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How do surnames work in Japan?


Japan has a unique way of handling surnames. Unlike the Western tradition, surnames in Japan come before the given name. They are also not always passed from generation to generation. In this article, we will explore how surnames work in Japan, their origins, and the different types of surnames that exist.

The history of Japanese surnames

Japanese surnames were not commonly used until the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the government introduced a law requiring all citizens to have a surname. Before then, people were identified by their given names, and only members of the nobility had family names. The adoption of surnames was intended to bring Japan in line with Western naming conventions.

Japanese Snack Box

Types of Japanese surnames

There are four main types of Japanese surnames: yamatoji (native Japanese), kuge (court noble), samurai, and commoner. Yamatoji surnames are the most common and make up around 90% of all Japanese surnames. Kuge surnames are reserved for descendants of court nobles, while samurai surnames are for those descended from samurai families. Commoner surnames, as the name suggests, are for everyone else.

How Japanese surnames are written

As mentioned earlier, Japanese surnames come before the given name. They are written in kanji, Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese writing system. In some cases, katakana (one of the Japanese syllabary scripts) is used instead of kanji to write a surname.

Changing your surname in Japan

In Japan, it is possible to change your surname by submitting an application to your local government office. However, there are strict rules governing name changes. For example, you cannot change your surname to one that is already in use by another family.

Passing down Japanese surnames

Unlike in Western cultures where surnames are traditionally passed down through the father’s side of the family, in Japan they can be passed down through either parent. When a couple marries, they can choose which surname their children will take.

The use of honorifics with Japanese surnames

In Japan, it is common to use honorifics when addressing someone with a surname. For example, if someone’s surname is Tanaka, they may be referred to as “Tanaka-san.” This is a sign of respect and is similar to using “Mr.” or “Ms.” in English.

Famous Japanese surnames

There are many famous Japanese surnames that you may recognize. Some examples include Suzuki (meaning “bell tree”), Sato (meaning “sugar”), and Takahashi (meaning “high bridge”). These names are often associated with particular regions or occupations.

Japanese surname customs in different regions

Different regions of Japan have their own customs when it comes to surnames. For example, in Okinawa Prefecture, it is common for women to keep their maiden name even after marriage. In some parts of western Japan, people traditionally use a nickname instead of their given name.

Foreigners living in Japan and surnames

Foreigners living in Japan may choose to adopt a Japanese surname if they wish. However, this is not mandatory and many foreigners continue to use their original surname. In some cases, foreigners may choose to adopt a name that sounds similar to their original name but is easier for Japanese speakers to pronounce.

The significance of Japanese surnames

Japanese surnames have significant cultural and historical significance in Japan. They can provide insights into a person’s background and family history. They also play an important role in maintaining social hierarchies and family traditions.

The future of Japanese surnames

As with many cultural traditions around the world, there are concerns about the future of Japanese surnames. With increasing globalization and cultural exchange, some worry that traditional naming conventions may be lost or forgotten. However, for now at least, Japanese surnames continue to be an important part of Japanese culture and society.


In conclusion, Japanese surnames have a rich history and unique place in Japanese culture. From their origins during the Meiji period to their current use today, they provide insights into a person’s background and family history. Whether you are living in Japan or simply interested in learning more about this fascinating country, understanding how Japanese surnames work is an important part of cultural literacy.

Do Japanese last names go first?

In Japanese culture, it is customary for the family name to be written first, which is a common practice in East Asian cultures.

Do Japanese children take their mother’s last name?

According to Article 790 in Japan’s Civil Code, a child born to married parents will have both their father and mother’s surname, while a child born to unmarried parents will have only their mother’s surname.

Do Japanese people take their dads last name?

In Japan, individuals have two names: a family name and a personal name. Typically, the family name is passed down from the father, and when women get married, they often take on their husband’s family name.

Do people in Japan address each other by their last names?

In Japan, it is customary to refer to each other by their last name, except for close friends. However, when it comes to foreigners from Western countries, it is common to address them by their first name, except in business situations where last names may still be used.

Can a non-Japanese person have a Japanese name?

Individuals of Asian descent, including those who are not Japanese, may adopt Japanese names for business purposes and to avoid discrimination based on their given names. Common Japanese names for this purpose include Yamada Tarō and Yamada Hanako, which are analogous to the Western names John Smith and Jane Smith. This practice is particularly common in Japan.

Are Japanese names gendered?

Not all Japanese names are gender-neutral. While there are some names that could be used for both genders, most Japanese names are specific to one gender or the other.

Some Japanese surnames are associated with specific professions or occupations. For example, the surname Yamamoto can indicate that a person’s ancestors were mountain village leaders, while the surname Nakamura may indicate that their ancestors were involved in carpentry or woodworking. Surnames like these can provide clues to a person’s family history and background.

In Japan, it is not uncommon for people to have the same surname. This is because many surnames originated from geographic locations, such as towns or villages. For example, the surname Nara comes from the city of Nara in central Japan. As a result, there may be many different families with the same surname who are not related to each other.

In recent years, there has been some discussion in Japan about changing the law to allow married couples to have different surnames. Currently, couples are expected to have the same surname, which is usually the husband’s surname. However, this tradition has faced criticism for being outdated and discriminatory towards women. Some people argue that allowing couples to have different surnames would promote gender equality and give people more freedom to choose their own identity.

Despite any potential changes in the future, Japanese surnames remain an important part of Japanese culture and society today. Whether you are learning Japanese or simply interested in exploring the rich history and traditions of this fascinating country, understanding how Japanese surnames work is a valuable piece of knowledge.

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