I am one of those people. You know them, the ones that scour baby name websites even when they’re not pregnant, have a list 100 names deep before any sort of baby planning. It’s me, hi, I’m a weirdo it’s me. So yes, this topic gets me all excited.
But in the last couple years, when friends around me have come to me talking baby names it wasn’t to discuss the spelling variations of Riley ,or the pros and cons of gender-neutral names, or the many nuances of girl names that start with Mi- (Mia is a good girl, Miah knows how to get down, Mila is kind of a badass, Mina is a great hostess)—it was, instead, to ask about Japanese middle names.
Being the token Japanese speaker of my friend group, it made sense. As a fourth-generation elder millennial, it’s kind of rare that I’m bilingual. Most new parents my age have sansei parents who may not have had a Japanese name themselves, and our nisei grandparents aren’t always around to help. If we’re not just ready to do name our babies after someone and want to do something a little more creative, we’re kind of at a loss. There are so-called baby name websites with Japanese meanings but the few times I’ve seen someone reference them, I have seen some really funky…er… interpretations. (Let this be a PSA to not trust those websites completely—take it with a grain of salt!)
So if you’re worried about having a regrettable-Asian-tattoo equivalent of a baby name, here’s a little crash course on Japanese names and where to look for inspiration.
First things first: what Japanese names “mean”
I put it in quotes because Japanese names are a bit complicated, just like everything else that’s Japanese. It’s made up of 2 parts: the sound and the writing.
The Japanese language uses a syllabic and pictographic writing system, which is just a fancy way to say that their written language is comprised of both symbols that represent sounds and those that represent meaning. The latter, called kanji, are characters borrowed from Chinese characters that the Japanese have adopted and made their own.
Why is this significant in the context of baby names? Well, most names use the kanji symbols, which have both a sound as well as a meaning associated with it. This means that unless you know how that name is written, you will not truly understand the “meaning” of a name.
Here’s an example: Hana.
It’s an adorable girls’ name that I see show up on a lot of “Japanese baby name” lists, and the meaning is always “flower.” This is because the sound is that of the word flower. But just because a girl’s name is “Hana" in Japan, her name may not automatically mean flower, because despite the sound, one could write “Hana” in many different ways:
花 — flower
花奈 — flower of a karanashi tree
葉那 — beautiful or bountiful leaf
羽凪 — gentle wings
Now are some of these more common than others? Sure. But are they all possible names? Yes.
That’s why it’s hard to nail down what a name actually “means,” unless you stick to the most simple way to use a Japanese name: noun names.
Ok, so most names are noun names, just in another language but let’s ignore that for now.
English equivalents are names that we are all familiar with: Clay, Glen, Melody, Poppy, Hope, Grace, Dawn, Coral, Reed, Victor, Chastity… from nature to descriptors to virtues, there’s a certain feel of purity to these names because they’re very straightforward. It’s the same with Japanese names—and you can find a good one with a simple English-Japanese dictionary. As a paper nerd I would recommend a printed version of course, but Google Translate does a good job too.
So what are popular noun names in Japan? For girls, flower names are super popular like in English (Lily, anyone?) as well as fruits, trees, and seasons. For boys, nature names are still popular like tree names as well as occupations, instruments, weapons, and such.
But look, I get it. If you’re giving your kid a Japanese name more likely than not you’re doing it to honor a family member, but maybe it feels a little… dated. And when most Japanese last names are already 3 to 4 syllables, some of us don’t want to tack on another 4 or 5 syllables with some of these more traditional names. Here comes a tad more advanced trick: shortening older names.
This totally happens in English names too. Lisa, Beth, Bessie, Izzy, and Lilibet are all diminutives of Elizabeth, and started as a nickname that started to hold its own as a standalone solo artist. It’s not unlike what our grandparents did too to make their names easier to say in English, when Tadashi became Tad or Hideki to Henry, Kimiko to Kimmie, Mitsuko to Mitzi.
Consider doing the same for any relatives’ names that feel a bit long, while still preserving its Japanesey-ness.
For girl names ending in -ko, dropping the ko will get you that coveted 2 syllable middle name: Aiko to Ai, Teruko to Teru, Hisako to Hisa, Miyoko to Miyo… and it works most of the time. Boys names can be a little harder, and the trick here is to really listen to that syllable. Just like in the nisei nickname examples, the trick is to try and listen for that first two syllables and dropping the rest of it. Let’s look at some of the most popular boys names from the 20s and 30s:
Tatsuo -> Tatsu
Shoji -> Sho
Kazuo -> Kazu
Masao -> Masa
Takashi -> Taka
Akinobu -> Aki
Yoshio -> Yoshi
Like I said it’s an advanced technique because there are a lot of names that won’t work to “break up” this way. Given that Japanese names rely so heavily on the way that it’s written, if the name cannot be written with a kanji then it really can’t be considered a name.
Examples of this are names like Tadashi, Minoru, and Susumu… even though these names have multiple syllables, they are all written with one kanji. So breaking up the sound to Tada, Mino, and Susu, leaves you with sounds that are untethered, not tied to a way to write it. So it would be helpful if you could get your hands on the kanji spelling somehow to at least confirm whether the name you’re trying to nickname is written with more than one character. With that said, to make matters more complicated there are some one-kanji names that CAN be made shorter, like Shigeru to Shige, Hiroshi to Hiro, Akira to Aki, because even though they started as one kanji, there is another kanji that you can substitute or the same kanji can be read 2 ways. Confused yet?
If you’re ever wondering about whether a sound can become a name, just google the name you’re looking at and write “Japanese famous” and see if an actual person’s name comes up.
Hope I haven’t lost you or scared you away, because Japanese names are really pretty. Which makes sense, when you consider the language itself, which is syllabic in nature and therefore has this melodic quality that feels distinct yet familiar to English speakers. In fact, without even knowing the kanji or meaning of the name there’s a way to use a Japanese name for your baby.
Saving the best for last (name)
What do popular baby names like Harper, Hudson, Everly, Riley, and Lincoln have in common? While they’re regulars on the most popular baby names lists, they were all originally surnames.
Giving a mother’s maiden name as a middle name is a practice that’s seen across the globe — it’s a minor practice here in the States, and in countries like the Philippines, Australia, and Scandinavia it’s a common practice. More often, I’ve seen women change their own middle name to their maiden name after marriage to preserve that bit of their identity. I have mixed feelings about this because the first time I heard it was in the Kardashian context, but I’m willing to let that go to make an argument for it here.
So when I saw a birth announcement come in with the mother’s maiden name as a middle name, it made sense. I just wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself.
As someone who speaks Japanese fluently, I am guilty of letting some Japanese sensibilities creep into my consciousness along with the language. One of the big ones is, “there’s a right way and wrong way to do something.” As a culture that puts a big importance on culture and tradition, this belief allowed the Japanese to preserve excellence but it also makes them rigid and antiquated. My Japanese ears heard the last name in the middle and initially thought, “Oh that doesn’t sound right… that’s just too much Japanese.” But really, why not? It’s a familiar practice, and one that can circumvent the whole meaning is dependent on the writing problem.
What do you think? With an understanding of how Japanese names work, and 3 ways to approach naming your baby, I hope you find a name that is perfect for your family. Call me biased, but as a Japanese speaker I absolutely love how soft and graceful Japanese words roll off the tongue, and they deserve their spot in the limelight. So much of the baby names that are popular today actually made it across the sea—Michelle is French, Mila is Russian, yet both are now unmistakably American names. Why can’t Mio, a Japanese noun name meaning waterway, enter the discussion? She’d be the one who knows all the good hole in the wall taco places, and everyone needs a friend like her.