The 10 most common surnames in Japan (and their meanings)

The 10 most common surnames in Japan (and their meanings)

TOKYO —

It’s a little-known fact that until the Meiji era (1868-1912), the ordinary men and women of Japan did not have surnames. Rather, those names were reserved for people in positions of power, nobility, or those of noted artistic ability.

There are an estimated 100,000 family names in Japan — much more than in many Western countries, and vastly more than in neighboring Korea and China — however what’s curious is that of these surnames 10 are incredibly common, with millions of people sharing the exact same moniker. If you’re on your way to Japan or learning the language, knowing how to read and pronounce at least a few of these will almost certainly get you out of a jam at some point or other, so allow us to introduce Japan’s 10 most common surnames, their meanings, and a few fun facts on top, just because we’re nice like that and we like your face.

A period of great change in Japan, the Meiji era was one of tremendous social and cultural revolution. No longer an isolated island refusing to trade or communicate with the outside world, Japan’s new leaders propelled their country into the modern world, striving to compete with foreign visitors and rival Western inventions and thinking.

With this new way of thinking came a shakeup of established social systems, and all commoners were required by law to choose and register a family name for themselves. Many chose names that were already in use, hoping to gain a little extra credibility by sharing a name with those belonging to houses of nobility. Others adopted names reflecting their trade, role in society or simply the region they were from. It’s clear, though, that there were a number of favorites!

In ascending order, the most common Japanese surnames today:

10. Saito

Persons with name: 980,000
Written: 斉藤
Meaning: The first kanji, sai 斉, can be used to refer to a meal taken by monks and priests, but in broader terms it conveys an image of purity and divine worship. The second character, tō 藤 (pronounced with a long ‘oh’) can also be read as “fuji”, and means wisteria. The inclusion of this character suggests possible historical connections with the Fujiwara clan, and is found in a large number of Japanese family names, though how many of said families had genuine attachments to the group is debatable.

You may have heard of: Yuki Saito, the Yokohama-born actress, essayist, author, devout Mormon and star of numerous movies and a bevy of Japanese TV dramas.

9. Kobayashi

Persons with name: 1,019,000
Written: 小林
Meaning: “Small forest”, using the kanji small 小 and woods/forest 林 (pronounced ‘hayashi’ on its own), the name may refer to the region its owner was from.

You may have heard of: 35-year-old Takeru Kobayashi, holder of four Guinness World Records for competitive eating. 

8. Nakamura

Persons with name: 1,059,000
Written: 中村
Meaning: Literally ‘inside’ or ‘middle’ (naka 中), followed by village (mura 村). A person from the middle village, perhaps?

You may have heard of: Professional footballer Shunsuke Nakamura, who was the first Asian player to score a goal in the UEFA Champions League.

7. Yamamoto

Persons with name: 1,077,000
Written: 山本
Meaning: Composed of the characters mountain (yama 山) and base/origin (moto 本), this name is second only to Yamada (山田) for being nice, easy kanji to write, saving elementary school kids blessed with the name the hassle of learning kanji characters that they otherwise wouldn’t meet for years.

You may have heard of: Isoraku Yamamoto, the Marshall Admiral and commander-in-chief during the beginning of the Pacific War. Yamamoto went down in history for being the man ultimately responsible for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

6. Ito

Persons with name: 1,080,000
Written: 伊藤
Meaning: The first kanji character, 伊 is also used to denote Italy, but historically speaking 伊 literally means ‘this’ or ‘that one’. Coupled with the aforementioned kanji for wisteria, 藤, we might again suggest that the name suggests links to the Fujiwara clan, however tenuous. The name is both written and pronounced differently to ito 糸 (which has a short ‘o’ sound, and means ‘thread’), so be sure to clearly pronounce that long “oh” at the end.

You may have heard of: Actor and anime voice actor Atsushi Ito, who played the nerdy male lead in popular TV drama “Densha Otoko.” Or perhaps you spotted 28-year-old Hanae Ito competing as a backstroke swimmer in the London 2012 Olympic Games?

5. Watanabe

Persons with name: 1,134,000
Written: 渡辺 (sometimes 渡邊)
Meaning: To cross or pass over 渡, and “area” or “border” 辺.

You may have heard of: Ken Watanabe, the go-to guy recently for seemingly every major role that calls for a Japanese actor. Watanabe has appeared in dozens of Western films including “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Batman Begins” and “Inception.” Look out for him in the U.S. reboot movie “Godzilla,” too.

4. Tanaka

Persons with name: 1,336,000
Written: 田中
Meaning: Literally “rice field” 田 and “middle/in” 中, the name most likely comes from those who owned or worked the “middle field” in any given town or village, and has stuck around ever since. Another nice, easy name to write, Jin Tanaka is also a popular placeholder name for used for things like credit card ads or shady people checking into hotels where Westerners would scrawl John Smith or Jane Doe.

You may have heard of: Tomoyuki Tanaka, the movie producer who brought us none other than the original “Godzilla.”

