Japanese surnames 名字

  • Published on : 05/09/2022
  • by : J.R.
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Family names in Japan

In Japan, there are more than 100 000 different family names! This is much more than in China and Korea, even though they are Japan's neighbors. The family name has a symbolic meaning which leads it to be placed in front of the first name and to be used instead of the latter when talking to someone. 

The last name in Japanese is said to be myoji (苗 字 or 名字), uji (氏) or sei (姓).

Construction and use of the Japanese family name

In Japan, the family name is written and said before the first name, the latter being called "personal name". We can see in Japanese manga and movies that calling someone by his first name characterizes a certain closeness with this person. Otherwise, it is perceived as very disrespectful!

Family names are written using kanji, characters coming from Chinese, and are widely used in the Japanese language. They are made up of one to four kanji at most, however, 75% are written with only two kanji. Names are subject to a certain diversity in Japanese culture, so much so that some of them can also be written with hiraganas (the main alphabet of the Japanese language) or more rarely with katakanas. 

Read also: Japanese writing

Japanese names have very often a meaning, related to nature or a specific place. In this sense, it is very rare that first names are also used as family names, unlike in France where it is very common (Martin, Robert, Laurent are for example very common first names as family names).

Katsushika Hokusai in hiraganas

© Stuart Rankin, Flickr

Signature with a Hanko

©Fotero, Flickr

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