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.
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on May 25th, 2010 at 4:39 am
What a fascinating article! I know a Sachiyo and a Megumi, and a Japanese friend called her baby girls Yuna and Natsuka. They always struck me as exquisitely beautiful names.
on May 25th, 2010 at 4:51 am
I love Japanese names. My husband wanted our first child, if a boy, to be called Akira. We ended up having a girl. A friend of his was pregnant and husband suggested Akira which they ended up using on their son.
There is something about Japanese culture which is quite alluring.
I really like the name Takeshi. Maybe because I am a fan of Beat Takeshi.
on May 25th, 2010 at 6:47 am
A good friend of mine has a sister named Mitzuko. She is called Mitzi.
I’ve always thought Mitzuko to be alluring.
on May 25th, 2010 at 8:28 am
I like a lot of the Japanese names. Sakura is really pretty, especially when you think of cherry blossoms.
on May 25th, 2010 at 8:45 am
I’ve always had a soft spot for Sakura and nn Suki is especially gorgeous, also love Megumi and Hana 🙂
on May 25th, 2010 at 9:11 am
I have a British friend from high school who emigrated to Japan. His wife is Japanese. They named their son Isamu – I just learned the meaning from your list – and he has the nickname Sam – which works well as a British nickname.
on May 25th, 2010 at 11:07 am
I have a good friend who is Japanese and his name is Kintaro which means golden child. I also know a super cute woman named Kiku (kee – ku) who is from Japan.
Very cool names!
on May 25th, 2010 at 11:48 am
I honestly adored reading this ! Thank you & what beautiful names!
on May 25th, 2010 at 12:27 pm
I adored this as well. Very interesting!
on May 25th, 2010 at 12:30 pm
My brother-in-law was named Ren, which I think is a great Japanese name – easy to say and known in American pop culture as the main character in Foot Loose.
From the Behind the Name website:
REN 蓮, 恋 m & f Japanese
From Japanese 蓮 “lotus” or 恋 “romance, love”.
It’s kind of funny because he loved Japanese culture.
on May 25th, 2010 at 12:34 pm
Oh, and I feel like there’s a paragraph missing from the first part of this post…did I miss something?
on May 25th, 2010 at 12:54 pm
I really enjoyed this article. I own Japanese Names for Babies. Love it. A great resource!
on May 25th, 2010 at 2:44 pm
very interesting! thanks!
on May 25th, 2010 at 7:36 pm
OMG! This post is great timing for me! I am thinking of writing a story with a girl who had a Japanese mother and was raised by her Caucasian father, and I wanted her to have a Japanese first name. What do you think of the name Nanami?
Boston Girl Said
on May 25th, 2010 at 8:15 pm
I’ve been interested in Japan and Japanese names since I was around 8 years old. I found some wonderful books in the school library that revolved around Japanese characters: “Jenny Kimura” by Betty Cavanna and “Myeko’s Gift” by Kay Haugaard were my two favorites. And I was always reading the book about Japan, from our copy of the 60s-vintage Life World Library series.
I always liked the name Michiko (and of course Myeko, because of the book, though it seems this might not actually be used in Japan). Others I liked: Sayuri and Mizue (I once had a small doll by this name).
And there are more I like: Katsumi, Kaori, Mariko, Reiko and Haruko, for girls; Raiden, Kazuo, Hachiro and Saburo, among others, for boys. The “-ko” ending made it somewhat easier for me to tell girls’ names from boys’, but with “-ko” losing popularity, I no longer have that little cheat to fall back on. Guess my next step is to get a Japanese baby-name book! Thanks for the article, Sachiko! 🙂
on May 25th, 2010 at 8:53 pm
I love the name Kairi, does anyone know much about it?
on May 26th, 2010 at 11:13 am
I know a japanese guy called Kim, I guess it’s easy to pronounce for us hehe
on May 26th, 2010 at 12:29 pm
I love japanese; names, culture, the language. My cats name is Sakura. I would love to give my child a Japanese name. Can non Japanese people do that without it looking silly. Video Game Characters names are sometimes an exception.
on May 26th, 2010 at 12:50 pm
Thank you, all my partners in baby name obsession 😀
@Angel: Yeah, I think the first paragraph of the post got dropped. I blame technology (but I always blame technology).
@Scarlettsmorn: Nanami is a recently popular Japanese girl’s name, which means you should be careful when Googling it and have brain bleach handy. I have this problem a LOT when Googling prospective baby names, but especially with Japanese names. You have been warned. 🙂
@Charlotte: see above. Kairi looks like one of the newer Japanese girl’s names. The last 10-15 years over there they’ve been moving away from the traditional -ko endings written in kanji, to newer names written in hirigana.
Often the newer names are Nipponizations (my term) of Western names, or some have a Western sound. Emi is a good example of this–it sounds like Amy but it’s still kinda coherent in Japanese. Karin is another.
Also, there are a lot of fanfics and mangas and whatnot out there, written by Japanese and non-Japanese people, and they use Japanese and kinda-Japanese names.
From what I’ve seen, Kairi is one or a combo of the above Japanese name trends. I suspect it’s basically a Japanese pronounciation of Kylie. Japan isn’t too far from Australia, so I can see Kylie becoming the Japanese name-cognate Kairi (which is pretty, BTW). HTH!
Everyone, thanks much for your comments. Not only do I appreciate the compliments, I really really appreciate the perspective on how the names sound to YOU.
Like I’ve said before, I’m used to how Japanese names sound, and it’s harder for me to figure out which names would sound better to the Western ear. I appreciate the help on that.
on June 1st, 2010 at 5:14 am
To the two above posters – possible meanings for “Nanami” and “Kairi” can be “seven seas” and “ocean jasmine” respectively. I think they’re both beautiful!
