木曜日, 3月 17, 2005

Japanese Name Trivia

    Today I think I'll share with you some fun facts from a children's book on names I got at the library yesterday.

Why are Japanese names so difficult?

    I don't know about you, but I feel stupid when I can't read a Japanese name. The truth is, though, that the same kanji name can often be read different ways, so there's no way to be sure unless you ask the person.

木下 is usually "Kinoshita" but it can also be "Kishita"
古谷 can be "Furutani" or "Furuya"
熊谷 can be "Kumagaya," "Kumagai," "Kumatani," or "Kumaya"
...and the list goes on.

    I used to think that there was a limited number of surnames in Japan so I would learn the tricky readings eventually. But it would be better to think of the number of surnames as unlimited. Unlike other countries that have a small number of surnames, Japan has too many to be learned by the average person. In fact, Japan has more different surnames than any other country in the world.

    Compare these numbers: China only has about 500 surnames. Korea only has 249. Japan has about 120,000.
    That's insane. That explains why when I see an unfamiliar name on my student list and I ask my JTE for the pronunciation, she usually doesn't know what it is either.

    Another reason Japan has more names than China and Korea has to do with Confucian thought, which seemed to have made narrower inroads in Japan. In China and Korea, it was believed to be disrespectful to your ancestors to change your surname, but premodern Japan had no such compunction. People were expected to change their names many times as they grew older. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, for example, had four different names at different stages of his life. An Edo-period politician named Saigoh Takamori changed his name 9 times.

"Common" names

   There are no really common names in Japan, compared with the commonness of certain names in other countries. In Western Japan, "Tanaka" is very common, and I must admit I've known many Tanakas. However, in all of Japan, "Satoh" and "Suzuki" are supposed to be the most common. I've never known a Satoh or a Suzuki. Go figure.

Weird Names

Here are some unusual but real Japanese surnames and their readings:

子子子 is pronounced "Nejiko"
子鳥遊 (the characters mean "small birds play") is pronounced "Takanashi" (no eagles)
煙草 is pronounced "Tabako" (cigarette)
障子 Shoji, sliding door
醤油 Shoyu, soy sauce
犬飼 "Inukai," dogkeeper
林林 is pronounced "Rinbayashi". This is just crazy. You will notice they are the same character.
谷谷 is "Tanigaya". Again, they combined two readings for the same character.
九九 is "Tsukumo"
一尺八寸 is "Kamatsuka"
四月一日 (the first day of the fourth month) is pronounced "Watanuki"
More like that-
八月一日 is "Hozumi"
八月十五日 is "Nakaaki"
十二月一日 is "Shiwasuda"
三十日 is "Misoka"
The last one, I can understand because New Year's Eve is "Oomisoka". I assume the other days are old words for dates in the lunar calendar. But can you imagine if your last name was "Fifteenth of August?"

Is it true that most people didn't have surnames until 1875?

Yes, that's true. Farmers and merchants weren't allowed to have surnames. In 1875, the eighth year of the Meiji period, there was an edict suddenly requiring everyone to have surnames. Some people at that time must have thought "soy sauce" and "tabacco" made good names, I guess. Others went to the village chief or someone else they trusted and got themselves a name based usually on where they lived (in a rice field, in a forest, by the well...) or what they did for a living ("Watanabe" means "ferryman"; "Kodama" means "jeweller"). Suzuki doesn't have anything to do with bells. It's the name of a stick used for Shinto rituals; in Kumano dialect, 聖なる木 (sacred tree) is "suzuki". The kanji for "bell tree" 鈴木 is an ateji.

梅田, which is a place in Osaka as well as a surname, doesn't really mean "field of plums," as the kanji suggest. It really comes from 埋め田, buried rice field, which sounds equally strange but means that the field is dug out of wet swampland.

Names from the past

"Hiko" and "Hime" as name suffixes you often see in fairy tales and legends are often translated into English as "Prince" and "Princess". Therefore, Kaguya-hime is "Shining Princess," to give a well-known example. I never gave them much more thought than that. Actually, the origin of "hiko" is 日の子 (hi no ko), child of the sun, and "hime" is 日の女 (hi no me) daughter of the sun. This fact is obscured because now they each have different kanji (彦 and 姫).

Scatalogical Names

Yes, in the Heian period and after, it was common to use "Kuso" in names, which means just what you think it means. The famous poet "Kinotsurayuki," who wrote the Tosa Diaries, is a notable example. His birth name was "Ako Kuso," which means "my child...shit." Amazing that a man with this kind of name grew up to be successful in life. Nor is he an isolated case. Names like "Kusoko" and "Oguso" were in vogue among the nobility. The book explains that this has to do with the belief in the god of the toilet. Since the toilet god keeps you healthy, it stands to reason he would be helpful in rearing a healthy child. This seems very out of place in the Japan of today, but it persists in a small way in the superstition that a pregnant woman should keep her bathroom clean if she wants to have a beautiful baby.

