Modern Japanese names (日本人の氏名 nihonjin no shimei) usually consist of a family name (surname), followed by a given name. This order is standard in Asian countries, while middle names are not generally used. Japanese names are spelt in Chinese characters (漢字 kanji) in Japanese pronunciation. Japanese family names are extremely varied: according to estimates, there are over 100,000 different surnames in use today in Japan. Common family names in Japan include Satō (佐藤), Suzuki (鈴木) and Takahashi (高橋) (please refer to the table below).

Surnames occur with varying frequency in different regions; for example, the names Chinen (知念), Higa (比嘉), and Shimabukuro (島袋) are common in Okinawa but not in other parts of Japan; this is mainly due to differences between the language and culture of Yamato people and Okinawans. Many Japanese family names derive from features of the rural landscape; for example, Ishikawa (石川) means "stone river," Yamamoto (山本) means "the base of the mountain," and Inoue (井上) means "above the well."

Until the Meiji Period, ordinary Japanese people did not have a family name. Only the nobles, samurai and some merchants and artisans did. At the time, the vast majority of the population were peasants. The new Meiji government made it compulsory for everyone to choose a surname, using only authorised kanji. Up to the Tokugawa period, ordinary people would refer to themselves as being from a particular region, or a specific branch of business. The names taken by Japanese people in the Meiji period were those already in use among the upper classes or were created by local priests or simply made up. This explains why there seem to be around 100,000 Japanese family names currently in existence.

Common particles in Japanese surnames

JapaneseKanji symbolEnglish
aoblue, green
-bashi, -hashibridge
-da, -tarice paddy
-do, tsuchiearth
fukugood fortune; wealthy
-gawa, -kawariver
-guchi, -kuchimouth, entrance
-hara, -wara, -barafield; plain
hayashigrove, woods
-daira, -tairaflat; smooth
kamigod, deity
kami, ueupper, top
motobase; origin
numaswamp, lake
-nofield; plain
oolarge; great
sakismall peninsula, cape
sawa, zawamarsh; swamp
shitalower; below; base
sugicedar tree
wapeace; harmony

The 30 most common Japanese surnames (2010)

On 13 February 1875 (明治8年) it was officially decreed that all Japanese must adopt surnames. An additional decree from 17 March 1876, mandated that spouses must both keep their original family (maiden) names. It was in the year 1896 that Japan returned to the old civil law that obligated spouses to share the same family name. Article 750 of the revised Civil Code (1947) stipulates that a couple should use either the husband's or the wife's surname.

01Sato 佐藤 (サトウ、サドウ)Common in eastern Hokkaido , in Tohoku (Akita in particular), in eastern Kyushu, but not many in Kansai (Osaka and Hyogo Prefectures); rather unusual in Okinawa.
02Suzuki 鈴木 (スズキ、ススキ、ススギ)Common in Aichi (Mikawa in particular) and in northeastern and southern Kanto (Shizuoka Prefecture); most common surname in the southern Kanto region. Not common in Kyushu and Okinawa.
03Takahashi 高橋 (タカハシ、タカバシ)Most common in the Tohoku region (particularly around Kitakami in Iwate Prefecture) and in Shikoku.
04Watanabe 渡辺(ワタナベ、ワタベ)Originated in Osaka City's Chuo Ward, common all over Japan except for Okinawa; nowadays more common in eastern Japan, in particular in Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures as well as Chukyo and Kyushu regions.
05Tanaka 田中(タナカ、ダナカ、デンチュウ)Common all over Japan, but except for Okinawa more frequent in western Japan (in particular the Sannin region); most common family name in Fukuoka and Osaka Prefectures. In eastern Japan very common in the Hiki region, in Saitama (Iruma in particular) and the Koshinetsu region (Nagano Prefecture) as well as Hokkaido.
06Ito 伊藤(イトウ)Found mainly in the Chukyo, Tohoku, Kanto, Sannin and Kinki regions; very common in Aichi and Mie Prefectures; highest number in any Japanese city found in Nagoya.
07Yamamoto 山本(ヤマモト)Common in western and northeastern Japan; most common surname in the Hokuriku region (Sanyo), the Sanin region (Kinki); in eastern Japan more common in Saitama and Shizuoka Prefectures.
08Nakamura 中村(ナカムラ)Common all over Japan, with a higher rate in western regions, in particular Kinki and Kyushu.
09Kobayashi 小林(コバヤシ、オバヤシ)Common in the Kanto, Shinetsu, Kinki and Chugoku regions.
10Saito 斎藤(サイトウ)-
11Kato 加藤(カトウ)Originating in old Kaga (now Ishikawa Prefecture), but not many in the Hokuriku region, common in the Chukyo region.
12Yoshida 吉田(ヨシダ、キチダ、ヨシタ)Originated in Kyoto 's Sakyo Ward, commmon all over Japan except for Okinawa, most common in Hokuriku, Kinki and Shikoku.
13Yamada 山田(ヤマダ)Evenly distributed all over Japan.
14Sasaki 佐々木(ササキ)Originated in Yonehara City, Shiga Prefecture , common in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Chugoku regions and in Fukui Prefecture.
15Yamaguchi 山口(ヤマグチ)Common all over Japan, with higher precentage in western Kyushu; the most common prefectural name that is also used as surname.
16Matsumoto 松本(マツモト)Very common in western Japan and in Kanto.
17Inoue 井上(イノウエ、イカミ)Very common in western Japan.
18Kimura 木村(キムラ)Common all over the country except for Okinawa.
19Hayashi 林(ハヤシ)Very common in the Hokuriku and Kinki regions as well as in Yamanashi Prefecture.
20Shimizu 清水(シミズ、キヨミズ、ショウズ)-
21Yamazaki 山崎(ヤマザキ、ヤマサキ)Very common in western Japan.
22Ikeda 池田(イケダ、イケタ)-
23Abe 阿部(アベ)Common in the Tohoku region.
24Mori 森(モリ)Common in western Japan.
25Hashimoto 橋本(ハシモト)-
26Yamashita 山下(ヤマシタ、ヤマモト)Common in western Japan.
27Ishikawa 石川(イシカワ、イシガワ)-
28Nakashima 中島(ナカジマ、ナカシマ)Common in the Chugoku and Kyushu regions.
29Maeda 前田(マエダ、マエタ)Common in western Japan.
30Fujita 藤田(フジタ)-
Source: Shirōka Lab of the Department of Humanities, Shizuoka University


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