Joel of Far Outliers has a good post on how Koreans chose their new names when forced to do so by the Japanese occupation; one possibility was:

Retain all or part of the Chinese character, but use its native Japanese reading
* Kim 金 – Keep ‘gold’ but use its Japanese pronunciation, as in 金國 Kanekuni ‘gold country’, 金澤 Kanezawa ‘gold pond’, 金城 Kaneshiro ‘gold castle’, 金田 ‘gold paddy’
* Ch’oe 崔 – Keep the ‘mountain’ radical on top, as in 山本 Yamamoto ‘mountain base’
* Pak 朴 – Keep the ‘tree’ radical, as in 木戸 Kido ‘wood door’, 正木 Masaki ‘upright tree’
* Yi 李 – Keep the ‘tree’ radical, as in 木元 Kimoto ‘tree base’

There were also names based on geographical origins, homonyms, and symbolic names. He adds that “just three surnames, Kim (= Gim), Lee (= Yi, Ri, Rhee, etc.), and Park (= Pak, Bak, etc.) account for 45% of family surnames in South Korea.”


  1. Does anyone know whether the Kim “Gold” surname has anything to do with the Jurchen Chin “gold” Chinese dynasty? The Jurchen were neighbors of the Koreans, and both peoples retained their identities even though they adopted a lot of Chinese culture. (The Jurchen mostly lost their native identity, ironically, after the conquered northern China.)
    An aside: the common Vietnamese surname “Nguyen”, I’ve been told, is a version of the rare Chinese surname Juan (as in the poet Juan Chi / Ruan ji). Does anyone know the story behind that?

  2. I lived with a Japanese Korean once and from what I undestood from him it wasn’t so much a matter of choice as he was forced to have a Japanese name. I know that in Iceland immigrants used to be forced to take Icelandic names, which thankfully has stopped.

  3. Koreans were not forced to change their names unless they wanted to: (1) attend school; (2) apply for a job; (3) register their marriages; (4) sell or buy land; etc. So if you were an isolated farmer (or bandit) in the hills, you could keep your Korean name. Pretty generous, no?

  4. Kári: That’s why I said they chose their names “when forced to do so by the Japanese occupation.”

    During the period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1910–1945), Koreans were in practice compelled to adopt Japanese-language names. In 1939, as part of Governor-General Jiro Minami’s policy of cultural assimilation (同化政策; dōka seisaku) [1], Ordinance No. 20 (Commonly called the “Name Order”) was issued, and went into law on February 11, 1940, the 2,600th anniversary of the mythical Emperor Jimmu’s founding of Japan [2].
    The ordinance — commonly called Sōshi-kaimei (創氏改名) in Japanese — allowed in theory (but compelled in practice) Koreans to adopt Japanese family and given names. Although the Japanese Government-General officially prohibited compulsion, low-level officials practically forced Koreans to get Japanese-style family names, and by 1944, approximately 84 percent of the population had registered Japanese family names (Nahm 1988, p. 233).
    Sōshi (Japanese) means the creation of a Japanese family name or si (Korean ssi (씨)), distinct from a Korean family name or seong (Japanese sei). Japanese family names represent the families they belong to and can be changed by marriage and other procedures, while Korean family names represent paternal linkages and are unchangeable. Sōshi represented a dual operation of both Japanese and Korean family name systems. Japanese policy dictated that Koreans either could register a completely new Japanese family name unrelated to their Korean surname, or have their Korean family name, in Japanese form, automatically become their Japanese name. Koreans were not, however, permitted to register a Korean family name other than their original name. For example, a person surnamed Bak (박; 朴) would be permitted to register Arai (新井), a Japanese name, or Boku (the Japanese equivalent of Bak), but did not have the choice of taking the name Kim (김; 金).
    Japanese conventions of creating given names also made their way into Korea, such as putting a character “子” (Japanese ko and Korean ja meaning “descendant” or “son”) to make feminine names like “玉子” (Japanese Tamako and Korean Okja), although this practice is seldom seen in modern Korea, either North or South. (See External links for more on the Sōshi-kaimei policy.)
    After the Japanese defeat in World War II and the liberation of Korea, the Name Restoration Order (조선 성명 복구령; 朝鮮姓名復舊令) was issued on October 23, 1946 by the United States military administration south of the 38th parallel north, enabling Koreans to restore their Korean names if they wished to.

    Nguyễn (Vietnamese: quoc ngu ; chu nom 阮) (pronounced /ŋwiɜn/, see below for a full explanation) is the most common Vietnamese family name. By some estimates, approximately 40 percent of Vietnamese people have this surname.
    Among Chinese speakers, it can be pronounced Yun or Yuen (Cantonese) and Yuan or Ruan (Mandarin) (Windows Character Map identifies the character by the standard Ruan). In China, the surname is found in Guangdong, in southern China. Some who bear the surname may have partial or distant Vietnamese ethnic ancestry (also known in China as the Gin ethnic minority).

    As with other Korean family names, the Kim clans are distinguished by the place from which they claim to originate. A very large number of distinct Kim clans exist, besides those listed here.
    According to a story recorded only in the Samguk Yusa, in 48 CE, Princess Heo Hwang-ok made an epic journey from a country called “Ayuda” to Korea, where she married King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya and gave birth to 10 children, thus starting the Kim dynasty of Geumgwan Gaya, the capital of which was in present-day Goryeong County. The country of Ayuda is often identified with Ayodhya in India.
    This clan is by far the most populous of all Korean clans. The 2000 South Korean census found it to contain more than 4 million people.

