Awesome Facts About Japanese Last Names You Should Know

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We often see or heard Japanese names in both comics and anime shows. But one noticeable part we observe is how the Japanese use their last names. They follow a naming convention where Japanese last names are mentioned first before their given name. However, this is not unique to Japan since this method is shared with its neighbors China and Korea.

Many Japanese last names are existing in present-day Japan. According to Motoji Niwa, a researcher who dedicated his study to Japanese family names, there are approximately 300,000 existing last names in Japan. In his research, he found out that, despite this huge number, only 7000 of those are often used and are shared by around 96% of the entire Japanese population.

Article summary:

    1. Japanese last names are mentioned first before given names, which is a naming convention also shared by China and Korea.
    2. There are approximately 300,000 existing last names in Japan, but only 7,000 of those are often used and shared by around 96% of the Japanese population.
    3. The ancient Japanese naming system segregated clans according to their status in the kingdom, and commoners of each clan were given the title Bemin.
    4. Popular Japanese last names and their meanings include Kiyama (tree mountain), Sato (to assist), Makino (pasture field), Hayashi (forest), Ito (yarn or string), Oba (large garden), Sasaki (derived from misosazai, describing a wren), Shimizu (pure water), Tanaka (rice field), and Sora (sky).
    5. Some popular noble Japanese last names from the past include Akamatsu, Amago, Ichijo, Kamiizumi, and Koga. These clans belonged to the aristocratic families who served high positions in the government, such as samurai, governors, officials, stewards, and warlords.

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To have a brief overview of why Japanese names multiplied, we can look back on Japan’s history during its first era. Japanese civilization flourished from different clans which later on united to become a single kingdom. But before that, these clans are at constant war with one another. Every clan is made of people related by blood or a common ancestor. Marriage also plays a vital role in the foundation of a clan. Two different clans can combine their strength and number through an arranged marriage of the other clan leader’s son and daughter.

As time went on, more powerful clans rise into power. One good example is the Yamato clan, who became well accustomed to their neighboring clans and made stronger ties with them. During the Yamato era, their leader chooses a clan name for each joint clan as well as a title, or a kabane. From this clan-naming system, different clan names started to emerge and were carried on up to this day.

In this article, we’ll course you to some of the awesome Japanese last names that are existing in the past and present. Read on!

Common Japanese Last Names in Ancient Japan

Ancient Japanese naming system segregates the clans according to their status in the kingdom. Clans are subdivided into three titles, the Omi, Muraji, and the Tomonomiyatsuko. The Omi status is the highest since they are comprised of clans that are loyal to the kingdom, followed by the other two. Commoners of each clan, are given the title Bemin.

Omi Last Names
Muraji Last Names
Tomonomiyatsuko Last Names
Commoners Last Names

Izumo

Otomo

Yamatonoaya

Suzuki

Katsuragi

Inbe

Inukai

Yamamoto

Kose

Mononobe

Tsukishine

Yamada

Abe

Nakatomi

Yazume

Shimizu

Heguri

Haji

Shitori

Kobayashi

Kasuga

Yuge

Hattori

Tanaka

Hata

Owari

Hata

Ikeda

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Popular Japanese Last Names with Meanings

Going back to present-day Japan, the ancient Japanese last names are still being used. But with the integration of newer constitutions and laws, Japan started to slowly transition the use of their ancient last names into modern ones. Needless to say, it does not imply that ancient Japanese last names are no longer existing. Below are some of the popular Japanese last names together with their meanings.
Japanese Last Name Meaning
Kiyama Translates as “Tree Mountain”
Sato Translates as “To Assist”. Sato is the most common Japanese last name.
Makino Translates as “Pasture Field”
Hayashi Translates as “Forest”
Ito The Japanese term for a yarn or a string
Oba Meaning, “Large Garden”
Sasaki Derived from the word misosazai, describing a wren.
Shimizu Translates as “Pure Water”
Tanaka Translates as “Rice Field”
Sora The Japanese term for sky

