The Basics of Choosing a Japanese Name
Guest blogger Sachiko returns with reflections on the complexities of using names from her Japanese heritage.
Growing up, I never thought Japanese names were weird. Most people in my part-Japanese, part-American Mormon family had one. I lived in Japan when I was small, and grew up going to the cherry blossom festivals in the spring, dancing at Obon in the summer and eating mochi on New Year’s Day.
Then I started naming my own children, and two things happened, one good and one bad.
First, I found out how hard it can be to choose a Japanese name. (This is the bad thing.) My Japanese is shamefully rudimentary, and barely a match for the formidable language barrier. I rely on a lot of sources for Japanese naming help, which I’ll go into later.
Second, I found out how popular Japanese names are, in the sense of being well-liked, if not yet well-used. (This is the good thing.) I had thought that nobody would appreciate a Japanese name unless they were Japanese, or maybe because they’d spent considerable time in Japan.
That’s why my first few kids have their Japanese names in the middle, the place of Name Shame, the same way you’d lock a crazy aunt in the attic.
People surprised me—not only did they accept my kids’ Japanese names, they really seemed to like them. I took courage, and gave my two most recent kids Japanese first names, and not only did people like them, some asked for pointers on choosing a Japanese name for their kids.
Regionalism might have something to do with that. Perhaps Japanese name popularity roughly correlates with the size of local Japanese-American communities. My experience bears that out, with my family’s Japanese names most popular here in the Northwest, and in Utah. I’m told Japanese culture is fashionable right now, so Japanese names might be getting more popular in your area too.
Let’s cover the possible difficulties you might experience while choosing a Japanese name.
R’s are flipped, like a cross between an R and a D. Pronounce every syllable with equal emphasis, and you’ll be right 90% of the time. For instance, most people pronounce my daughter’s name, Sakura, like this: saw-KUR-rah. The correct pronounciation is saw-koo-rah, with a small, quick, flipped R.
Unless people ask how my kids’ names are pronounced, though, I don’t correct them, because how pretentious would that be? My last name has a strong –ur sound, which sounds good with the American pronunciation of Sakura. Also, we have a cop-out: we nicknamed her Suki, a name anybody can say.
Spoken Japanese isn’t too bad, but written Japanese is tricky. Dave Barry once said that the best way to learn Japanese is to be born in Japan, to Japanese parents, which is funny because it’s true (mostly).
Japanese uses four alphabets, but most names are written in kanji, a system of Chinese characters. About.com includes an excellent explanation of a name’s kanji variations and how that affects its meaning. The site also offers helpful information on trends in Japanese baby names. For instance, Japanese parents aren’t using the traditional name suffix –ko for their girl’s names these days.
Many names have a cultural context I didn’t know about until my Japanese grandmother explained them to me. Most baby name lists will tell you “Umeko” means “plum blossom child”. Some will even add that plum blossoms symbolize devotion. But my Obachan explained why: plum blossoms symbolize wifely fidelity because they bloom when other flowers won’t, in the cold and snow of early spring. I found that an eloquent symbol of beauty in adversity, and Umeko became one of my favorite names.
Many Japanese names have a similarly rich context. I’m lucky and I can ask my Obachan and my father for naming advice, but when they’re not available what I do is use baby name lists as a jumping-off point— Behind the Name has a useable one.
When my Obachan isn’t available for advice on which kanji to choose for which name, I use Japanese Names for Babies, a book available at Amazon.
Here’s a very short list of some of my favorite Japanese names, a mix of old and new.
AMAI- (ah-my) “sweet”
AIRI- (eye-ree) ai “love, affection” combined with ri “jasmine” or ri “pear”.
AKIKO- (ah-kee-koh) aki “red”, “autumn” with ko “girl”
CHIEKO- (chee-ay-koh) chi,”wisdom” or “thousand” with ko “girl”
CHOU- (cho-oo) “butterfly”
EMI– (ay-mee) e “blessing, favour” or e “picture” with mi “beautiful”.
