Japanese surnames have been around since the end of the 12th century, and today all people in Japan have surnames. Japanese citizens are generally registered in their family registry with the combination of "one surname" + "one first name." All Japanese people have gotten their surnames passed down from their ancestors, and most of the homes have their family crests.
Let’s see how Japanese surnames came to be and what meaning each of these names have!
First and Last Names
Everyone is familiar with the first name and last name concept. In Japan however the last name or family name is written first, followed by the person’s first name. This stems from the culture in Japan that puts importance on their “groups” over “individual.”
During 9th century Japan names were given by the emperor and was not something that could be changed arbitrarily. It was initially used only by aristocrats and samurai, but it gradually spread amongst the common people and later was used to distinguish between households.
By the time 1870 came around, the third year of the Meiji era, the public people had surnames given under the leadership of the Ministry of Finance, which emphasized modernization by bringing about the family register system.
In modern times, it is legally called “Uji” or clan name, and generally they are referred to as "Last name."
How the First Surnames were Decided
When the family registry system was implemented in the Meiji era, household member names were finally registered with “Last names” and “First names.” When this happened, how were family names decided on? Below are 7 ways the names were chosen.
Area Based Last Names
Last names were sometimes chosen by the area families lived in. Below are some of the names.
- 伊東 (Ito): Ito City, Shizuoka Prefecture
- 稲垣 (Inagaki): Area in Tsu City, Mie Prefecture
- 香川 (Kagawa): Area in Chigasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture
- 葛西 (Kasai): Area near Katsushika-ku and Edogawa-ku, Tokyo
- 諏訪 (Suwa): Area near Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture
- 相馬 (Souma): Area in the southern part of Ibaraki prefecture
- 夏目 (Natsume): Area in Nagano City
- 長谷川(Hasegaw): Area near Hatsusegawa in Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture
- 三浦 (Miura): Miura Peninsula, Kanagawa Prefecture
- 水野 (Mizuno): Area in in Seto City, Aichi Prefecture
- 渡辺・渡部 (Watanabe/Watabe) : Both old names in Osaka City. No longer area names.
Last Names Derived from Surrounding Terrain and Landscapes
Some names come from the land and terrain around the areas people lived.
- Mountain/Forest based names: 山田 (Yamada)、林（Hayashi）、山崎（Yamazaki）、森（Mori）、山下（Yamashita）
- River/Lake based names: 池田（Ikeda）、小川（Ogawa）、川崎（Kawasaki）、吉川（Yoshikawa）、広瀬（Hirose）
- Ocean based names: 浜口（Hamaguchi）、入江（Irie）、浜崎（Hamazaki）浜（はま）
- Names based off wells and water fetching places: 井上（Inoue）、清水（Shimizu）、石井（Ishi）、藤井（Fujii）、今井（Imai）
- Names based off shrines and temples: 宮崎（Miyazaki）、宮本（Miyamoto）、宮田（Miyata）、寺田（Terada）、宮下（Miyashita）
Last name derived from cardinal directions
Similar to area based names, "East, West, South and North" directions were adopted to show the positions of houses in the same land. "Front and back," "upper, middle, lower," "right and left," etc. are also included in this naming convention.
- 西村（Nishimura）：Eastern village
- 北川（Kitagawa）：Northern river
- 前田（Maeda）：Front of rice paddy field
Last Names Derived From Occupations
Many people have their surnames based on public professions.
- Owners of animals such as dogs, birds, and cormorants: 犬養（Inukai）、鳥飼（Torikai）、鵜飼（Ukai）
- Warehouse Manager: 大蔵（Ookura）
- Manor Manager: 庄司（Shouji）、公文（Kumon）
Last Names with the kanji for “Wisteria”
During the Heian period, descendants of Fujiwara often have the kanji “Fuji” in their name.
This type of surname is the most common in Japan.
Buddhist terms and words in the scriptures are used as surnames.
Some surnames were awarded by masters when achievements were made during war.
- 伊木（Igi）：Seedlings were given to two successful vassals when Nobunaga Oda attacked Ikiyama Castle in Mino.
- 小粥（Kogayu）：The surname given to citizens in Shizuoka Prefecture who recieved porridge from Ieyasu Tokugawa.
- 砂糖（Satou）：Surnames given to citizens who donated sugar to the lord during the Edo period.
How First Names Were Given
Since old times, unlike surnames, first names reflected the trends of the times. Today's Japanese parents tend to admire the names of celebrities who were popular during the year. Please enjoy the details of different Japanese first names in this article. They are introduced in ranking format.