Length of Family Names

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Length of Japanese names is an interesting topic. Most Japanese family names are two characters long. A significant number of given names are also two characters long. This makes for a nice symmetry when creating name charts and such; except that there are exceptions.

Some family names are one character long, like: Mori (森), Hayashi (林), Tsuji (辻), Tachi (舘), Azuma (東), Higashi (東), Hata (畑), Oka (岡), Nishi (西), Tani (谷), Sawa (澤), Waki (脇), Sakae (栄), or Izumi (泉). There are quite a few of these names, but generally in a class of 40 students there will be zero or one. Oddly, at one school this year, I have several classes with three or four students with one-character names. It seems like it can’t just be by chance.

Some family names are three characters long, like: Hasegawa (長谷川), Nogaito (野垣内), Kusakabe (日下部), Kawakita (川喜田), Mitoji (水戸路), Tanase (多那瀬), Sekoguchi (瀬古口), Toshida (土志田), or Okouchi (大河内). Three character names seem to be more rare than one character names; however, Hasegawa is a very common name.

Until last month, I was under the impression that all family names fell into this range; until I met a co-worker named Uenoketo (上野毛戸). Ueno is a very common name, so I didn’t notice the length of his name at first. I found I was just reading the first two characters and assuming whatever was left was his given name. He said that Japanese people often make this mistake. On Monday I spent some time talking about names with him; in our prefecture there are two families with that name. In the whole country just a handful of families use the name; however, as it turns out, there are two other families in his hometown with four character names: Chayagaito (茶屋垣内) and Bushigaito (武士垣内). I discussed this with several people and they were all confused when I was saying “four character family names”. Most people don’t think such a name exists, so they just assume I meant the whole name (family and given) was four characters, which is the most common. Last night I was talking to someone and they said their friend’s name was Mushakoji (武者小路).

Samurai reportedly had three names (because they were that special) and some people theorize that these families maybe descended from samurai who combined two of their names together. Bushi and musha both seem to be references to warriors, so that seems to make sense. However, Uenoketo-san insists he is not from a samurai family.

Bonus round: did you notice that I used the same kanji for Azuma and Higashi? Sometimes names are written with the same characters but have different readings. Recently I discovered the name Kakiuchi which is written the same as Gaito (垣内). Higashi and Kakiuchi are the readings one would first expect, but sometimes names use non-standard readings of the characters. My newest kanji dictionary includes those readings and explanations of meanings – very convenient. Just remember “It’s spelled Luxury Yacht, but it sounds like Throat Warbler Mangrove.”

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2 Responses to “Length of Family Names”

  1. fightingwindmills Says:

    I like investigating the meanings and characters in Japanese family names. This post is very interesting!

  2. びっくり Says:

    Today I talked with someone else from the same town. They knew another person named Bushigaito, but they use different kanji: 武士垣外. I’m convinced there must be a reason for all of these rare names in the same town. Long ago when Genji defeated Heikei, the losers were scattered around the country and some of their villages can still be found today. Perhaps there is some connection like that.

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