Japanese personal names consist of two parts, one given name and one family name, as in many other countries of the world (*)
- When we write a person's name in Japanese, family name comes first and it is followed by given name. However, when we write our name with Roman letters, we usually use the Western style sequence, namely given name and family name. However, our neighbors Koreans and Chinese keep the original sequence, family name and given name, even when they use Roman letters. They are much more loyal to their own cultural tradition!
This system officially started when Family Registration Act was put into force in 1871 so as to enable the government to mobilize soldiers. In preparation of the Act an announcement was made in the previous September that ordinary people were "permitted" to use family name. However, one of the problems in the execution of the Act was that many people refrained from registering their family names, because the use of family name was only "permitted", but not "obliged" when the registration started.
A teacher of my elementary school once explained children that the confusion took place because poor and innocent farmers did not have family names and were at a loss what names they should adopt.
In fact, there were also cases where tenant farmers asked their land owner to allow them to use his family name and as a result all families of a village had a common family name.
I case of my family, my grand mother used to explain me proudly that a great grandfather of our family was given the privilege and right to use the family name "Okada" by Lord Maeda in Kanazawa, the richest feudal lord in the whole country, whereby the latter part of the family name "da" was adopted from the latter part of the Lord's own family name and especially granted to our family.
From such knowledge, I derived the conclusion that ordinary Japanese people did not posses family name before the Meiji Revolution (1868), exactly speaking before the entry into force of the family registration system. But, that was a total misunderstanding.
, though some of them might have forgot their own family names towards the end of the feudal time.
published in 1999. I will try to make a short summary here, so that you could have a rough idea about the development of Japanese personal names.
Simply speaking there are two parts in a personal name, the part which indicates the group to which the person belongs (family name for example) and the part which is particular to the person concerned (given name for example).
In order to indicate the belonging, "uji" (
= clan name) was used at the beginning of the Japanese history. Here I show an example of personal name from an early period.
An example of ancient name; the combination of clan name and real name was usual. In this case "kabane" = special title for high ranking people is used extra. "No" is just a junction.
Emperors traditionally had competence to give a "sei" (
= also a sort of clan name) to their subordinates and the usage of "sai" underlined the close relation of the family concerned to the Imperial Family and its subordinate status (*)
. As the authority of Emperors was consolidated, this competence was used to replace traditional clan name with the new "sei" and to give "sei" to the ex-members of the Imperial Family. In other words, clans were reorganized under the imperial system.
- The imperial family does not have any kind of family name or clan name till present, because it does not subordinate to any other people.
An example of personal name in Nara period (714-793); the combination of sei and real name. Fujiwara clan was originally called Nakatomi, but it was given a new "sei" by Emperor Tenchi
As a result, four particular names became dominant among the ruling class towards the end of Heian Period (794-992): Minamoto
. Minamoto and Taira people were descendents of emperors and most important samurai families were among them. In fact all three Shogunates - Kamakura (1192-1333), Muromachi (1338-1573) and Tokugawa (1603-1867) - were established by the leading members of Minamoto clan.
As time went by, the number of people with the same "sei" increased too much. At the same time, the format of marriage changed around 12th and 13th century; a bridegroom used to live in the bride's family before this time, but from this time onward a bridegroom inherited his father's estate and brought his bride into his house. Therefore, it became usual to call aristocrats not with "sei" but with the place name where they live.
An example of samurai name at the beginning of Kamakura period (1192-1333); Myoji and title are added. The family "Chiba" belonged to "Taira" clan and had their manor in the present Chiba city. Their family heads were for generations "Suke" (Vice-governor) of Shimousa province.
In case of samurai, they started to put the name of their domain and this kind of name is called "myoji". At the same time it became popular to insert bureaucrats' titles into personal names. "Sei" was still used in official occasions, but such place names became more and more popular in daily life and the number of "myoji" exploded.
Because myoji came to express the ownership of a territory and the status in the society, its prevalence made ordinary people feel more and more uncomfortable to use "myoji" (
= land related name). In Kamakura and Muromachi periods, ordinary people gradually gave up using their "myoji" publicly, though there was no official ban and they used them in private context or within their village community.
Finally during the Edo period, self restriction of ordinary farmers, merchants and artisans in using "myoji" became a common sense. Therefore, it was rather natural that some people forgot that they had a family name and certain confusion happened when Family Registration Act was introduced. But, many of the farmers did not forget their family names and registered them under the new scheme.
There was no official decree prohibiting the usage of "myoji", as I explained before. On the contrary, most feudal lords appeared to promote the usage of "myoji" and they had enough reason to do so. They did this in return to the cancellation of their debt. As samurai were in chronic financial crisis, they were dependent on the contribution by rich merchants. Therefore, it is obvious that our ancestors had to donate much money to Lord Maeda, so that he allowed us even a special privilege of using "da" in our family name.
As for the given name, there was a strong belief that the real name had a strong magical power and its careless use might incur misfortune. Therefore, "kemyo" (
= non-proper name) was used in place of real name when somebody should be called in public and so on.
An example of personal name of a samurai in Edo period (1603-1867). "Kuranosuke" originally meant "Deputy chief of treasury", but in this case this person had no relation to the original role.
In case of men, it was usual to call somebody in accordance with the order of seniority among brothers; Taro (first son), Jiro (second son) and so on. Later, in particular in Edo period (1603-1867) ancient bureaucratic titles were frequently used as "kemyo" irrespective of the real position of the person concerned. The majority of ordinary people used ancient bureaucratic titles with such endings as -emon, -zaemon and -hei for kemyo as well as for real names.
Taboo of real names was stricter for women. Therefore, it is very difficult to know the real names of even very famous people who lived in the ancient and medieval time. Such names as Murasaki-Shikibu and Sei-Shonagon are combinations of their family name, fathers' official title and so on.
Even now, given names are spoken aloud usually within family circle or among small children in Japan. Even closest friends call each other with family names when they are grown up - but without any suffix such as -san. In the business world, it is preferred to call people with titles such as president, director and teacher, even without referring to their family names. Maybe because of such a tradition, I find it very awkward to call adults with given name or nickname, but that is unfortunately the necessary communication style in the present world dominated by the American culture.
[NOTE] As I drastically shortened the explanation, I may have simplified the logics too much, so that necessary accuracy was omitted here and there. For example terminologies of "sei" and "myoji" changed their meanings as time went on and I had to explain that if I wanted accuracy. But, I thought that general idea could be better understood when I neglected details.