Japanese names (日本人の氏名 nihonjin no shimei ) in modern times usually consist of a family name (surname), followed by a given name. "Middle names" are not generally used. Japanese names are usually written in kanji, which are characters of usually Chinese origin in Japanese pronunciation. The kanji for a name may have a variety of possible Japanese pronunciations, but parents might use hiragana or katakana when giving a birth name to their newborn child. Names written in hiragana or katakana are phonetic renderings, and so lack the visual meaning of names expressed in the pictographic kanji.
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) (most common), Suzuki (鈴木) (second most common), and Takahashi (高橋) (third most common). 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".
Given names are much more diverse in pronunciation and character usage. Male names often end in -rō (郎 "son", but also 朗 "clear, bright"; e.g. "Ichirō") or -ta (太 "great, thick"; e.g. "Kenta"), or contain ichi (一 "first [son]"; e.g. "Ken'ichi"), kazu (also written with 一 "first [son]", along with several other possible characters; e.g. "Kazuhiro"), ji (二 "second [son]" or 次 "next"; e.g. "Jirō"), or dai (大 "great, large"; e.g. "Dai'ichi") while female names often end in -ko (子 "child"; e.g. "Keiko") or -mi (美 "beauty"; e.g. "Yumi"). Other popular endings for female names include -ka (香 "scent, perfume" or 花 "flower"; e.g. "Reika") and -na (奈, or 菜, meaning greens; e.g. "Haruna").
All Japanese people have one surname and one given name with no middle name, except for the Japanese imperial family, whose members bear no surname. The surname is called myōji (苗字 or 名字), uji (氏) or sei (姓), and the given name is called the "name" (名前 namae) or "lower name" (下の名前 shita no namae). The family name precedes the given name.
Historically, myōji, uji and sei had different meanings. Sei was originally the matrilineal surname. Later it became granted only by the emperor. There were relatively few sei, and most of the medieval noble clans trace their lineage either directly to these sei or to the courtiers of these sei. Uji was first used to designate patrilineal descent, but later merged with myōji around the same time sei lost its matrilineal significance. Myōji was, simply, what a family chooses to call itself, as opposed to the sei granted by the emperor. While it was passed on patrilineally, one had a certain degree of freedom in changing one's myōji. See also Kabane.
There are a few names that can be used as either surnames or given names (for example Mayumi 真弓, Kaneko 金子, Masuko 益子, or Arata 新). In addition, to those familiar with Japanese names, which name is the surname and which is the given name is usually apparent, no matter which order the names are presented in. This thus makes it unlikely that the two names will be confused, for example when writing in English using the order family name, given name. However, due to the variety of pronunciations and differences in languages, some common surnames and given names may coincide when Romanized: e.g., Shoji (昌司, 昭次, or 正二) (given name) and Shoji (庄司, 庄子, 東海林, or 小路) (surname).
Japanese names are usually written in kanji (Chinese characters), although some names use hiragana or even katakana, or a mixture of kanji and kana. While most "traditional" names use kun'yomi (native Japanese) kanji readings, a large number of given names and surnames use on'yomi (Chinese-based) kanji readings as well. Many others use readings which are only used in names (nanori), such as the female name Nozomi (希). The majority of surnames comprise one, two or three kanji characters. There are also a small number of four or five kanji surnames, such as Teshigawara (勅使河原) and Kutaragi (久多良木), Kadenokōji (勘解由小路), but these are extremely rare.
As mentioned above, female given names often end in the syllable ko, written with the kanji meaning "child" (子). This was much more common up to about the 1980s, but the practice does continue today. Male names occasionally end with the syllable ko, but very rarely using the kanji 子 (most often, if a male name ends in ko, it ends in hiko, using the kanji 彦). Common male name endings are -shi and -o; names ending with -shi are often adjectives, e.g., Atsushi which might mean, for example, "(to be) faithful." In the past (before World War II), names written with katakana were common for women, but this trend seems to have lost favour. Hiragana names for women are not unusual. Kana names for boys, particularly those written in hiragana, have historically been very rare. This may be in part because the hiragana script is seen as feminine; in medieval Japan, women generally were not taught kanji and wrote exclusively in hiragana.
