14 Jun 2021
Blog

The Basics of Japanese Names: How They Are Chosen, Written, and Read

Japanese names for people occupy an unusual niche in that seeing a written name doesn’t mean you’ll know how to pronounce it. Furthermore, hearing a name doesn’t mean you’ll know how to write it — even if you are a native Japanese speaker!

How come? Let’s start with a quick overview of written Japanese.

Japanese, the Written Language

Japanese uses three scripts for writing: ideographs and two syllabic alphabets (where each character represents a syllable).

Ideographic Script: Japanese Kanji

Kanji are borrowed Chinese ideographs that represent an idea, but whose pronunciation changes based on word context. Here is a (incomplete) sampling of one Kanji character’s various pronunciations.
The character 生 has a basic meaning of “life.” It has an especially prolific set of pronunciations.

Kanji word
Pronunciation
Explanation
先生 “sensei” Combined with Kanji 先 (meaning: before, ahead) 生 is pronounced “sei”. 先生 = “teacher” (i.e., the one who was born before you)
“nama” Standalone word meaning “raw” as in “raw meat,” but when prefixed to the word for “broadcast” (中継 chuukei), 生中継 (nama chuukei) means “live broadcast.”
生かす “i(kasu)” 生 is pronounced “i” for the verb meaning “to use” (i.e., make something “alive” by using it) and combined with Hiragana (syllabary) characters “kasu.”
生まれる “u(mareru)” 生 is pronounced “u” for the verb meaning “to be born” and combined with Hiragana (syllabary) characters “mareru.”
Phonetic Scripts: Hiragana and Katakana

Two syllabary alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana, in Japanese represent the same 46 syllables, with no meaning attached to any character. In general, Hiragana, more curvy in appearance, are used for Japanese words and Katakana is used for borrowed words from other languages.

Hiragana
Katakana
Pronunciation
a
ki
ko

See a full table of Hiragana and Katakana characters here.

Ambiguous Japanese name readings and spellings

As a result, since Kanji is used for the majority of names (certainly all family names), there is a great deal of ambiguity as to how to pronounce names — aka, the readings. In fact, Japanese business cards commonly include the reading of a person’s name to avoid embarrassment for the card receiver, and Japanese people are used to including their name pronunciation in Hiragana or Katakana for any form they fill out.

In the example below, the reading for the name “Azuma Taro” is given in Hiragana (tiny Hiragana above the Kanji).

The table below is just a small sampling of this phenomenon. In general, Japanese has many homophones where one reading can map to many Kanji combinations, as shown below for the male given names “Takeshi,” “Koji,” and “Hiroshi.”

Examples of Kanji given names with multiple readings

(source)

Kanji given names
Possible readings (in Hiragana and English)
光希 こうき Koki or みつき Mitsuki
幸子 ゆきこ Yukiko or さちこ Sachiko
清一 きよかず Kiyokazu or せいいち Seiichi
裕美 ひろみ Hiromi or ゆみ Yumi
裕司 ひろし Hiroshi or ゆうじ Yuji
広志
広治
浩志
宏司
ひろし Hiroshi or こうじ Koji
高志
孝司
たかしTakeshi or こうじ Koji
健司
健志
健史
たけし Takeshi or けんじ Kenji

Some parents may choose to use only Hiragana (ようこ “Yoko”) or a mix of Kanji and Katakana (ヨウ “Yoko”) or a mix of Kanji and Hiragana (よう “Yoko”).

Then there are pronunciations for Kanji that are ONLY used for names.

東 means “east” and is normally pronounced “higashi” or “tou” (as in Tokyo 東京), but as a surname it is pronounced “Azuma.”

Japanese nicknames

Unlike English, which has many “standard” nicknames (such as Liz, Beth, or Eliza for Elizabeth, or adding of an “ie” sound at the end (Charles > Charlie, Katherine > Kate > Katie), Japanese nicknames are much more ad hoc. They are often a shortening of sounds in the name plus 君(-kun) or ちゃん(-chan) (diminutive forms of -san, the term of respect that one uses when addressing another person). Or for two-word names, might be combining the initial sound of each word as with “Brad Pitt” to “BuraPi.”