Noble Japanese Last Names from the Past

Royaly is a prestigious status that belongs only to the emperor and his immediate family. But prestigious status is not limited to the emperor and his children in Ancient Japan. It also includes aristocratic families who serve high positions in their government such as a Samurai, a Shugo (governor), Shugidai (officials), Jito (stewards), and Daimyo (warlords). Below are some of the popular noble Japanese last names existing even today.
  1. Akamatsu – The Akamatsu is a direct descendant of the Murakami Genji. They belong to a samurai family bearing a Shugo-Daimyo status back in the Sengoku period.
  2. Amago – The Amago clan descended from the Kyugoku clan and is a close relative to the Sasaki clan. Their name is derived from an Omi province named Amako-go which later on became the basis of their noble Japanese last name, Amago.
  3. Ichijo – The Ichijo clan members were elite people formerly belonging to the legendary Fujiwara clan. It is known that the Fujiwara clan has always dominated Japanese politics of the Heian era. They monopolized positions, and always have a good standing in the emperor’s courts.
  4. Kamiizumi – Originating in the Kai Province, the Kamiizumi clan was known as the loyal clan serving the Uesugi family during the Sengoku Period. The Uesugi family is also a known samurai clan and has direct ties with the Kamiizumi both in politics and warfare.
  5. Koga – The Koga clansmen also descended from the Murakami Genji. They are also an aristocratic family branching from the Minamoto clan—which is a direct descent from Emperor Murakami.

Other Known Noble Japanese Family Names

AyaKusakabeOzutsukiSugawaraAdachi
AmakusaAnyamaDateChibaFuji
GotoHatekeyamaHatanoInoueMeda
ManabeMatsunagaMikumoOdaSatomi

Rare and Unusual Japanese Last Names

Not all family names in Japan have survived the test of time. Some names are already on the brink of disappearing from existence. Additionally, there are unusual last names that are existing and you will be surprised how hilarious those names are. Below are a few rare and unusual Japanese last names that are now minimally used in Japan.

Unagi

Translating as “eel” in the English language, it is estimated to be used by only two families as of the year 2014, making it the second rarest Japanese last name to date.

Pengin

The last name Pengin is pronounced the same as Penguin. This last name is only used by one family and is probably one of the most unusual surnames to exist.

Hifumi

Hifumi is a real Japanese family name that means “1, 2, 3”. Family names that are unusual and weird as this are not a big deal in Japanese culture. 

Nagomi

Synonymous with the word Shime, both are rare and unusual Japanese last name that translates as “7, 5, 3”.
Tsubomi

Tsubomi is one of the unusual Japanese surnames that means April 1st. Or sometimes they simply denote it as a date for April Fools.

Mawarimichi

Translating as “a detour” in English, this family name is also considered one of the rarest with only 3 families using it.

Akasofu

This Japanese last name translates as Red Grandfather in English. We wouldn’t be surprised if we use the color to describe things, but it is very unusual for it to be described to a granddad, much worse, as a family name. 

Senju

The name Senju is an old term to describe a teacher or educator. This is popularized from the anime Naruto, describing the Senju family as a powerful ninja clan. Today, Senju is no longer used to identify teachers because sensei is more often used.

Final Thoughts About Japanese Last Names

We were able to discuss a short history of how Japanese last names are given. In ancient Japan, the emperor decides on the clan’s family names resulting in numerous last names appearing one after the other. While these names are exclusive to certain groups of families, newer last names still emerged due to clan merging or branching.

As you can observe, common Japanese last names derived their meaning from the surrounding nature or a description of a person or place. Noble and aristocratic families also have surnames that are exclusive to their circle as they have a direct tie to the royal family.

Due to continuous evolution and change in family names, some old last names became obsolete and rare over time. Additionally, unusual names do exist in present-day Japan. 
The article is about Japanese last names, their history, and some popular ones with their meanings. It also covers the Japanese naming convention where last names come before given names, and the fact that Japan shares this naming convention with China and Korea. The article mentions that there are around 300,000 last names in Japan, but only 7,000 of them are often used and shared by 96% of the Japanese population. The article also provides a brief history of how clans formed in ancient Japan and how the Yamato era gave rise to different clan names.