Words evoke a vivid mental image of different things to different people. A name is particularly important when it comes to standing out in a crowd. Japan puts a lot of meaning into the names that are chosen for a person, because their name can define who they are and how they will be perceived by others. This article will provide an overview of Japanese names—including the cultural implications they carry, the meaning behind them, and how they’re structured—so that you can understand how they differ from other cultures and why they’re so meaningful.
The Meaning Behind Japanese Names
The meaning behind Japanese names is steeped in culture and tradition. Names are often chosen based on the kanji characters to which they can be written using it. These characters are taken from ancient Chinese and Japanese sources. They can either symbolize good qualities to be achieved, future aspirations, or simply express the beauty of the written language. Japanese parents take great care in choosing an appropriate name for their child, often consulting the kanji dictionary, or a naming specialist to make sure. It is often thought that the right name can be symbolic of the destiny of the child.
The Structure of Japanese Names
Unlike the Western tradition of a ‘first name’ and ‘surname’, Japanese names are structured differently. There are several types of Japanese names that are used today.
Uchi-Deshi (‘Inside’ Name): These names are unique to individual families and are used within the family. Usually passed down from generation to generation, it can be any kind of name, such as a derogative nickname or a respectful title.
Sōshirei (‘Lifetime Name’): This is the name given to the individual for the rest of their life, and is the most important of all Japanese names. This name is the one which will be seen on the person’s driver’s license, credit cards and other official documents. Generally, two Chinese characters comprising two syllables are used in the naming.
Katsurei (‘Borrowed Name’): These are names taken from Buddhist scriptures or other religious texts.
Kazoku-mei (‘Family Name’): While not mandatory, the custom of having a family name is finding increasing popularity in the 21st century. Having a family name can help to preserve the identity of the extended family and can be used by any non-married members.
Honorific titles, or suffixes, are added to names to express respect and seniority. These honorifics can be attached to the end of any given name, regardless of whether it is a ‘first’ or ‘family’ name. The Japanese have an elaborate and complex system of honorifics.
San or ‘Mr’/’Ms’ is the most frequently seen honorific and is used among peers or equals.
Sama is the most formal honorific and is used to express the utmost respect towards someone who deserves it, such as a customer or respected individual. It is also recommended when speaking to multiple people.
The various honorifics also differ depending on the gender and age of the person. For example, -kun and -chan are often used with children and young adults, while -senpai and -sensei are used when referring to superiors in a professional setting.
Japanese names are inherently influenced by the country’s cultural and traditional values, as well as its written language kanji. It’s not just about picking a design, but it’s about conveying the inherent beauty of one’s name through the language. With the deep-rooted history and nuances that are intertwined in each name, it’s no wonder that much thought is put into the selection process. As the significance and complexity of Japanese names become better understood outside of Japan, they may gain more traction in other countries.