Contrary to most western cultures, but similar to other East Asian peoples, Japanese only bear one given name and one surname, which is placed first. This usually leads to confusion when names appearing in Japanese texts are "westernized" (putting the surname after the given name) in the course of translation, and subsequently swapped around a second (third, fourth, ...) time by others who didn't recognize which part was the surname and assumed that the name was still in its native order. For this reason, many Japanese write their surname in ALL CAPS in the romanization.

There are about 100000 surnames in use in Japan today, which is an insane number considering the size of the country and its nearly immigration-free history (compare this, e.g., with about 6000 names in China with its ten times larger population). One reason for this variety is that during the Meiji Restoration, merchants and peasants who were formerly forbidden to have a surname (this was a privilege of the upper class family clans) were now required to assume one, and if the family registers were lost or didn't indicate any relation to an established clan, people just made something up. Also, changing one's name wasn't a big deal in Japan in former times. Many people did this when relocating or getting any kind of public appointment.

The writing of Japanese names is often a problem, even for native Japanese. With the exception of some female given names which are written in katakana, both given names and surnames are written with one to three (usually two) kanji characters. The relation between the characters used to write a name and its pronunciation varies from "obvious" to "non-existing" (especially with given names). In addition to the 1945 jouyou kanji, there is a list of 284 jinmeiyou kanji which are officially approved for the writing of names. Many of these characters are pronounced in an obsolete, dialectical or idiomatic way, or even in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of the character (the kanji were just chosen for their auspicious significance). Because of this, Japanese with more unusual names usually print the pronunciation of their name in kana on their business cards. You can also often see this in Japanese newspapers and the subtitles of TV news and movies.

Some random examples of more or less obscure Japanese names:

  • The ubiquitous surname 田中 Tanaka is composed of the ordinary Japanese words 田 ta "rice field" and 中 naka "middle, center, inside".
  • The combination 長谷, consisting of 長 naga(i) "long" and 谷 tani "valley", can be pronounced nagatani (obvious), nagaya (less obvious) or hase (as in 長谷川 Hasegawa, a surname). The latter isn't the on-reading of the kanji, either (which would be CHOUGOKU). This is an example of nanori (name readings).
  • There are over 150 possible spellings of the male given name Akira, including 明 "bright" (used, for example, by Akira Kurosawa), 玲 "sound of jewels" (pronounced REI, this is also the first part of the name of the main character in Serial Experiments Lain) and 信良 "faith"+"good". Most of the characters used to write the name are related to light, however.
  • 栗巣 kurisu "chestnut"+"nest" is one possible way to spell the name "Chris". In earlier times, applying for Japanese citizenship required you to give your name in kanji, but the authorities now also accept foreign names written in katakana.
  • Male given names often end in 郎 -rou "son" (Ichirou, Tarou) or 夫 -o "husband" (Tetsuo, Yukio), female names in 子 -ko "child" (Aiko, Keiko) or 美 -mi "beauty" (Mayumi, Naomi).

Many Japanese surnames are originally place names.

schist informs me that there are actually only about 1000 surnames in use in China.

Having a name in Japan is not as simple as it is in a place like America. First, there is actually an official list of possible Japanese names. Traditionally, to choose a name the new parents must visit a Shinto priest who specializes in astrology. The priest looks at when, where, and how the baby was born, and produces a list of auspicious possibilities. The parents then choose one they like. Even parents who do not go through this generally choose from among a commonly accepted cannon of names.

