Surnames are a very unique and interesting aspect of Japan. Did you know that an overwhelming majority of Japanese surnames have been in existence only since the late 19th century? Also, the meanings behind those surnames are very reflective of cultural, religious, and social practices that have been in Japanese society for a while.
It is highly likely that if you are traveling around Japan, you may meet many people who are unrelated yet share the same surname. This is due to the fact that many families chose similar sounding surnames after the Meiji Restoration with the aim of gaining social acceptance. Having surnames before that period used to be exclusive only to the clergy. Let’s take a look at the 8 most familiar Japanese surnames and understand the meanings behind them!
According to many sources, Nakamura scores an 8 when it comes to popularity. In other words, it stands at eighth position with more than a million people possessing it as a surname. This means you can actually find as many Nakamura names as the entire population of Cyprus (which has a little over a million residents).
However, the meaning behind it is very simple; it is a combination of the two Japanese words, ‘naka’, which means ‘middle’, and ‘mura’ meaning ‘village’. Maybe it was used to refer to someone from a ‘middle village’, or the head of a village, who was of high morale?
Standing at number seven, Yamamoto is just as common as Nakamura with a difference of a few thousand. It is also a combination of two words: ‘yama’, which is ‘mountain’ in Japanese, and ‘moto’, which means ‘origin’. When it comes to historical people with similar surnames, Commander Isoraku Yamamoto would forever be remembered for his infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.
Ito is another popular surname which actually means ‘this Wisteria’. In Japan, flowers are usually symbolic of royalty, for example, Chrysanthemum is linked to the Imperial Family. The flower Wisteria has also its own unique place as it was used by the Fujiwara Clan, a very old feudal clan that once had tremendous control over middle Japan.
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You must have heard of Ken Watanabe, who is a world-renowned actor from Japan. It is not only him who has the surname ‘Watanabe’, but also a million other people in Japan! It literally means ‘crossing an edge’.
Watanabe is actually an area in the Settsu region of Japan, which currently encompasses the area between Kobe and Osaka. The founder of this lineage is said to be a warrior named Tsuna who actually glorified the samurai culture in around the 10th – 11th century A.D. His family later migrated to other regions as well and went on to wield power all over Japan.
Even centuries later up until the Meiji Restoration, the Watanabes somehow managed to maintain control over smaller areas. The family was so legendary that many other clans started claiming it, thus making Watanabe a household name in Japan.
Have you seen the movie Godzilla? Then, you must be familiar with its producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who is one among many people who share the same last name. Tanaka means ‘a rice field located in the middle of a village’ or simply ‘middle field’. The words ‘ta’, and ‘naka’, refer to the crop ‘paddy’ and the position ‘middle’, respectively.
As you may have noticed by now, Japanese surnames are symbolic in nature, usually denoting a family’s social status based on the type of area they live in. The name ‘Takahashi’ usually refers to ‘tall bridge’; the words ‘hashi’ and ‘taka’ are used in day to day life, which usually refers to ‘ bridge’ and ‘height’ respectively.
It might have started because of some families living in places that can only be accessed by a bridge, or something that is indicative of earlier era’s social status.
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You must have heard about the famous vehicle manufacturer from Japan, namely Suzuki, whose products are seen everywhere across the world. With a huge presence all around Japan, Suzuki is actually the second most common family name.
Nearly 2 million people possess it, which is as large as the country of Latvia! It actually means ‘bell tree’. However, there is no clarity on its origin. Shinto shrines usually use ‘suzu’, a jingle bell type of musical instrument played to please ‘kami’ (god). Maybe the name was exclusive to the priest classes back in the day.
Coming on to the most popular last name in the entire country of Japan, ‘Sato’ usually means ‘to help Wisteria’. As you already read earlier, the word ‘to’ (as in Ito), usually refers to Wisteria, which is symbolic of great clans such as Fujiwara which dominated Japanese society throughout history.
Maybe their descendants or people who worked for them must have taken the name ‘sato’. Today, nearly 2 million people identify themselves with the family name, making it the most popular!
Have you met anyone with the above surnames in Japan or abroad? There are literally thousands of Japanese surnames, which are actually much higher in number compared to some other countries.
Also, the aforementioned eight names are usually rated based on insurance companies’ investigations and the government released name registrations, and there is no guarantee that they are in the same order in other ratings. They can change their positions based on demographic changes every year.