Japanese is a language that looks beautiful when written down. Calligraphy is a popular art celebrating the beauty of the Chinese-originating characters, kanji. Written Japanese is an art form itself, and it’s fun to be able to write characters and words you know. This article gives a complete guide to writing your own name in Japanese.
There is no direct Japanese translation for each individual letter in the Latin alphabet. Let’s use the name “James” as an example. To write “James” in Japanese, you wouldn’t be able to find the equivalent of “J,” “A,” etc. Don’t make the same mistake my uncle did a couple of years ago. He wanted the first letters of his children’s names, “F,” “H,” and “P,” tattooed on his shoulder blade. The artist obliged, and a few weeks later, they were eating in a Chinese restaurant when the waiter asked him with the utmost sincerity: “Why do you have ‘running water’ written on your back?” Oops.
Japanese names are generally written in kanji, the third and most complicated Japanese alphabet that originated from Chinese. Each kanji character is a pictogram with a meaning as well as one or more readings, so often, kanji with pleasant meanings are chosen for Japanese children, such as Fujiko (the child of Mt. Fuji) or Eri (precious gift).
Unless you have a Japanese name, you will most certainly be writing your name in the second Japanese alphabet, katakana, which is used for foreign words such as “bottle” (ボトル), “locker” (ロッカー), “table” (テーブル), “TV” (テレビ), etc. The first alphabet, hiragana, is used for grammatical words and sounds accompanying kanji to make words.
Don’t feel intimidated by the characters you see here – you don’t have to learn them all to be able to write your name. There are several more rules when it comes to sound blends, but are fairly easy to pick up.
It’s important to know how the letters sound before you choose some for your name. Let’s use the five vowel sounds – A, I, U, E, and O – as a base, because the vowel sounds remain the same for the rest of the letters (for example, the “A” sound in “ka,” “sa,” “ta,” etc. is all the same).
A – as in “father”
I – as in “eat”
U – as in “loop”
E – as in “elephant”
O – as in “orange”
Sounds in Japanese tend to be quite short. There isn’t much stress in Japanese words – all of the syllables tend to be the same length unless they are elongated. An example of this would be “u” added after “o” to create a longer sound, in words such as sumou (sumo wrestling) and arigatou (thank you). To elongate a sound in written form for your name, a hyphen-like symbol (ー) is simply added.
Here are some examples of words that have elongated vowel sounds. You may have noticed the two mentioned earlier, “locker” and “table.”
- サービス (sa–bisu) meaning “service.” Without the hyphen, the “sa” would be much shorter, making it sound more like “sabiss.” With the elongation, it sounds more like “sah-biss,” and therefore more similar to the original English word.
- テーブル (te–buru) meaning “table.” Similar to “service,” the hyphen turns “teburu” to “teh-buru”.
- メール (me–ru) meaning “mail.” Again, the hyphen turns “meru” to “meh-ru.” (Note: There is no “L” in Japanese, so words ending in “L” in English are replaced with “ru.” More on that later.)
When writing your name, go for the closest sound, not the closest spelling, as the vowels in Japanese don’t change as they do in English. For example, if your name is “David” and you went for the closest spelling possible, it would sound more like “Dabiddo” (ダビッド). Instead, David would write “De–biddo” (デービッド) to achieve the correct vowel blend sound closest to the original sound.
In Japanese, there is no “L,” “X,” “Q,” “V,” “TH,” or consonant blends like “TR,” “CR,” “SL,” “PL,” etc. If you have a name that has any of these, writing it in Japanese may be somewhat of a challenge, but still perfectly possible. All you have to do is work out the alternative as shown above.
Now that you have an idea of Japanese letters and sounds, it’s time to write your name!
First, break up your name into syllables. Typically, there’ll be one to four. Once you’ve done that, figure out which katakana sound is closest to the syllables in your name. Don’t forget to elongate vowels when necessary.
Let’s go back to the previous example, “James.” “James” is technically one syllable in English, but it would become three in Japanese due to the many sounds in the name. The syllables would be like this:
Je – mu zu
“Je” must be elongated, as the first two letters in “James” are stressed. “Je – mu zu” in Japanese would look like this:
“James” is a complicated name to write in Japanese, which is why I used it as an example. Other names may not be as difficult.
Examples of easy names:
- Stephanie (Su te fa ni –) ステファニー
- Jack (Ja kku) ジャック
- Lisa (Ri sa) リサ
- Harry (Ha ri –) ハリー
- Lee (Ri –) リー
- Alan (A ra n) アラン
- Ryan (Ra i a n) ライアン
And that is how you write your own name correctly in Japanese! Will you give it a try?