Given name
正明
Masaaki
まあくん</ br>
Mā-kun
哲子
Tetsuko
てっちゃん
Tetchan
勝也
Katsuya
かっちゃん
Katchan
安成
Yasunari
やあちゃん
Yā-chan
木村 拓哉
Kimura Takuya (Japanese celebrity)
キムタク
Kimutaku
ブラッド・ピット
Buraddo Pitto (U.S. actor Brad Pitt)
ブラピ
Burapi

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_name#Nicknames

Japanese approaches to naming

When parents name their child, they might start with Kanji for its pleasing meaning or with the sound of a name, like “Yoko” or “Hiroshi.” It’s unsurprising that the “most popular names of the year” lists show both. Currently girls names which end in -ko 子 (meaning “child”) are less popular than in the past as you can see below.

Below are the top five most popular female and male names for 2019 and 1970.

2019 Top Five Girl Names

(Source)

By Kanji character, with Romanized reading
1. 陽葵(Himari) Kanji meaning: sun+hollycock
2. 凛(Rin) Kanji meaning: cold
3. 紬(Tsumugi)Kanji meaning: pongee (a knotted silk cloth)
4. Tied for 4th: 莉子(Riko)Kanji meaning: jasmine+child
and 芽依(Mei)Kanji meaning: bud+reliant/depend on
By reading in Hiragana and Romanized (Kanji characters for these names will vary)
1. めい Mei
2. あかり Akari
3. ひまり Himari
4. ゆい Yui
5. みお Mio
1970 Top Five Girl Names

(source)

By Kanji character, with Romanized reading
1. 直 美 (Naomi) Kanji meaning: straight+beautiful
2. 智 子 (Tomoko) Kanji meaning: wisdom+child
3. 陽 子 (Yoko) Kanji meaning: sun+child
4. 裕 子 (Yuko) Kanji meaning: abundant/rich+child
5. 由美子 (Yumiko) Kanji meaning: reason+beauty+child
2019 Top Five Boy Names

(source)

By Kanji character, with Romanized reading
1. 蓮(Ren)Kanji meaning: lotus flower or seed
2. 湊(Minato)Kanji meaning: gathering, pier
3. 陽翔(Haruto)Kanji meaning: sun/sunlit+flying/detailed
4. 律(Ritsu)Kanji meaning: straight, upright
5. 樹(Itsuki)Kanji meaning: tree
By reading in Hiragana and Romanized
はると (Haruto)
そうた (Sota)
みなと (Minato)
ゆうと (Yuto)
りく (Riku)
1970 Top Five Boy Names

(source)

1. 健一 (Ken’ichi) Meaning: healthy, strong
2. 誠 (Makoto) Meaning: sincerity
3. 哲也 (Tetsuya) Meaning: philosophy, clear
4. 剛 (Tsuyoshi or Takeshi) Meaning: strong, manly
5. 博 (Hiroshi) Meaning: learned

Modern names

Traditionally, Japanese girl names often end in “-ko” (子), “-ka”, “n-a”, or “-e,” while boy names end in “-rou”, “-o,” or “-hiko” (with some exceptions). However, as in other cultures, names and naming trends go through cycles of popularity. In the 2000s, many parents chose a reading and then creatively matched Kanji characters to it. In the process, they sometimes entirely ignored the standard readings attached to those characters. For example 一二三 (Kanji characters for the numbers “1, 2, 3” read “ichi, ni, san”) might be matched to the reading “do re mi.” (Yes, as in the musical notes.) These types of names are called キラキラネーム (“kira kira name,” where “kira kira” means “glittery/sparkly”) or more pejoratively, DQNネーム (pronounced “don kyoon name”).

To reign in misguided parents who might choose to name their child “demon” or anything  that might expose them to teasing, the Japanese Ministry of Justice maintains a list of permissible Kanji for use in Japanese names.

Last thoughts

Given the ambiguity of Japanese name pronunciation, they can be extremely challenging to match between the original Japanese name and its rendition in Latin characters. We will cover that topic in a future blog post.