A modern 'Japanese name' (日本人名) consists of a family name, or surname,
followed by a given name. In almost all cases both are written using Kanji.
Some names are pronounced according to the usual readings of the characters
(with kunyomi generally being used for the surname and either onyomi or
kunyomi for the given name). Others use readings which are never found
except in names, and still others use kanji which are never found except in
names. Additionally, a name written in kanji may have more than one common
pronunciation, only one of which is correct for a given individual. This
makes the collation and romanization of Japanese names a very difficult
Quite a few Japanese names, particularly family names, include a dated or
unusual Chinese character. These are often outside of the Unicode character
set, widely used in the western computer community, which causes severe
difficulties in representing them on the computer. [example?] Those who have
such a name usually compromise by substituting other characters. An example
of such a name is Saito. Most Japanese have adopted a custom of maintaining
names with Furigana or ruby characters on the address book, for example.
Japanese nationals are required to give a romanized name for their passport.
This complication is also found in Japanese place names. Expressing them in
Hiragana instead of Kanji is acceptable among lower grade students but
usually seen as a disgrace otherwise. Whether to accept students using
Hiragana for names in formal situations such as exams is sometimes
controversial. This can be seen as similar to the problem of misspelling in
languages with alphabets.
When written in Japanese characters, the family name always precedes the
given name. As this differs from the ordering used in many other parts of
the world, some, particularly academics, adopt the convention of writing the
family name in upper case when the name is romanized: for example, Takuya
MURATA or MURATA Takuya. Artists whos works are distributed in English
outside of Japan often opt for a western ordering on the English editions of
their works (e.g., Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shunji Iwai, Haruki Murakami).
Within families, younger family members generally refer to older family
members by title rather than name, e.g. kaasan "mom" or niichan "big
brother". Older family members refer to younger family members by given
name. Outside of the family people are generally referred to by family name
(Murata-san), by position (e.g. sensei, "teacher"), or by a combination of
the two (Murata-sensei). Given names are used when referring to adult
friends or to children. Names are almost never spoken or written without
some sort of honorific, either a title like sensei or a general honorific
like san, kun, or chan. Honorifics are omitted only in intimate
During the period when typical parents had several children, it was a
common practice to name sons by numbers suffixed with ro (郎, "son"). The
first son would be known as "Ichi (one) ro", the second as "Ji (two) ro" and
so on. Girls were often named with ko (子, "child") at the end of the given
name (this should not be confused with the male suffix hiko 彦). Both
practices are now outdated.
Some Japanese, particularly celebrities, have a kind of nickname
combining their real names. For example, Kimura Takuya, a famous Japanese
actor and singer, becomes Kimutaku and Ito Jyunichi, a prominent Japanese
hacker, can be Itojyun. Many Japanese celebrities have a name combining
Kanji and Katakana. One such is Beat Takeshi.
Many ethnic minorities living in Japan adopt Japanese names to ease
communication and, more importantly, to avoid discrimination. But a few of
them still keep their native name. Among them are Chang Woo Han, a founder
and chairman of Maruhan Corp., a large chain of pachinko parlors in Japan.
The Japanese government requires immigrants to Japan to adopt a Japanese
name without exception.
Common surnames in Japan include Sato (佐藤), Kato (加藤), Suzuki (鈴木) and
Takahashi (高橋). Surnames often vary from place to place. Common surnames in
Okinawa include Tamagusuku (玉城).
Many Japanese family names derive from features of the rural landscape;
for example, Ishikawa (石川) means "stony brook", Yamamoto (山本) means "the
base of the mountain", and Inoue (井上) means "above the well".
The Japanese Emperor has no surname for historical reasons, only a given
name such as Hirohito (裕仁). In ancient times, people in Japan were
considered the property of the Emperor and their surname reflected the role
in the government they served. Many surnames originated from Chinese and
Korean names. Examples are Kaneshiro (金城) (Chinese) and Chang (Korean).