Figuring Out the Names

Upon first hearing people introduce themselves in Japanese, you may be confused about what to call them. To be polite, it is best to refer to people by their last names, followed by the suffix -san. Now, if you could only figure out which is the surname.

Family Names and First Names

In Japanese, the last name is always given first. “Surname,” in Japanese, is myooji. First names are referred to as shita no namae, literally, “the bottom name.” This is perhaps due to the way in which Japanese is traditionally written — vertically, with the surname first, and the given name written below it.

Kanai no Watanabe Keisuke desu.

I'm Keisuke Watanabe from Kanai.

Kaizuka no Nogata Yumiko desu.

I'm Yumiko Nogata from Kaizuka.

Depending on the situation, it may or may not be appropriate to refer to someone by his or her first name. Even if you are on a first-name basis, it is still customary to attach -san, -chan, or -kun to the end: Maki-chan, Nobu-kun, etc.

Western Names

Japanese are familiar with the western practice of giving surnames last, but may still be confused about what to call you. When you are meeting a business associate or striking up an acquaintance for the first time, it may be best to add, after your self-introduction, “Please call me …,” to clear up any confusion.

Watashi wa Eerikku Furan to mooshimasu. Eerikku to yonde kudasai.

My name is Eric Flan. Please call me Eric.

Since Japanese people almost always attach some suffix (-san, -chan, -kun, -sama) to personal names, whether it be your given name or surname, they will most likely want to address you with some honorific or official title. If you are teaching, sensei (“teacher”) will most likely be attached to your name, even if it's just your first name, like “Mr. Eric” or “Mrs. Alex.”

Common Last Names

The ten most common surnames in Japan are:

<tgroup cols="2"> <colspec colname="col1" colnum="1" colwidth="75%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <colspec colname="col2" colnum="2" colwidth="25%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <tbody> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Satoo</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Itoo</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Suzuki</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Yamamoto</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Takahashi</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Kobayashi</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Tanaka</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Saitoo</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Watanabe</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Nakamura</emphasis></p></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <p>When you arrive in Japan and begin meeting people, you may be overwhelmed at all the new faces and names to remember. If you know a little bit of vocabulary, then you can get a mental picture of what some of the names represent, thereby making them easier to recall. Another technique is to associate something distinct about that person's appearance and try to tie it into his or her name. If all else fails, carry a notebook and pen and ask the person to write his or her name in <emphasis>kanji</emphasis>, then add the phonetic spelling above or below it. A great conversation starter is to get people to explain their names to you.</p> <p>Japanese surnames usually incorporate a place or geographic location.</p> <p>The <emphasis>yama</emphasis> in <emphasis>Yamamoto</emphasis>, for example, means “mountain.” The name <emphasis>Yamamoto</emphasis> means “mountain origin.” If you meet someone with this name, try to imagine her ancestors living in a mountain village and associate that image with her.</p> <p>The word <emphasis>naka</emphasis> is found in two of the most common names: <emphasis>Tanaka</emphasis> and <emphasis>Nakamura</emphasis>. <emphasis>Naka</emphasis> means “inside” or “middle,” or sometimes, “out of.” Therefore, <emphasis>Ta</emphasis> (“rice paddy”) plus <emphasis>naka</emphasis> (“middle”) may indicate that this person's ancestors were rice farmers or lived in the middle of a paddy. <emphasis>Mura</emphasis> means “village” and is another common surname in Japanese. The name <emphasis>Nakamura</emphasis> means “inside the village.”</p> <p>Once you are able to recognize some <emphasis>kanji</emphasis> characters, deciphering last names will become even easier. Also, the more time you spend in Japan, the more you will hear the same names over and over again. Repetition is a great teacher.</p> <h2>Common First Names for Women</h2> <p>Women's names often end in -<emphasis>ko</emphasis> (“child”) or -<emphasis>mi</emphasis> (“beautiful”), so if you hear a name with one of those syllables in it, it is most likely a woman's name. Some examples of common female names are:</p> <table frame="none" width="100%"> <title/> <tgroup cols="2"> <colspec colname="col1" colnum="1" colwidth="75%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <colspec colname="col2" colnum="2" colwidth="25%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <tbody> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Yumiko</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Tomomi</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Akiko</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Hiromi</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Yuriko</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Ayumi</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Tomoko</emphasis></p></td> <td><para/></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <p>Remember, there are many different <emphasis>kanji</emphasis> to represent the same sounds, so <emphasis>Tomomi</emphasis> can be written in <emphasis>kanji</emphasis> in several different ways. Even <emphasis>mi</emphasis> and <emphasis>ko</emphasis> have various forms, but the characters for “beautiful” and “child” are the ones most commonly used.</p> <div class="npsb"> <h2></h2> <p>There is a recent trend to write girls' names in <emphasis>hiragana</emphasis> instead of <emphasis>kanji</emphasis>. Some parents are doing this deliberately to avoid ascribing a meaning, and therefore expectation, to the name. Others see <emphasis>hiragana</emphasis> as Japan's exclusive language and so are using it for reasons of cultural or national pride.</p> </div> <h2>Men's Given Names</h2> <p>Men's names are often long and may be difficult to remember. Four-syllable names are not uncommon, especially if the person is the oldest son. Luckily, names are often shortened to an easy nickname. Some male names you may run across are:</p> <table frame="none" width="100%"> <title/> <tgroup cols="2"> <colspec colname="col1" colnum="1" colwidth="75%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <colspec colname="col2" colnum="2" colwidth="25%" colsep="0" rowsep="0" align="left"/> <tbody> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Takahiro</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Yuuki</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Tomohiro</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Hiroto</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Naoki</emphasis></p></td> <td><p>• <emphasis>Toshiaki</emphasis></p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>• <emphasis>Kentaroo</emphasis></p></td> <td><para/></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <p>Characters often used in male names are <emphasis>hiro</emphasis> (“wide,” “expansive”), <emphasis>ta</emphasis> (“fat,” “big”), <emphasis>ki</emphasis> (“tree,” “standing”). Unusual names that express the hopes of the parents can be found in <emphasis>Kokoro</emphasis> (“heart,” “mind”), <emphasis>Shizuka</emphasis> (“quiet”), <emphasis>Kakeru</emphasis> (“build,” “span”), <emphasis>Mamoru</emphasis> (“protect”), and <emphasis>Shinken</emphasis> (“trust,” “knowledge”).</p> <!--/gc--> <div id="pagination"><ul><li class="prev"><a href="http://www.netplaces.com/japanese/making-introductions/honorific-adjustments.htm" title="Honorific Adjustments">Honorific Adjustments</a></li><li class="next"><a href="http://www.netplaces.com/japanese/making-introductions/the-hometown.htm" title="The Hometown">The Hometown</a> </li></ul></div></div> <div id="coda"> <div id="rel"><div class="n5">Related Articles</div><ul> <li><a href="http://www.netplaces.com/japanese/making-introductions/figuring-out-the-names.htm" zT="18/1YL/Zn"> Figuring Out the Names - Japanese </a></li> <li><a href="http://japanese.about.com/od/introductoryjapaneselesso/a/lesson1_2.htm" zT="18/1YL/Zn"> 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