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What Are the 10 Most Common Japanese Surnames in Kanji and Their Origins?

Everywhere in the world many people introduce themselves saying the family name and given name. They may use the first name only in a casual situation, but at a more formal occasion it is probably more common to bring up both the first and last names.

In this article I am introducing the 10 most common family names in Japan, as you may often hear them from Japanese people introducing themselves.

It is said that there are approximately 300,000 different surnames in Japan.
One reason for this enormous variety lies in the classification process in which surnames in identical kanji combination are registered as different names when their readings are different (one kanji character is commonly read in multiple different ways).
Some readings are so rare that even native Japanese people cannot read them correctly, and such rare names do exist in a pretty big number.

This article will help you understand the Japanese language including kanji, and I hope you will read it all the way to the end.

 

What Is the History of Japanese Surnames?

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The use of family names is said to have taken a root in Japanese society in the latter half of the Heian period in the 11th and 12th centuries. The aristocracy had been using place names where their residences were located as their surnames before then but warriors joined them in this practice in order to claim their ownership of the land they ruled.

During the Kamakura period (1180~1333), brothers of a warrior family divided the father’s estate for inheritance and took on different surnames, giving rapid rise to the variety of surnames.

In a following period of Northern and Southern Dynasties (1336~1392) and afterwards, inheritance by the heir alone came into practice and male siblings stopped founding new clans and started to keep the same surname.

Meanwhile common people were not allowed to use surnames in official situations until they became citizens in the Meiji period (1868-1912) when new laws stipulated that they own and use surnames.
Once family registration system was set up and ordinary people started using surnames, some people registered new names they created on their own rather than adopting place names or others derived from places.
As a result the variety of Japanese surnames once again started to increase and it is said that some hard-to-read names came into existence among them.

When we look at the history of Japanese surnames, we realize it is not even 150 years since Japanese people started using surnames regardless of their class.
Today having a surname is a matter of fact in life, and many Japanese people are surprised at how short their history of surname use has been.

 

Well then, what kind of Japanese surnames are the 10 most common ones among the 300,000 kinds said to exist?
They may include names that are also familiar to foreigners.
Let’s take a look!

1. Sato

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This surname is derived from a fact of being given by the emperor.

The kanji character “佐” either comes from a place name or job title and “藤” indicates that the root of Sato clan originated from Fujiwara (藤原*) clan.

Approximately 1.9 million people in Japan are said to have this surname.

*Fujiwara clan: It is known as the largest clan in Japan formed by blood relations. It started with Kamatari Fujiwara, a politician during the Asuka period (592-710).

 

2. Suzuki

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Suzuki is a common surname in the eastern part of Japan and approximately 1.81 million people are said to share this family name in Japan.

This surname is strongly related to sacred rites or rituals; in the old days, a bell (鈴) hanged from a tree (木) was apparently used as an object of worship.

 

3. Takahashi

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This surname is one of common names in the Tohoku region, and approximately 1.42 million Japanese people have this name nationwide.

The origin of Takahashi (高橋) is often related to place names or bridges (橋) across rivers.

 

4. Tanaka

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The surname of Tanaka (田中) originated from many places in Japan and it is related to cultivated land (田畑). About 1.34 million people have this family name in Japan.

Rice farming flourished in the western part of Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), and this last name is known to be particularly common in the area.

 

5. Ito

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The surname of Ito includes the origin of being received from the emperor, and about 1.09 million Mr. & Ms. Ito exist in Japan.

The kanji character “伊” comes from a place name and “藤” indicates the clan root being from the Fujiwara (藤原) clan.

 

6. Watanabe or Watabe

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“渡辺”, another surname is primarily derived from an occupation or place name. Approximately 1.07 million people have this family name throughout Japan.

And because the kanji character “渡” means an action of crossing over and “辺”, the vicinity, this surname is said to have its origin in ferry ports.

 

7. Yamamoto

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The surname of Yamamoto is also spread across Japan and reportedly shared by about 1.06 million people.

The kanji character of “山” means a mountain with “本” referring to its foot, a common explanation goes that people living in such an area adopted it as their surnames.

However some Yamamoto clans have their roots in Shinto priesthood or aristocrats.

 

8. Nakamura

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Nakamura is another surname widely distributed in Japan and its estimate share is approximately 1.05 million in the population.

The meaning of kanji character “中” is center and “村”, a village. When a small village grew large and western and eastern sections were split off, the word Nakamura was used to refer to the original village in the central.

Again variation exists in their origins and some came from the same ancestors tied by kinship including nobles.

 

9. Kobayashi

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The surname of Kobayashi is often found in the northern part of Nagano and Niigata Prefectures, and a total of about 1.03 million people own this family name in Japan.

The kanji character “小” means being small and “林” meaning trees, this surname has geographical origin, used by people who lived in villages in woodland located in mountainous areas.

 

10. Kato

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The surname Kato is particularly prevalent in Aichi, Mie, Shizuoka and Gifu Prefectures with approximately 890,000 people in Japan going by this family name.

Again this surname was derived from history of being bestowed by the emperor, and the first character of “加” is related to a place name whereas the character of “藤” indicates its origin in the Fujiwara clan.

A research tool is here.

 

Usually we Japanese are using our family names without giving much thought to it, but we can find many new discoveries when we trace its history. Perhaps the same can be said for your family names though you are living abroad.

With respect to the Japanese surnames I introduced this time, I am sure you can encounter people with these names in many places of Japan, as they are the 10 most common surnames across Japan after all. Some of your Japanese friends or acquaintances in your area may have one of these surnames discussed in this article, too.

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Azuki

About the author

Favorite genres are various aspects of Japanese otaku culture. Having been away from Japan for some time, there are many scenes where Azuki realizes the differences between international culture and Japanese culture. Through her own experience and knowledge, she hopes to deliver useful information to the international community who are interested in Japan.

View all articles by Azuki
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