Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. Today, I’d like to bring you a familiar topic for everyone, about our names. 

I work at a decently international organization during the day and I come across a variety of names from a variety of cultures. And one of them is the Philippines. Many of my Filipino colleagues go by a nickname – and I must say many of these nicknames are well put. It’s really easy to keep the name to a face, because the impression the nickname gives often coheres with the personality of that person. 

Of course that’s what nicknames are supposed to do – put a name that’s better suited or likable than the given name. 

Tragedy caused by a cultural gap

Now I was helping my Filipino colleague fill out some administrative forms in Japanese, and we ran into a problem. She has like 2 middle names aside from her sir name and given name, and in her passport and her long-term residence card, I saw that her name had a total of 25 letters. 

The problem with that  was that her name didn’t fit into her official health insurance card because her name was too long. Her last name was cut off at its tail. It’s like if she had a sir name Smith, her last name was written ‘Smi”. 

So when she was trying to apply for a second bank account and she had to present her ID – you need to verify your identity by showing two different IDs, so she was going to use her residence card and health insurance card, but the bank said they couldn’t accept her health insurance card as ID because the name written on it was not exactly the same as the name written on her passport. On her passport, she was like Jane Smith, but again, on her health insurance card, she was like Jane Smi. 

So here’s this cultural gap revolving around names. 

Japanese people don’t have a middle name, and in writing, most of our names don’t go over 4 characters. That’s 4 spaces in a document. It’s because we use Chinese characters to write our names. Each Chinese character hosts 1 to 3 syllables, so even if you had a relatively long-sounding Japanese name like Masakatsu Arakawa with 8 syllables, it’s still 4 characters in writing: Masa Katsu Ara Kawa. 

And my Filipino colleague’s full name translates to 15 Japanese characters because she obviously has never had a Chinese character version of her name, so each of her 15 syllables need to be written out. And the Japanese health insurance cards are not designed for anyone with a name with over 12 or 13 characters. So she hasn’t been able to open her second account!

I felt terribly sorry for my home country’s shortcomings.

Lengthy names of Samurai

Now as far as I know, the shortest written names on Earth are Chinese names. The names of many Chinese acquaintances of mine are written in just 2 Chinese characters. One for the first name and the other for the last name, like Zhang He 

So as I mentioned earlier, most Japanese names are between 3 to 4 Chinese characters, but actually, most Japanese names were as short as Chinese names up until the late 19th century, which is quite recent. 

When samurais were still around and were the ruling class of Japan up until the late 19th century, they comprised only around 7% of the total population. Samurais all had last names because each samurai family was like a private company, and the family name equaled the brand name of the family. So there were long and elaborate names, for example Chosogabe Motochika. That’s 6 Chinese characters. 

If you were a big time samurai, namely the Shogun, your name would have lots more glitter and sparkle attached. 

The full name of the samurai Shogun who ended all civil wars in the 17th century was Tokugawa Jiro-saburo Minamotono Ason Ieyasu. An overwhelming 20 syllables and 11 Chinese characters. 

Japanese people didn’t even have last names until recently

But again, samurais were only 7% of the population, so samurais were the exception. 

Most peasants, who comprised 90% of the population, didn’t even have a last name because first of all they were not supposed to, and also probably because it wasn’t really necessary. Everyone was geographically grounded at the village of birth and the number of people you interact on a daily basis was only a handful. So they probably didn’t have to rely on diversity of names to distinguish people. 

So a Japanese person back then  would typically have just a couple of syllables. It’s no wonder that still now, Japan doesn’t expect anyone to have more than 10 syllables like my Filipino colleague does. 

But anyway, one day in the late 19th century, samurai rule ended and Japan steered drastically towards abolishment of classism. And as a start, all Japanese people including peasants were told by the government to get themselves last names, like the samurai class did. It’s said that this new policy caused much confusion. Many people didn’t really have an idea of what or how to name themselves. 

Most people traced their ancestry all the way back to this single family who prospered around 1400 years ago, so they took a part of that family name and called themselves Sato, Ito, Kato, or Saito. This type of family name makes up roughly 10% of the Japanese population.

Some others just named themselves after the name of the region they lived in, which was named after its geographical feature. So there are last names like Takahashi, which would translate to Hill Edge. Or Tanaka which would translate to Paddy Middle. Yamada is Mountain Paddy. Yoshida translates to Good Paddy. 

Japan is a series of volcanic islands, so most regions are mountainous. So we have a lot of names related to mountains. Yamamoto is Mountain Foot and Yamaguchi is Mountain Entrance. You don’t hear these names in Japanese anime much because they’re all too common and not particularly cool-sounding. They’re more descriptive than cool-sounding, so they are often avoided in naming anime characters.

So next time you meet a Yamada-san or Yamaguchi-san, don’t be like “Oh you’re from the mountains!” Because it may not be really funny from their perspectives to have had a descriptive last name their entire lives. 

Anyway, thank you for listening to this short episode. I’m sorry I cannot release a podcast too frequently due to having a full-time job, so please check out my Instagram for daily content. それでは、またお会いしましょう。