The Science of Kanji Part 7: Reading Names

If you have studied Japanese Kanji for a while, you probably have figured out that kanji have 2 ways to read them:

  • Kun Yomi – the native, Japanese way to read them.
  • On Yomi – the Chinese-imported way to read them.

Usually, individual words are read using kun-yomi, and compound words are read using on-yomi, but that is not always true. A lot of times, you just have to read enough Japanese that you just get an intuitive “feel”. There’s no short-cut.

However, there is a third style of reading many foreigners don’t know: names.

Surnames in Japanese are read using kun-yomi usually, but given-names often have readings that are neither on-yomi nor kun-yomi. They’re completely separate readings. For example, the kanji can be read as “hikari” for kun-yomi, or “kō” for on-yomi. But as a name, it is often read as “akira”, “mi” or “mitsu” as in the name 博光 (hiromitsu). Another common example is which is often read as “suke” in Japanese names, such as 大介 (daisuke).

Personally, I can read most surnames in Japanese easily, but with given names, I still get stuck all the time. Female names a much easier because often use the same characters over and over: 子 (ko), 美 (mi) and so on. However, male names have more variety so you may not know them all. For example, you often see male names with the kanji 郎 (), but it can be found in a wide variety of names: 三郎 (saburō), 太郎 (tarō) and 一郎 (ichirō) to name a few.

Separately, it’s also possible to have popular name with many possible kanji. The name Hiroshi can be written as 博, 浩, 弘, 宏 and 寛 among many others. People sometimes pick more obscure kanji too.

Speaking of “Hiroshi”:1

Hiroshi desu…. hiroshi desu….

Anyhow, when learning Japanese names, the key is to be flexible and just keep reading and learning different names until you understand the patterns. But remember, they’re not the same as other words in Japanese. 😉

1 This is a great stand-up routine by ヒロシ in his earlier years. The funeral scene is especially funny.


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.

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