Japanese Last Names and Meanings
There are an estimated 138,000 Japanese surnames, according to the Enamdict Dictionary of Japanese Proper Names. In addition, there are an additional 100,000 family names and almost 100,000 place names as well. Around 300 B.C., Japanese people began using occupational or geographical names to define their clans. This system expanded over the next 600 years, and clans shared names via birth, marriage, and familial relations.
Finding out the meaning of your last name can teach you so much about your family history. Use the list below to find your last name and learn about its meaning and origins.
Most Popular Japanese Last Names on FamilyEducation
History of Japanese Surnames
Around 250 AD, these clans began to grow and combine into small kingdoms, which were then united under one ruler. The ruler of these larger groups gave each clan a designation according to their societal status. This was called the Uji-Kabane system and the foundation for Japanese family names.
At the beginning of the naming system, the three main kabane or inherited titles were Omi, Muraji, and Tomonomiyatsuko. They were longtime supporters of the Yamato clan, the first emperor to evolve. Murai titles were reserved for those with important or revered occupations. Finally, Tomonomiyatsuko was used for government officials.
The family name goes first in Japan, followed by the first name. However, individuals who have moved to western countries or adopted the western style of Romanizing their name often put the family name second. Japanese uses two types of characters kanji and hiragana.
The combination of characters can change the meaning of words, and some words may have multiple meanings. Therefore, this list may not contain the full extent of each name’s meaning but reflects what we discovered as each name’s most widespread interpretation.
The Most Common Japanese Surnames & Meanings
Like all places, some surnames are more common than others. Additionally, some popular surnames in one part of Japan may be rare in another. However, these are the top ten last names found in all of Japan.
- Sato - The most popular Japanese surname Sato means to help wisteria and probably refers to those who tended the imperial gardens.
- Suzuki - Suzuki is synonymous with motor vehicles; however, it is also the last name of roughly two million people. It means bell tree.
- Takahashi - Takahashi means tall bridge. Hashi means height and taka means bridge.
- Tanaka - Tanaka means a rice field in the middle of the village or central rice paddy.
- Ito -This simple last name means wisteria. Flowers are usually symbols of royalty. For example, the chrysanthemum is tied to the Japanese imperial family.
- Watanabe - The Wantanabe clan was a ruling and warring clan started by the warrior Tsuna. It means crossing an edge.
- Yamamoto - This popular Japanese surname means people from the mountains. It combines yama for mountain and moto for origin.
- Nakamura - This name is comprised of two words. Naka for middle and mura for village.
- Kobayashi - This top name means small forest.
- Kato - This name means to increase the wisteria.
Nature Inspired Japanese Surnames
Nature is a key element in Japanese culture. Much emphasis is placed on respect for and reverence for nature and the natural environment. Japanese mythology has stories rooted in nature, and many Shinto rituals performed stem from these beliefs.
- Aoki - Blue or green. Tree or wood.
- Fuji - Wisteria. This last name has many variations, including Fujiwara, Fujimoto, and Fujita.
- Hara - Tundra or meadow.
- Ikeda - Pond or cistern, a water reservoir.
- Kimura - Tree or woods.
- Kitagawa - This name combines kita for north and kawa for stream. It means north stream.
- Matsumoto - Pine tree.
- Mori - Forest or woods.
- Nakajima - Island.
- Nishikawa - Western river.
- Ogawa - Stream or river.
- Saito - Wisteria. Another variation of Ito referring to wisteria.
- Yamada- Mountain or rice field.
- Yamaguchi - Mountain.
- Yoshida - Rice paddy or rice field.
Image: Mount Fuji, Japan
Regional Japanese Last Names
Japan is a vast country spanning approximately the same length as the North American coast. It is also a country of varied landscapes and was not always the easiest to travel at times. As a result, people often adopted surnames that indicated where they were from or structures they closely resided.
- Endo - Distant or far.
- Furukawa - Old river.
- Hashimoto - Bridge.
- Hayashi - Grove or forest.
- Hori - Ditch, moat, or canal. It could also mean creek or inlet.
- Inoue - Town or community, above; perhaps a reference to a northern village or a village in the mountains.
- Matsushita - Grove or pine tree down below.
- Miura - Seacost or beach.
- Nakano - Center or middle field, rustic.
- Oshima - Large island. Shima means island and is found in many Japanese surnames.
Japanese Names Inspired by Other Cultures
Japan has remained a reasonably egocentric society, only opening its borders to the Western world in 1848; however, the island nation repeatedly warred and interacted with other Asian cultures. As a result, a handful of Japanese surnames are influenced by other languages.
- Aito - Refers to a Chinese constellation; it means to soar or fly. It is also used as a boy’s name.
- Hana - Korean for the first one
- Jin - Korean, this surname means truth.
- Kanei - Means gold. A common last name adopted by Korean immigrants with the last name Kim, which also means gold.
- Kaneko- The first sign of the Chinese zodiac. It is the sign of the rat.
L. Elizabeth Forry, Preschool Lead
About L. Elizabeth Forry
L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with 15 years of classroom experience.