The other important aspect of Japanese names, and names in general, is that the kanji or words used to represent them do not have the same meaning that they do as a regular part of speech. The same is true in English, e.g. Chad the person vs. chad of Florida election fame. Because of that distinction between proper names and other parts of speech, certain strings of characters are only recognizable as names, and do not make sense any other way, and vice versa. Though it is easy for most foreigners to “convert” their names phonetically to kanji, these characters are often incomprehensible as names or anything else. It would be the equivalent of a person coming to America and calling themselves something like Emotion Monkeynoodle. That might be a good name for a band, but at first glance it simply doesn’t make sense. And unless you are a rock star, a Mr. or Ms. Monkeynoodle is going to have to suffer some confusion and discrimination with a name like that. Some foreigners in Japan opt instead to go by a Japanese name, but legally this is merely a nickname. To avoid this kind of confusion, the Japanese write all foreign names phonetically in katakana, thus marking them as non-Japanese names. The exception is when a foreigner becomes a naturalized Japanese citizen, at which point they are required to take and register a “normal” Japanese name.

Of course, Japan is certainly not the only country to strip down the names of foreigners to make them more palatable to the locals. How many people became a Smith or a Johnson on Ellis Island because the guard on duty couldn’t understand or spell names like Taszycki?

As anyone who has attempted to write fiction can attest, thinking of good names for characters can be extremely difficult, but worthwhile, as a good name can really enhance a story. Japanese names are particularly difficult for Westerners to make up, because they seem so easy to form, but are actually subject to a host of conventions that can instantly expose your newly created Japanese name as a hoax to those with knowledge of the culture and the language. And you don't want to sound like you just named your character after some famous Japanese person, whose name might actually be quite rare.

Here then, is a sampling of Japanese names, based on my own experience living in Japan, that you can't go wrong with. These are all real Japanese names, and I have tried to include a mix of the more common names and some less common, but interesting ones. Simply choose a family name from the first list and then match it with a male or female name, according to your character's gender (remember to put the surname first for greater authenticity!). Enjoy!


Surnames

Abe, Arai, Chiba, Doi, Fujii, Fujita, Fujitani, Fujiwara, Hamada, Hara, Hasegawa, Hashimoto, Hayashi, Ikeda, Inoue, Ishii, Ito, Kato, Kawano, Kimura, Kiyohara, Kobayashi, Konishi, Kuroda, Maeda, Maruyama, Matsui, Matsumoto, Miura, Mori, Murakami, Murata, Nakajima, Nakamura, Noguchi, Nomura, Ogawa, Okada, Okamoto, Sano, Saito, Sakurai, Sasaki, Sato, Shibata, Shimada, Shimizu, Sugiyama, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka, Uchida, Ueno, Watanabe, Yamada, Yamaguchi, Yamamoto, Yamasaki, Yamashita, Yoshida

Male given names

Akira, Atsushi, Haruki, Hideki, Hikaru, Hiroshi, Hiroyuki, Hiroyoshi, Haru, Ichiro, Jun, Junichi, Junichiro, Junpei, Kazuo, Kazuhiro, Kazuhito, Kenichi, Kenji, Kiyotaka, Koji, Makoto, Masahiro, Masao, Naoki, Nobuyuki, Osamu, Reo, Ryuji, Saburo, Satoshi, Seiji, Shigeki, Shinichi, Shinji, Shinpei, Shintaro, Shiro, Susumu, Takahiro, Takashi, Takeshi, Takumi, Takuya, Taro, Tetsuo, Tomoki, Toshio, Yasuhiro, Yasuhito, Yasuo, Yoshiaki, Yoshihiro, Yoshio, Yuji, Yukio

Female given names

Ai, Aiko, Akiko, Asa, Aya, Ayane, Ayumi, Chiemi, Chiharu, Chizuko, Emi, Eriko, Erina, Fumiko, Hanako, Haruko, Harumi, Hideyo, Hiroko, Hiromi, Hitomi, Junko, Kaede, Kazue, Kazuko, Kaori, Keiko, Kyoko, Marina, Masako, Mayumi, Megumi, Michiko, Midori, Miho, Minori, Moe, Nanami, Naoko, Naomi, Noriko, Sachiko, Sae, Saori, Satsuki, Sayaka, Shizuka, Reiko, Ryoko, Tomoko, Tomomi, Yasuko, Yasuyo, Yoko, Yoshiko, Yuka, Yuki, Yuko, Yumi, Yumiko


Thanks to swankivy for the idea!

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