The Japanese, other than nobles or samurai class families, did not have surnames until 1868, when the government required commoners to adopt surnames. Names were chosen based on locations, occupations, or simply were made up, explaining the diversity in Japanese surnames (100,000+ present).

Japanese name

Not to be confused with Names of Japan.

Yamada Tarō (山田太郎), a Japanese placeholder name (male), equivalent to John Smith in English. The equivalent of Jane Smith would be Yamada Hanako (山田花子).

Japanese names (日本人の氏名, Nihonjin no Shimei) in modern times consist of a family name (surname), followed by a given name; in that order. Nevertheless, when a Japanese name is written in the Roman alphabet, ever since the Meiji era official policy has been to cater to Western expectations and reverse the order, but as of 2019 the government has stated its intention to change this policy. Japanese names are usually written in kanji, which are characters usually Chinese in origin but Japanese in pronunciation. The pronunciation of kanji Japanese … Continue Reading (31 minute read)

4 thoughts on “The Japanese, other than nobles or samurai class families, did not have surnames until 1868, when the government required commoners to adopt surnames. Names were chosen based on locations, occupations, or simply were made up, explaining the diversity in Japanese surnames (100,000+ present).”

  1. derektwerd

    Yamanaka 山中 means in the mountain.

    Tanaka 田中 means in the rice field.

    There are many names like this.

  2. Dinokknd

    Something similar happened in the Netherlands when Napoleon did his march through Europe. Not all Dutchies at the time took it seriously when it was decreed that families and surnames need to be registered back in 1811, which is why we sometimes end up with people having the surname poepjes (“little farts”, directly translated) and other interesting/funny ones.

  3. fraggelsmurf

    In Sweden, the army decided lots of surnames for the soldiers because there were too many “son of …” names. That way we got many simple surnames like Brave, Stone, Oak etc.

  4. Unlikely_Use

    Had a Mexican friend who said the same thing happened in Mexico. Those with indigenous blood didn’t have surnames, but some law came around and they had to get them.

    Said his grandfather went to a government facility to purchase the name. There were different prices for the names (assuming rich people pressured the government to do this). So grandfather purchased “Garcia” which was cheap vs “Rivera” which was way out of his price range.

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