Japanese Names Through The Ages

Recently, the Japan Times had an interesting article about how names have changed in Japan to reflect the times. For example, if a new Emperor ascended the throne, many kids would have names that included kanji from the Emperor’s reign name. Or, during World War II the names reflected martial virtues of bravery and such. In the post-war period names reflected virtues of success, wit or intelligence.

But now a new trend is happening in Japan: choosing complicated, dramatic or hard to read names. My wife and I noticed this on Japanese TV. A lot of younger child celebrities have unusual names that don’t have obvious readings. Both in TV and real life, I’ve seen kids named after food (e.g. Chocolate), names with “conqueror” in them, and names I simply can’t figure out how to read until I see the accompanying furigana text.

As the article explains, parents may have good intentions or simply compensating for a sense of inferiority, but either way the names become a problem later in life. The article explains that many Japanese companies will screen out unusual names on the logic that the parents didn’t raise their kids right, and the kids have to live with the embarrassment as well. Changing the name of course is a legal hassle too, and most just learn to live with it.

But this isn’t unique to Japan. I’ve seen plenty of unusual names for kids here in Seattle too. I’ve seen names based on Buddhist sects, names that “sound” Celtic (read: New Age), and names that seem normal but have unusual and difficult spellings. Again the parents might have good intentions (or selfish ones) but aren’t considering the long-term impact to their kids.

I have a co-worker whose names sounds like “Colleen”, a common name for women, but her parents decided to spell it French-style. Unfortunately, people mispronounce it all the time because people don’t know how to read it. She often has to apologize and explain herself when it happens.

Why would you do this to your kids?

If you use kids as extension of your own pride and aspirations, they will surely suffer. If Buddhism has taught me one thing as a parent, it’s that I don’t really own anything including my kids.1 If I did, that would be ego projecting itself on others. Instead they are in my care and I owe it to them to give them the best upbringing I can. This includes how I name them and the consequences therein.

So, if you have kids, please be thoughtful in how you name them, and think about how it will affect the way they interact with other people over the years, both as children and as adults. Making your kid stand out, or using them as a political/social statement, isn’t really in their best interest.

1 Hence the Buddha’s famous statement:

‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

Found here and here, among many other places. It’s about examining yourself, and seeing that all your identity and sense of self is constructed from physical and abstract components. However, since people believe in a lasting sense of self, they tend to project it on other things and other people, leading to all sorts of mischief. But I digress. :p


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

11 thoughts on “Japanese Names Through The Ages”

  1. Interesting article. I often think about this topic after reading about celebreties’ babies’ names in newspapers….It is so true what you say- like much you’re writng about in your blog. I am looking forward to your next article:)


  2. Really interesting! I had heard that there was a trend in having more “obscure” names that aren’t easy to pronounce judging from the Kanji … I wonder if anyone ever makes the radical move of giving a baby a foreign name that can *only* be written in katakana? Is that even a “thing”?

    Nice pivot to a philosophical reflection on names as well…


    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Believe it not, I’ve actually seen “food” names using katakana (hence the comment about “chocolate”, not the person’s real name). Also, some celebrities who are bi-racial like Becky (ใƒ™ใƒƒใ‚ญใƒผ) also just spell their names using Katakana for obvious reasons. ๐Ÿ™‚ She’s born and raised in Japan, but still retains a more Western-style name.

      But I’ve seen some cases where normal Japanese names are spelled in Katakana too just because it’s easier. My mother in law does that even though she could use kanji.

      I guess it’s kind of a personal choice too.


  3. Really interesting! I had heard that there was a trend in having more โ€œobscureโ€ names that arenโ€™t easy to pronounce judging from the Kanji โ€ฆ I wonder if anyone ever makes the radical move of giving a baby a foreign name that can *only* be written in katakana? Is that even a โ€œthingโ€?

    Nice pivot to a philosophical reflection on names as wellโ€ฆ


  4. I know what you mean! My sister named her son Haakon, which is cool if you know how to pronounce Norwegian names (it’s like Hawk-n), but he’s going to have a lot of problems growing up (people are already calling him Hay-kon). I don’t know much about Japanese names, but as far as I know my favourites are fairly traditional like Akira and Shota (correct me if I’m wrong). I imagine those who choose difficult spellings are most likely young parents who think it’s cool. I think unique names are great, but there should definitely be more thought put into them.


    1. Good point. It’s not just English and Japanese, it happens anywhere. We picked my daughter’s name because it was easy to say in both English and Japanese (it’s a flower name, in case you’re curious), and that’s worked pretty well so far.

      To be honest, we spent months deciding her name too. I’m glad we invested the time. Some of the ideas we had early on don’t sound so good years later. ๐Ÿ˜›


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