Names, like other Japanese words, cannot begin with the syllable n (ん, ン). Some names end in n: the male names Ken, Shin, and Jun are examples. The syllable n should not be confused with the consonant "n," which names can begin with; for example, the female name Naoko (尚子) or the male Naoya (直哉). (The consonant "n" needs to be paired with a vowel to form a syllable.)
One large category of family names can be categorized as "-tō" names. The kanji 藤, meaning wisteria, has the on'yomi tō (or, with rendaku, dō). Many Japanese people have surnames that include this kanji as the second character. This is because the Fujiwara clan (藤原家) gave their samurai surnames ending with the first character of their name, to denote their status in an era when commoners were not allowed surnames. Examples include Atō, Andō, Itō (although a different final kanji is also common), Udō, Etō, Endō, Gotō, Jitō, Katō, Kitō, Kudō, Kondō, Saitō, Satō, Shindō, Sudō, Naitō, Bitō, and Mutō. As already noted, some of the most common family names are in this list.
A name written in kanji may have more than one common pronunciation, only one of which is correct for a given individual. For example, the surname written in kanji as 東海林 may be read either Tōkairin or Shōji. Conversely, any one name may have several possible written forms, and again, only one will be correct for a given individual. The character "一" when used as a male given name may be used as the written form for "Hajime," "Hitoshi," "Ichi- / -ichi" "Kazu- / -kazu," and many others. The name "Hajime" may be written with any of the following: 始, 治, 初, 一, 元, 肇, 創, 甫, 基, 哉, 啓, 本, 源, 東, 大, 孟, or 祝. This many-to-many correspondence between names and the ways they are written is much more common with male given names than with surnames or female given names, but can be observed in all these categories. This can make the collation, pronunciation, and romanization of a Japanese name a very difficult problem. For this reason, business cards often include the pronunciation of the name as furigana, and forms and documents always have spaces to write the reading of the name in kana (usually katakana). At restaurants in Japan it is common to wait to be seated by writing one's name on a list and waiting to be called, and at the top of the list there is usually a request to write one's name in katakana, rather than kanji.
A few Japanese names, particularly family names, include archaic versions of characters. For example the very common character shima, island, may be written as 嶋 or 嶌 instead of the usual 島. Some names also feature very uncommon kanji, or even kanji which no longer exist in modern Japanese. Japanese people who have such names are likely to compromise by substituting similar or simplified characters.
An example of such a name is Saitō. There are two common kanji for sai here. The two sai characters have different meanings: 斉 means "together" or "parallel", but 斎 means "to purify". These names can also exist written in archaic forms, as 齊藤 and 齋藤 respectively.
Family names are sometimes written with idiosyncratic characters, called ateji, that relate indirectly to the name as spoken. For example, 四月一日 would normally be read as shigatsu tsuitachi ("April 1st"), but as a family name it is read watanuki ("unpadded clothes"), because April 1 is the traditional date to switch from winter to summer clothes.
Most Japanese people and agencies have adopted customs to deal with these issues. Address books, for instance, often contain furigana or ruby characters to clarify the pronunciation of the name. Japanese nationals are also required to give a romanized name for their passport. The recent use of Japanese media using katakana when referring to Japanese celebrities who have gained international fame has started a fad among young socialites who attempt to invoke a cosmopolitan flair using katakana names as a badge of honor. All of these complications are also found in Japanese place names.
Not all names are complicated. Some common names are summarized by the phrase tanakamura ("the village in the middle of the rice fields"): the three kanji: 田 (ta, rice field), 中 (naka, middle) and 村 (mura, village), together in any pair, form a simple, reasonably common surname: Tanaka, Nakamura, Murata, Nakata (Nakada), Muranaka, Tamura.
Despite these difficulties, there are enough patterns and recurring names that most native Japanese will be able to read virtually all family names they encounter and the majority of personal names.