Suzuki and Aoki. Japanese surnames are typically built of two or three kanji, and it is remarkably common to see a mix and match of the same kanji used again and again. Off the top of my head, I can think of a whole bunch of names with a shared kanji: Nakamura (中村), Nakajima (中島), Nakaguchi (中口), Nakada (中田)…seriously, it gets to the point where you can make up a name with another common surname kanji that you’ve never heard of, and there’s a good chance it’s a real surname. Here we go…Nakahashi (中橋). A quick surf of the net after I made that up reveals it to be a very real surname. You can’t do that with English surnames.

Another interesting little factor that I’m sure nobody missed is the one hinted by Fukushima: surnames can have a big overlap with place names. As both have a history in being named after natural elements, there is a big overlap between the two. Ishikawa, Kawaguchi and Shibuya are some examples of this, and again I can almost guarantee that, let’s say, Hiroshima is also a surname (goes to check…Yep!)

And I haven’t even touched first names, yet. And that actually raises another point: Japan is very much a surname-first society. In basically all circumstances surname and first name are used, the surname is given first. Sometimes not at all: in business and school, students and co-workers are formally referred to by their surname. And you need to travel considerably deep to the far end of the formal-casual spectrum before using first names is the norm.

I’ll admit, first names in Japan are remarkably varied, and don’t have that same interchangeable quality that the surnames do. In fact, the official Kanji for a first name can be as weird and obscure as the parents like, so long as it’s a real kanji. It’s the reading of that Kanji that matters.  For example, haruna is a pretty popular girls name right now, and written in basic hiragana (はるな) it is pretty straightforward.  But can you imagine a newly-minted kindergarten kid learning to write their name in the full kanji of 陽菜?  Exactly.

And yet, once again I still feel like that unique identifying power of names still doesn’t apply to first names. Because when we move into casual first-name-terms territory, the suffixes of –chan and –kun start flying all over the place (typically –chan is for girls and –kun is for boys, though there is overlap). And basically anyone who is on friendly terms with anyone will have one of these two suffixes lumped onto the end of their name. Knowing that basically all of your friends around you share half the syllables of your nickname must subconsciously make you feel less special, surely? Though that’s probably a good thing: much rather that than being surrounded by a bunch of special snowflakes that think they are a precious gift to the world with an epic destiny to fulfil (which they will get right on as soon as they finish their 73rd duck face selfie).

If this whole post seems like a huge moan, I’m sorry, I don’t intend it to. Monday blues do tend to leak through. Social discussion aside, Japanese names are endlessly fascinating, and they are a great way into learning the language too.


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