HIKARI- (hee-kah-ree) “light” often written in hiragana
HINATA- (hee-nah-ta) “sunflower” or “facing the sun” often written in hiragana
HISA- (hee-sah) “long-awaited” often written in hiragana
HOSHI– (hoh-shee) “star”
IZUMI- (ee-zoo-mee) “fountain, spring”
KAEDE- (kah-eh-deh) “maple”
KAORI-(kah-oh-ree) “smell, perfume, fragrance”. It can also come from ka “smell, perfume” and ori “weaving”. Often written using the hiragana writing system.
KAWAII- (kah-wye-ee) “cute, darling”
MARIKO-(mah-ree-koh) ma “real, true”, ri “village” and ko “child”.
MEGUMI-(meh-goo-mee) “beautiful blessing’ often written in hiragana
MEI– (may) me “bud, sprout” combined with i “reliant”, i “life” or i “clothing, garment”.
MICHIKO-(mee-chee-koh) mi “beautiful”, chi “wisdom, intellect” and ko “child”.
MIKA (mee-kah) mi “beautiful” combined with ka “smell, perfume” or ka “increase”.
NAOMI– (nah-oh-mee) nao “honest, straight” and mi “beautiful”.
REI-(ray) “bell” or “lovely”
RINA-(ree-nah) ri “jasmine” or ri “village” combined with na, a phonetic character, or na “vegetables, greens”.
RIO– (ree-oh) ri “jasmine” or ri “village” combined with o “center”, o “thread” or ou “cherry blossom”.
SAKURA– (sah-koo-rah) “cherry blossom” symbol of prosperity; very popular Japanese name.
SAYURI-(sah-yoo-ree) sa, “small” and yuri, “lily”
SHIORI-(shee-oh-ree) “to weave a poem”
SORA– (soh-rah) “sky”
SUKI– (soo-kee) “favorite, dear, pet”
UME-(oo-may) “plum” plum blossoms symbolize wifely fidelity
YUUNA-(yoo-nah) yui “tie, bind” and na “vegetables, greens”.
ARATA- (ah-rah-tah) “fresh, new”
HARUKI– (hah-roo-kee)) haru,”clear up” or “sun, sunlight” combined with ki, “radiance, shine” or “life”.
HIKARU– (hee-kah-roo) “light” or “radiance”
ISAMU- (ee-sah-moo) “bravery” or “to be inspired with courage”
KAZUKI- (kah-zoo-kee) kazu “one” or kazu “harmony” combined with ki “radiance, shine” or ki “hope”.
KENJI-(ken-jee) ken, “study” and ji “two”.
MAKOTO- (mah-koh-toh) “sincerity”
MASARU- (mah-sah-roo) “victory”
NAOKI- (nah-oh-kee) nao “honest, straight” and ki “tree”.
SEIJI– (say-jee) “lawful”, “manages affairs of state”
SENTARO –(sen-tah-roh) sen, “steel” and taro, “boy”, a common boy’s name suffix. The steel refers to the many-folded superstrong steel from which samurai swords are made.
SHIGERU- (shee-geh-roo) “flourishing, luxuriant”.
SORA– (soh-rah) “sky”
TAKASHI-(tah-kah-shee) can be written as “filial piety” “noble, prosperous” or “reverence”.
TAKESHI-(tah-keh-shee) “military, warrior”
TSUBASA-(tsoo-bah-sah) “wing” or “fly up”
YUKI– (yoo-kee) “happiness” or “snow”. It can also come from yu, “reason” combined with ki ,”valuable” or ki, “chronicle”.
YUMA– (yoo-mah) yuu “distant, leisurely” or yu,) “gentleness, superiority” combined with m,) “real, true”.
Sachiko has named six children — William Takashi, Reilly Sentaro, Bronwen Fumie, Hilani Hisamarie, Sakura LouJean and Musashi Dustin — and is eagerly waiting to name her seventh. She’s a Mormon homeschooler and lives in Washington state with her husband, children, two dogs and six cats. Her blog is Sachiko Says.