3. Takahashi

People with name: 1,416,000
Written: 高橋
Meaning: “Tall/high” 高 and “bridge” 橋 suggests that perhaps the families who originally chose this name lived in an area beyond a deep valley crossed by long bridge. There again maybe they were going for something a little more symbolic rather than literal?

You may have heard of: the now extremely wealthy creator of such works as Inu Yasha and Ranma 1/2, Rumiko Takahashi.

2. Suzuki

People with name: 1,707,000
Written: 鈴木
Meaning: “Bell tree”. Suzurin 鈴 is a small round bell, the kind of which you might put on a cat’s collar. Why they’re being tied to trees 木 though, we’re not sure.

You may have heard of: New York Yankees’ outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

1. Sato

Number of people with name: 1,928,000
Written: 佐藤
Meaning: Alongside the ever-popular “tō” 藤, we find sa 佐, meaning “to assist”. Do todays Satōs descend from those with close ties to the once great clan, or did they just love the way it sounded and the image it conveyed? We may never know.

There you have it, folks, the 10 most common Japanese family names. There may be a heck of a lot of others names out there, but with these 10 under your belt chances are you’ll already be familiar with a fair chunk of the Japanese population.

References: Behind the names Zatsugakuki, Wikipedia

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  • 18

    kimuzukashiiiii

    the 10 rarest would be much more interesting...

  • -1

    Maria

    Where does the name Kato rank on the list? I wonder.

  • 1

    Mitch Cohen

    Interesting read.

    A correction though:

    Professional footballer Shunsuke Nakamura, who was the first Asian player to score a goal in the UEFA Champions League.

    Nakamura was the first Japanese player to score in the UEFA Champions League, but 4th Asian player to achieve the feat. First Asian player was Ali Daei who scored a goal in 1999.

    This is from his wikipedia page:

    He is one of the most prominent and successful Asian players to have played in Scotland and on 13 September 2006 became the first Japanese player to score in the UEFA Champions League and the fourth Asian player after South Korean Park Ji-Sung, Uzbekistani Maksim Shatskikh and Iranian Ali Daei.

  • -5

    OssanAmerica

    "There are an estimated 100,000 family names in Japan — much more than in many Western countries, and vastly more than in neighboring Korea and China"

    I wonder if this is true about China if you take into account the many different Characters that can be read the same way. As far as Korea is concerned I believe it since everybody is either Kim or Pak with the occasion Li to throw everyone off.

  • 3

    lucabrasi

    @Ossan

    It's true. China has remarkably few surnames given it's population. I worked at a university which employed seven Chinese lecturers. Five of those seven were called Wang (王).

  • 1

    GalapagosnoGairaishu

    "There are an estimated 100,000 family names in Japan — much more than in many Western countries, and vastly more than in neighboring Korea and China"

    If you include variations, I've seen the number 250,000 flaunted about. A lot of surnames in olden times were ate-ji (phonetic usage characters) like 興梠木 (Korogi, with the second character written using the tree radical), which were standardized in the early Meiji period to 黒木 (Kuroki).

  • 1

    Laguna

    ...saving elementary school kids blessed with the name the hassle of learning kanji characters that they otherwise wouldn’t meet for years.

    Ha! Long ago, I had a class of kids, most of whom were from "大江町," so when I had them write where they were from, it was for them quite simple. One poor girl, though, was from 南千反畑町: she was always last to finish writing.

    On the other hand, she is in medical school now.

  • -3

    Frungy

    It’s a little-known fact that until the Meiji era (1868-1912), the ordinary men and women of Japan did not have surnames.

    ... there are people who DON'T know this?? Well maybe its not common knowledge amongst foreigners, but it is certainly common knowledge amongst Japanese people.

  • 1

    Shailesh Shah

    interesting!!!

  • 4

    Stephen Knight

    My favorite among the many rare Japanese surnames is probably Ninomae, written simply with the single character for the number one. A handful of families in Aichi prefecture, and that's apparently it.

  • 4

    Onsen

    I knew a Japanese guy whose surname only used 2 Chinese characters but when written in Romaji became "Tsutsumibayashi" which is 15 letter long! Foreigners found it difficult to pronounce his surname and called him Mr. TT. And it's not such an uncommon name.

  • 0

    C Harald Hansen

    Hmmm. I actually remember that thing about the lower classes not having a surname being mentioned in the TV serial "Shogun" which I watched a long time ago. (When Richard Chamberlains character is jailed along with the priest). I didn't give it much thought afterwards tho, as it seemed to me like it was more like the criminals were stripped of their family name.

  • 0

    Thunderbird2

    How about Kojima? I wonder how common that surname is.

  • 0

    choiwaruoyaji

    Imagine having the Japanese surname "Smallballs" (小玉)...

  • 1

    Stephen Knight

    How about Kojima? I wonder how common that surname is.