And I definitely agree with Sachiko’s comment about modern Japanese baby names moving towards Western sounds. I’ve recently seen Serina (as in Serena), Mira, Misheru (as in Michelle), Maria, Ruka (as in Luca), and Erika (as in Erica) being used! I wonder how more traditional Japanese families feel about this trend?
on June 5th, 2010 at 6:50 pm
*claps excitedly* i LOVE Japanese names and I’m so excited to see a post about it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on the subject Sachiko and the links too!
on July 29th, 2010 at 5:38 pm
I LOVE the name Kenji it sounds soo pretty. I also Like the name Hikari, and Emi. But my favorite is Kenji.
on September 1st, 2010 at 12:33 pm
I would like to add a favorite of mine: Mirai. I think it means “the future”. It’s a simple modern name that sounds like an update Mariah or an alternative to Mary.
on September 22nd, 2010 at 9:25 pm
Hiroto and Rin are the top baby names in Japan
on October 1st, 2010 at 11:38 am
Yeah I think Japanese names are cool in that it’s unique but also easier for no Japanese ppl to pronounce so that the name doesn’t get butchered (at least not too badly) unlike Chinese or Vietnamese names. Kenji is also a fav for me as my nephew is named Kenji and my future niece is going to be Keiko. For me it will be a little moreof a challenge cause the kanji will be very important since the name needs to serve as both a Japanese and a Chinese name.
Gordon Rasole Said
on October 17th, 2010 at 12:52 am
14. Nice day, I follow your weblog because it is rather fascinating to me and it provides me much more understanding about some thing in which I didn’t notice within the finish.
on January 12th, 2011 at 1:24 pm
These are very helpful and cute 🙂 But I saw you write “Kawai” meaning cute. But in Japanese “Kawai means frightening”, “Kawaii means cute”. I’m not sure if this was a mispelling but I thought I should tell.
on January 26th, 2011 at 3:02 am
kowai = frightening/scary @ hana 😛
kawaii = cute
All in all, this is a great article but Japanese names don’t always mean what they commonly mean, Sachiko. Perhaps most of the time, Japanese names like Aiko will mean Love Child but because of kanji in the Japanese language, some names can be written differently when they use different kanji. Such as my nickname, michi could be spelled as ‘mi’ = beautiful and ‘chi’ = wisdom, but my nickname actually refers to ‘michi’ = road/path. The ending in my nickname is ‘yo’ which commonly refers to ‘generation’ … if you put that all together, it means ‘generation of paths.’
I LOVE Japanese names because you can be very clever with names in Japanese BECAUSE OF kanji. I will demonstrate another example.
Take the name: Hibiki. Hibiki as one word means ‘echo’ or ‘sound.’ But when you start to look at singular kanji for each (word/) part: ‘hi’ = sun, ‘biki’ = beautiful maiden, you can transform a name into something more creative. If you put ‘hi’ and ‘biki’ all together, you can also get ‘beautiful sun maiden.’ One last and great example I came up for that particular name is that ‘hi’ can also mean ‘fire’ or ‘flame.’ ‘ki’ in the end can also mean ‘soul’ or ‘heart.’ ‘bi’ is left as ‘beautiful’ in this example.
If you put all of these meanings together, you can create ‘beautiful flame of the heart.’ ^^
It’s just something extra to think about if you’re really interested in coming up with Japanese baby names. You could give your future child a wonderful or deep meaningful name that your child could appreciate or be happy with if you go for that extra effort. It’s a creative tip with Japanese names.
note: If you don’t know what Kanji are, Kanji are the Chinese characters used in the Japanese language.
SALLY DAKOTA Said
on February 1st, 2011 at 8:43 pm
KAWAII is not a japanese name to name your girl/boy.
kawaii is “Adjective”. also kawaii only mean’s cute it doesn’t mean darling at all.
no one names there little girl by “cute” because cute is a”Adjective” and the same thing with japanese.
on March 12th, 2011 at 10:40 am
I am not Japanese, but I am in love with japan and pretty much everything about it, especially the names. My favorite name is Kyoko, but I like it spelled Kioko.
on April 18th, 2011 at 10:44 am
My Daughter’s name is Shiori. The Kanji we chose is Bookmark/guidebook. I mention this so that people understand that there is another meanings than that given above. Fun article though.
on May 19th, 2011 at 3:53 am
My new born son is kairi and we use the kanji for I think mediation and intellegence/leadership. In English we spell it kyrie to avoid pronunciation probs. Of the thousands of kids I have taught the last 8 years, I have seen one other boy named kairi in japan, no girls. So it can’t be that popular a name for either sex.
My older son is Kiren, hope and passionate love…
Found the name in a name book, but haven’t seen it anywhere other than that book. Like it because it gets pronounced like the Irish name kearan or kearyn.
on August 27th, 2013 at 8:43 pm
If I ever decide to adopt a baby girl (the only way I want to have a kid haha), I think the name Asuna is my top pick. The name is pronounced with the “u” silent. To tell the truth, I got the idea for the same from the recent anime series Sword Art Online and was blown away by how beautiful the name sounded. It’s a soft “a” but i think everyone should realize that.
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[…] Source: The Basics of Choosing a Japanese Name – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry […]
on June 12th, 2018 at 12:20 pm
I don’t understand how it’s pretentious to correct people about name pronunciation. I mean, it’s a name, it’s what people know you as, why wouldn’t you want people saying it right? Even moreso in regards to your kids.
To each their own, I suppose, but yeah, it’s not pretentious at all.
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