When I started reading a lot of Japanese history, I initially found the names a little confusing. Although having some understanding, there are a number of practices that I still find really intriguing. I wanted to write about myōseki, the passing down of a family name to someone who is not necessarily related. However, when I started reading, I discovered there is so much more to Japanese names than meets the eye.
Modern Japanese name conventions dictate that the surname is followed by the given name. Japanese do not use middle names. Usually, the surname is patrilineal, passing from the father. Generally, written in kanji characters, and until 2020 written reversed when written in Romaji. Romaji is Roman characters used for Japanese words. So, the given name was written followed by the surname. This practice is no longer the accepted standard. Married couples must have the same surname. The marriage is not legally recognised otherwise. Occasionally a man will take a woman’s surname. Usually in cases of myōseki. More about that latter.
Kanji characters can have several readings. On’yomi or a Chinese reading, kun’yomi or a Japanese reading and for names only, nanori. Most names have various readings. When enquiring about a Japanese person’s name, you must know both the kanji and the reading.
The Imperial Family has no surname. Historically, the Emperor bestowed surnames on others, so it was accepted he did not require one. This convention continues to this day. Members of the Imperial Family are bestowed names if they marry outside of the family.
A widely held misconception is that common people in Japan, prior to the Meiji restoration did not have surnames. This is not entirely true. Common people were not allowed to use their surnames in public. Only nobility, samurai or people given special dispensation to bare swords and family names by the Shogun enjoyed this privilege. Others had a by name, which was usually descriptive of where they lived, the work they did or another physical element. For example, Super Sake Boy’s Japanese alias is Tanaka-san. Tanaka 田中 literally means middle of the rice field. In 1875 when the Japanese government made it a legal requirement people have surnames, many people used these by names. (Others just made up names, or assumed names that inferred a higher status than they actually held).
Due to this naming system, it is believed there may be up to 100,000 surnames in use in Japan at this time.
In feudal Japan, names reflected social status. They also indicated affiliation to Buddhism, Shintō or participation in the military or mercantile, peasant or slave status or indicating Imperial orders. Some names inferred Confucian-scholarly status.
Previous to the Meiji restoration, given names were fluid and likely to change over a person’s lifetime. The change may be prompted by change of social status, including coming of age or getting married, allegiance to a clan, shedding an “unlucky” name or a promotion in rank. In the case of samurai promotion, a newly bestowed name may contain a syllable or character from the Lord’s name as a mark of favour.
Types of Names
Myōseki 名跡 or “famous name” or maybe even “stage name”. This surname suggests more than just a name has been inherited. It would indicate trust, tradition, history and good image have also been bequeathed. The “house list”- regular clientele, patrons, sponsors, backers and money lenders are also included in the naming succession. The heir also assumes the debts and the ongoing support of the family passing down the name. This includes tending graves after death. Sometimes, if there is no blood tie with the family, the recipient will become a member of the family, through marriage or adoption. It is in this tradition geisha houses were passed on. Sometimes, geisha had illegitimate children to whom they passed their property. Other times, a suitably skilled artist, a dancer or musician, was trained from a young age. (As young as 5 or 6 years old). She would go on to inherit the okiya, the house, as well as the appointments, the clientele, and all the responsibilities of the “Okaa-san”or house mother. It is through myōseki that a man may take his wife’s surname. If the wife’s family have a famous name, a successful business or a line of succession, it is not common, but not impossible.
Gō 號 or “art name” used by artists. These names often changed over the artists lifetime. (Hokusai had 6 different gō). Often the first character of the students name was the last character of the teacher, or master’s name. The Utagawa School produced over half of all the ukiyo-e prints that remain. It was tradition of this school for artists to take on the name of the previous master when he accepted the highest rank in the school, after the master had stepped down. This school included Hiroshige, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi.
Iemoto 家元 or “head of a school” name. Iemoto translates literally to “family foundation’. This name can be passed down by heredity or adoption. It accompanies authority and tradition. Iemoto may be the head of a school of martial arts, ikebana, tea ceremony, calligraphy, bontei (tray gardening), Noh theatre, traditional Japanese music or dance, Kabuki, Banraku (puppeteering), Rakugo (comic story-telling) or sumo. Sumo names are very complex. Shikona is the name sumo wrestlers pass down. There is another convention for these names.
Uji 氏 or “clan names”. These names have a long history and many are still in circulation today. Some may date back to the Yayoi Period (300BC-300AD). You can usually tell if a family has a traditional clan name, as they will have a “kamon” or a family crest. Sometimes the Emperor would bestow a name on a family. You can tell these names as they include a の or no within the name. (“No” means “of”).