    If you're talking about the most common form of the name (小島), it's 86th on the list at 31,109 people...

    http://tinyurl.com/llwg6kk

  • 1

    Matt Thorn

    Maria, another source lists "Katoh" as No. 10. http://www.douseidoumei.net/00/sei01.html

    kimuzukashiiiii-san, according to the same source, there are a stunning 41,835 surnames that are used by only one family each! It's a huge list, but there are some real odd ones in there. Unfortunately, they don't provide the pronunciations, and since they're so rare, the only way to find out for would be to ask someone who has the name! http://www.douseidoumei.net/00/sei14.html I'm proud to say that my own wife's surname is used by only two families in the entire country, and is listed 49,38? nationally. I don't want to give the final digit, because it would be pretty easy to find her if I did! Whether you consider it a blessing or a curse to be easily found with Google depends on your disposition and who's searching for you, amirite?

  • 0

    Ah_so

    I remember reading somewhere previously that the top 20 Japanese surnames account for over 50% of all surnames in Japan, although this is not backed by the above numbers. I wonder whether this is a misprint and it is actually giving the number of households with each name. I find it hard to believe that there are on 2m Sato's in Japan - less than 2. I am sure that when I was teaching in class there was at least one a class, not 1 or 2 in a year!

    The other thing which is a remarkable cultural change post-Edo is how Japanese have gone from not having surnames to using them almost exclusively in public.

  • 0

    NeonFraction

    Thank you for this fantastic article. This is really good to know and a great thing to study when learning kanji names. I do admit, however, when I saw Kobayashi, competitive eating wasn't my first thought. Kobayashi Maru. May you live long and prosper!

  • 2

    Onsen

    I think someone once tweeted that 99% of Japanese surnames contain either a SA/SHI/SU/SE/SO or a dakuon (ZA/ZI/ZU/ZE/ZO&BA/BI/BU/BE/BO). Try it for yourself. 99% is too high, maybe 80%? but I have no idea why this is so common.

  • 1

    danalawton1@yahoo.com

    I just looked up the most common U.S. Surnames. The most common is Smith, at 2.5 million, the 10th most common is Taylor at 773,000. Interestingly enough... "Garcia" is the 18th most common surname in the USA at 631,000, and Martinez is 19th at 581,000. A lot of change in the U.S. over the last 30 years... I wonder how much Japan has.

  • 0

    serendipitous

    I read somewhere that Japan has 125,000 different family names, China 25,000 and Korea just 5,000 but it's easy to remember i.e. China has 5 times more family names than Korea and Japan has 5 times more than China apparently.

  • 0

    Fox Cloud Lelean

    I know a few of these surnames, but from other sources. Nakamura for example I know from the anime Angel Beats! being the surname of female protagonist Yuri. Sato I know from Torchwood; Toshiko Sato (Toshiko I believe means Clever Child. Appropriate in her case). I believe Tanaka appeared in the Bond movie You Only Live Twice. I quite like Japanese Surnames in comparison to Western surnames, as they have meanings. Mine doesn't mean anything. It's just a name. Some Western names stem from a family's trade (so if your surname was Smith, you most likely descended from a Blacksmith, or Cooper for someone descended from a Cooper (Google it), or Fisher for...well you get the idea). Not as interesting as Akamatsu (Red Pine), Kuroki (Black Tree) or Shimizu (Which I'm led to believe means Pure Water).

  • 0

    Lyndon Green

    I once met a young Japanese woman whose family name was Kuriki. Very rare, apparently. Sorry, I don’t know the kanji, however.

  • 0

    Goodwill_Hunting

    Have to be careful reading too much into the exact choice of kanji characters for a surname. Suzuki for example only comes out as "bell tree" by accident. Originally, it was the clan name of a ruling family called Hozumi. Its historical connections with the shrine warden at Kumano shrine in Wakayama also reveal its religious roots. Hozumi literally means "stacked sheaves of rice." Farmers placed a wooden pole in the middle of the sheave maybe for stability, but also to allow the "kami" to descend and bestow blessings/spiritual energy to the rice. This wooden pole was called "sei naru ki" (the sacred beam") which, with regional accents, came to be pronounced Suzuki instead of sei naru ki. Most people use the "bell tree" kanji these days, but other families actually do use other kanji characters. Needless to say, surnames are often from clan names and therefore have ancient roots with lots of detail to each story of origin. [[Dear moderator, I tried to add the kanji like 穂積 and 鈴木 but they came out garbled in the preview]]

  • 0

    URO

    Very interesting!

  • -1

    wasabizuki

    There are also names that sound the same but are written differently using older style kanji. For example, the noble families of daimyo might use the old characters while their subordinates or bunke use more modern kanji. The differences are subtle and often times are wrongly corrected by those who don't know of the older, traditional characters.

  • 0

    toshiko

    Wasabizuki, Samurai descendents nobles, used their family name. Only commoners had to create or copy commoners names. Daimyio families such as Hosokawa, Mouri, Shimazu and others never used different kanjis for generations, including Sengoku eras. The same with samurais, .
    Often, people can figure what kind of ancestors you have. By the time Meiji Govt modernized, Samurais were book worm administrators. No good in martial arts but knew theor.ies. When you enter to schools, Koseki shouhons are given to schools. There, rumors apread that sone so-so is Shizoku so dson;t argue, don;;t fight. Commoner boys stay away to insult shizoku girsl creating big mlouth brats who carry 30 cm. rulers to pretend they can use that like =sword.

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