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What’s in a Japanese name? Introduction to how Japanese names work

What’s in a Japanese name? Introduction to how Japanese names work
What’s in a Japanese name? Introduction to how Japanese names work

Hi! Welcome to this introduction to Japanese names. I’m very happy that you are interested in Japanese names. In this article I’ll tell you the basics of how they work. Japanese names are so unique and cool, and have many special features. I hope you’ll enjoy!

First of all, which comes first, the surname or the given name?

In Japanese the surname comes before the given name. So, the great animation director Hayao Miyazaki is referred to Miyazaki Hayao in Japan. Miyazaki is his surname and Hayao is his given name. Many Japanese people reverse the order when communicating with non-Japanese people, which makes it difficult to be sure which name is which. Most Japanese people have one surname and one given name, and don’t have middle names. (People with foreign parentage may have middle names.)

Characters used for Japanese names

Japanese names are usually written in kanji, and some names are written in hiragana or katakana. These are the three character sets used in the Japanese language.

Kanji: Kanji characters are like ideographic symbols. Each kanji symbolizes its own meaning, and has several different pronunciations. Kanji is Chinese in origin but the usage and pronunciation of kanji have been changed in order to fit the Japanese language. Because each kanji has several possible pronunciations, when you see only the name written in kanji, you don’t know how the name is pronounced.

Hiragana: Hiragana characters are the basic Japanese phonetic script. They are like alphabets, so each hiragana itself has no meaning. There are about 50 basic hiragana characters.

Katakana: There is another set of phonetic script called katakana. Katakana characters are mainly used for words imported from foreign languages. Like hiragana, there are about 50 basic characters. Hiragana and katakana represent the same set of sounds and represent every sound in the Japanese language.

The fact that Japanese names themselves have no meaning

It is common for Japanese names to have kanji characters applied to the name. There are some names with only hiragana or katakana, but only a few!

Each kanji has its own meaning, which hiragana and katakana do not have.

Each hiragana and katakana has its own original kanji, and it is possible to assign meanings to hiragana and katakana based on the meanings of those kanji, but this is not a common idea.

From this point of view, for example,

A name “Ai” means “love.”

This is unfortunately wrong in light of Japanese common sense because the meaning of Ai is not necessarily “love.”

It is possible to give the meaning of love to the name Ai, and that is one answer. However, the meaning differs greatly depending on what kanji is used for the name Ai.

If you apply the kanji for “愛” to Ai, the meaning of the kanji for “愛” is love.

But what if you use the kanji for “藍”, which has the same reading as “Ai”?

It means “indigo”.

In this case, A name “Ai” means “indigo”.

One of the motivations for creating this site was to convey the point that the meaning of Japanese names differs depending on how the kanji is applied.

This is normal and common knowledge for Japanese people, but many Japanese name sites outside of Japan do not treat it as such, so I am stating it here.

The following pages will help you understand how many kanji are applied to the name Ai.

Ai for girls

Ai for boys

I’ve checked several sites, and this one has a good grasp of this issue and I can recommend it.

Good Example:
Meaning:“good hollyhock”

Identify the kanji combination and then explain the meaning. Please think of this as the basics of a proper Japanese name.

On top of that, if you use a common Japanese word with a unique meaning in your name, you may be able to identify the meaning.
For example, the name “Hikari” is often used to represent the word “光”(means light). So,

A name “Hikari” means “light.”

would be correct in most cases.

However, even in this name, there are many variations of kanji that can be applied to Hikari.


Surname is normally inherited from the father, and the number of surnames in Japan is very, very high. Most women take the surname of their husband, and few women keep their maiden name after marriage. The fascinating thing is that so many of Japanese surnames are derived from nature, which suggests how much Japanese people have loved and honored nature since the ancient times. Here are some examples.

Let me explain the two kanji used for “Miyazaki.” The kanji for Miya means “shrine, palace ” and the kanji for zaki means “cape, peninsula.” Kurosawa means “black swamp.” The kanji for Kuro means “black, dark” and sawa means “swamp, marsh.” And Suzuki means “bell tree.” The kanji for Suzu means “bell” and ki means “tree, wood.”

Like these examples, the vast majority of surnames consist of two kanji characters. Most surnames have one to three kanji.

Given name

The coolest feature about Japanese given names is that you can be very creative in choosing them, or rather, creating them. Even though the kanji characters which may be used in names are regulated, there are many thousands of kanji to choose from! Like surnames, so many given names consist of two kanji. Most given names have one to three kanji. I’ll tell you more about how creative you can be in choosing a Japanese given name in my next article!

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