Source: 人名のひみつ  Jinmei no Himitsu, 1999 Toshihide Kunimatsu and Satoshi Kumagai
Published by Iwasaki Shoten


  • At 12:35 午後, Blogger gordsellar said…

    Hi there! Nice blog! I've come via languagehat, who linked to you.

    Anyway, as I commented back at languagehat, scatological naming in Korea—according to what older people have told me—was to ward off evil, as kids with nice names would be "taken" by the supernatural powers-that-be (a popular explanation for the high rate of infant mortality). This was why kids in Korea were sometimes given quite horrible names for the first few years of life, and then later given "proper" names. (They were often not registered in the Family Rolls either, for the first few years of life, so ages were often inaccuratedly recorded.)

    Since your source is a "childrens' book", it may be that this business about the "Toilet God" was a bit of hygiene propaganda thrown in? I wouldn't be surprised if the Japanese practice had similar origins as the Korean practice... though, of course, it might not. But certainly, I can imagine such a thing being prettied-up for a kids' book.

    I like your blog, by the way, and shall be adding you to my subscriptions. :)

  • At 5:18 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    I didn't realize Korea also had that kind of naming custom. I've heard the ward-off-evil explanation given about naming children in China. Thanks for the information, Gord. Yay! A new reader who posts comments! I love it when that happens. Anyway, the toilet god is (was?) real, not propaganda, but people seem to have stopped believing in him a long time ago. It's true there are a lot of products on the market to freshen up your bathroom, but I don't think there's any connection to religion...or is there?!

  • At 5:28 午後, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    Another example of the toilet supposedly keeping you healthy is Okinawa, where the equivalent of saying "bless you" to someone with a cold was kuso takwe, equivalent to saying くそを付けろ (slap on some crap) in
    Japanese. The idea was that plastering yourself with excreta somehow warded off illness.

    (The above is from memory and may be full of, er, holes.)

  • At 11:28 午後, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    Mark Liberman at Language Log points out that the U.S. (being a country of immigration) has way more surnames than this. The publicly available name list from the Census Bureau lists about 89,000 names, but all names with less than about six bearers were removed from the long tail (for privacy reasons). A simple argument shows that there are at least 100,000 extremely rare names (probably many more) that have been omitted.

    The most common name as of 1990 was Smith, with just over 1% of the population bearing it -- not exactly "common" in the ordinary sense of the term!

  • At 12:43 午前, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    Yes, it occurred to me too that the U.S. has more surnames overall. You have to assume they're limiting it to names-within-a-single-language, or else it won't make sense. I mean, do we count "Smith" as a Japanese surname if there is a Japanese citizen named Smith? No, because the name originally came from elsewhere. The U.S. has very few surnames that were created originally in the U.S.

    gme - Ha. Hard to believe you could say that with a straight face. It's great.

  • At 9:43 午前, Blogger QG said…

    "林林 is pronounced "Rinbayashi". This is just crazy. You will notice they are the same character. "

    This is actually one of the most logical out of the bunch you wrote. "林" is pronounced "rin" in the onyomi (Chinese reading), and "hayashi" in the kunyomi (the Japanese word meaning 'wood/forest'). When "h" sounds are preceeded by any other sounds, they usually change into "b" (and occasionally "p"), thus leading to "Rinbayashi." :)

  • At 10:45 午前, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    I know that. It just gives me a weird kind of double vision to look at it.

    "Hmm, the kanji I'm looking at with my left eye is pronounced with the onyomi reading. The kanji my right eye sees uses the kunyomi reading. But wait, they're the same character! Help!" Upon realizing that, my right and left brain go into a panic of fizzled circuitry.

  • At 4:32 午前, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    I find it very hard to believe that you've never known a Suzuki.

    When I was a teacher in Hamamatsu (Shizuoka prefecture) in the mid-80s, I had at least one Suzuki in every class I taught -- frequently two or three. A local story, perhaps apocryphal, said that there had once been a class at a local elementary school where every single student in the class, as well as the teacher, was named Suzuki.

    I can attest to the truth of another story: A gaijin friend of mine and his nihonjin wife were househunting in Hamamatsu. They were shown one house for rent late at night; the landlord, named Suzuki, told them that if they were interested they could find him easily since he lived next door. My friends decided that they were interested in that house, and came back in daylight for a better look. Trouble was, since it had been dark they didn't recall exactly which house it was. They remembered which block (or chome) it was on, though, so they thought: no problem. Just go there and ask the neighbors which was the house next to the Suzukis.

    Problem was, every family in the chome was named Suzuki.

  • At 11:49 午前, Blogger Unknown said…

    Nice post ! I've been lookIng all over for info about Japanese last names. your site is perfect !

  • At 6:27 午前, Blogger CADLAC54 said…

    Hello, I am currently taking care of my wifes Great Aunt who we have had to place in an assisted living home. I have been looking for the meaning of the Japanese last name Kumagai.

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