Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2001

Ascertaining the correct reading of Japanese names may seem arcane, but for developing unduplicated direct mailing lists, it's vital.
Note: This page contains Japanese characters.

by William Hall

Editor's note:
To facilitate understanding of this article, non-readers of Japanese may wish to review: "The Japanese Language Meets the Internet" (page 60, May 2000).

MODERN JAPANESE HAS THREE writing systems. One is based on Chinese ideographs (usually known as characters in English) and is called kanji in Japanese. The other two are syllabic scripts known as hiragana and katakana (see sidebar).

Determining the correct reading of the characters used in Japanese personal and place names is the most difficult aspect of the Japanese language, both for native speakers as well as foreign students of the language. In contrast to names written in the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, each character has a visual meaning accompanying the sound associated with it. Thus, when parents choose a name for a child, the visual meaning of the Chinese character in the name and the sound of the name itself are both important considerations.

Before the advent of computers, typewriting, and the Internet, knowing the correct reading of a name was primarily a problem for foreign scholars needing to have an accurate rendition of the Japanese name in their own language. The Japanese, when sending mail for example, could just write personal or place names in characters on an envelope and the mail would be delivered, even if the writer did not know how to correctly read the characters he/she had written. But in order to merge or purge name lists on a computer, for example, the direct mail industry needs to have accurate readings of names. And if a name with an obscure reading has to be entered as text into a computer or on a (tiny) cellphone keypad, productivity suffers.

In December 2000, the Meiji Life Insurance Company conducted a study that examined the personal names of approximately 8,730,000 individual insurance policy holders. Of these, 8,103 policies were taken out on children born during 2000 (4,195 boys and 3,908 girls). According to the Meiji Life study, among all the boys born in 2000 the No. 1 character used in names was 翔, which means "to soar" or "to fly," perhaps expressing parents' desire for their sons to soar into the new millennium. As a single character in a personal name (i.e. not as a compound), it had three different readings -- one Chinese-style reading Sho (pronounced "show"), and two Japanese-style polysyllabic readings, Kakeru (pronounced "ka-ke-roo") and Tsubasa (pronounced "tsoo-bah-sah").

However, while 翔 was the top character when used as a single character in a personal name for boys, it was not the top boys' name in terms of pronunciation. That honor belonged to Yuuki (pronounced "you-key"), which can be written in 52 different ways, each with a different meaning drawn from the characters used in the name (See Table 1). Thus, Yuuki can have the meaning of "excelling and extraordinary," "helpful and radiant," "calm and noble," "friend tree," "brave spirit," and so on.

Among girls born in 2000, the No. 1 character spot was shared by 優花 (with the meaning of "elegant flower") and さくら ("cherry blossom") written in hiragana. This was the first time in the history of the study that a name written in hiragana had come in as No.1. As with the boys, the top character was not the top name in pronunciation. For girls, the top name in terms of pronunciation was Ayaka (written with 20 different combinations), followed by Yuuka with 21 combinations, and Momoka with 18 combinations. Right sidebar:(related articles) 

One interesting finding among names for both boys and girls born in 2000 was the growing popularity of characters having something to do with nature. Thus, we find extensive use of 海 ("sea"), 樹 ("tree"), 地 ("land"), ? ("flower"), 月 ("moon"), and so on. Is this an indication of an increased concern for the environment, or perhaps of an unfulfilled desire to break away from the crowded confines of city life?

A review of the top ten names for each year dating back to 1912 provides a fascinating glimpse into changes in Japanese society and parental aspirations over the period. To help understand some of these changes it is important to note that the numbering of years in Japanese does not follow the Western calendar. Instead, years in Japan are numbered in terms of the years of the reign of the Emperor. Thus, 2001 is known as Heisei 13, i.e. the 13th year in the reign of the present Emperor.

1912 marked the first year of the reign of Emperor Taisho, written with the characters 大正 ("grand" and "righteous"). As can be seen in Table 2, during the first three years of the Taisho era, the character 正 appears often among the top names for boys. Note also that, after the character 大 in the top name for each year, the characters meaning "one" (one horizontal stroke), "two" (two strokes), and "three" (three strokes) appear respectively, corresponding to the first, second, and third years of the reign of the Emperor Taisho. The reverence for the Emperor held by the average person in Japanese society in that period is amply clear from this table.

During the World War II period, the top three characters in names of boys born in the years 1942-1945 are 勝 ("victory"), 勇 ("bravery"), and 進 ("advance").

In 1926, the late Emperor Showa 昭和 ("enlightened peace") ascended the throne. Among girls, the name 和子 ("peace child") using the 和 character from the Emperor's name was the No.1 name for 23 of the 26 years in the period from 1927 to 1952.

The current era name -- Heisei -- provides an interesting example of the dramatic change in Japanese society in regard to the use of characters from the Emperor's name in the name of one's newborn child. Only one boys' name including one of the characters used for "Heisei" made it into the top ten, and then only for three years and without rising above the No. 6 position. Among girls, only in the first year of Heisei did a name with one of the Heisei characters appear in the top ten, and then at No. 4. In the last three years (1998-2000), among the top three names for boys, we see expressions of growth and breadth, with frequent use of 翔 ("to soar"), 大輝 ("grand and radiant"), and 海 ("sea"). Perhaps there is a hint here of a desire for one's child to be more international (see Table 4). Among girls in the same period, flower-related characters are at the top, with meanings such as "beautiful flowering," " to bud," "elegant flower," "cherry blossom," and "rape blossom" holding down most of the top places. However, in 2000, perhaps because of the millennium, the No. 1 character spot was held by 未来 , written with the characters that mean "future/promise for the future."

The above examples merely scratch the surface of the complexities involved in reading Japanese names. There are also issues related to historical and classical readings, and to voiced and unvoiced consonants (e.g. "Osawa" versus "Ozawa"). Reading place names is another nightmare.

Voice recognition software has been touted as a possible future solution for keyboard input (especially on portable devices), but such software assumes that one knows how to pronounce the word one wants to input. But with Japanese names, the correct pronunciation is not always clear.

Perhaps the final comment on this topic is best left to a footnote in the Meiji Life Insurance study, which states that the respective total figures in the columns for characters and for name readings don't always match because the researchers were not always able to correctly read the names!

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