  8. On a related note, Japanese public practice has changed over the past decade or two with regard to rendering Sinographic names in Japanese. It used to be that Chinese characters in foreign names were just pronounced in their Sino-Japanese readings, so that Mao Zedong was Mou Takutou, and Chiang Kai-shek (= Jiang Jieshi) was Shou Kaiseki.
    But the practice now is to render such names into katakana approximations of their sound values in standard Chinese or Korean. I believe this change was driven partly by some activist Korean Residents in Japan who wanted to de-Japanize their names (and probably also by both the DPRK and ROK governments). So now Korean Kims who Japanized their names to Kane-something can revert to Kimu, and Kim Ilsong can be rendered in katakana as Kimu IrusoN instead of in Sino-Japanese as Kin Nichisei.
    Of course, katakana sound values impose a phonological straitjacket not much more elastic than the Sino-Japanese readings of Sinographic names, but at least the new practice treats Chinese and Korean names like those of other foreigners–and, more important, not like members of a special Japanese-dominated kanjisphere.
    In my recent visit to Japan I was struck by the similar treatment now accorded to the Japanese names of foreign citizens of Japanese ancestry, like Alberto Fujimori or Isamu Noguchi. They are (usually, I believe) written in katakana! The ideological reason may be recognition that Japanese emigrants need not remain Japanese, either in cultural practices or national loyalties. But there’s also a practical reason: the many-to-many relationship between the pronunciation and writing of Japanese names, especially given names. The common male name pronounced Hiroshi, for instance, can be written in several dozen different ways. And each kanji can be read in so many different ways that all Japanese paperwork that asks for one’s name also asks for katakana/romaji rendering of each name. Place names can be just as bad as personal names in that regard.
    Finally, the lingering Korean bitterness and resistence to Japanese renaming requirements shows up regularly in ESL classrooms, where Korean students usually resist adopting English (or at least Anglospheric) given names that might make life easier for their teachers. In sharp contrast, Chinese students often request English names, and Japanese students are quite happy to answer to Anglicized nicknames (Mits, Kats, etc.), at least in my experience.
    I guess I should add all this as an update to my post.

  9. That’s extremely interesting — thanks!

  10. I’ve also talked to someone of Vietnamese origin who is offended at the Japanese change to katakana transcription instead of kanji for Vietnamese names, and would prefer Japanese acknowlegement the Vietnamese are also part of the Sinosphere.

  11. caffeind,
    I thought the Vietnamese opted out of the Sinographysphere, if not the Sinonymysphere. (Ugh! My apologies.) How many Vietnamese even know how to write their names in Chinese characters (apart from the many of Chinese origin, of course)?
    Another Korean incentive for the new practice in Japan may be the anti-hanja, pro-hangul movement in both Koreas, although the ROK Ministry of Education seems to blow hot and cold on hanja every half-decade or so. Plus, there’s a tendency in SK these days, I believe, toward innovative given names of non-Sinitic origin and therefore not written in Chinese characters. (Koreans are much more sensible than Japanese in restricting Sinographs to words of Chinese etymology. Well, that’s faint praise. Japanese have the quirkiest writing system in the modern world, IMHO.)

  12. As I remember, the French government is very harsh about Breton names.

  13. Michael Farris says

    “Some who bear the surname may have partial or distant Vietnamese ethnic ancestry (also known in China as the Gin ethnic minority).”
    That’s interesting. Because there are two ways of saying “Vietnamese” in Vietnamese, Việt and Kinh.
    Việt refers to the political/national level and so
    Người Việt Nam means “citizen of the country Vietnam” while Người Kinh refers to what we think of as “ethnic Vietnamese” (opposed to Chinese or Khmer or E-de etc who have Vietnamese citizenship). Something like Mandarin Zhong and Han in refering to Chinese nationality and ethnicity respectively.
    The usage isn’t entirely consistent, members of the diaspora are known as Việt Kiều (I don’t know what kiều is) even though these turn out to be Kinh in practice.

  14. Kiều is the Vietnamese version of Chinese “qiao” originally meaning something like “sojourner”. “Huaqiao” 华侨 is the term for Overseas Chinese.
    Kinh means the principal nationality of Vietnam but the label originated as the word for “capital city”, i.e. the people living around Hanoi. Kinh is the Vietnamese version of the “jing” 京 in Beijing, Nanjing, etc. Gin is surely a phonetic transcription of Kinh.
    Japanese certainly does have the quirkiest writing system in the modern world. Even among ancient systems only some like Akkadian and Pahlavi are comparable.

  15. Don’t forget Hittite! That’s the one I always pair with Japanese for ultimate complexity; any given patch of cuneiform could be Sumerian, Akkadian, or native Hittite.

  16. “…Korean students usually resist adopting English (or at least Anglospheric) given names that might make life easier for their teachers.”
    Isn’t this the same argument that the Japanese were making in WWII? Going to the trouble to learn someone’s name is a matter of respect, not convenience.

  17. i wanna know how to spell my name amanda is

  18. Does any one knows the meaning of the Japanese name Keimi?

  19. Hey, funny i come across this site, becuase i voluntary want to change my name to Izanami Nishijima, and put my full american name as my middle name. Since i plan on moving to Japan! And im trying to find out weather or not it would be offensive to change my name?!
    and Amanda in Japanese is Amanda……
    and Keimi…….well kei means reverence and mi has several meanings…….but Keimi…..i think its a name that really has no meaning……unique??…….lol ^.^ but i might be wrong lol….dunno!

  20. Do you like to watch anime or read manga?If you have ever watched it then my friend IESHA.LOVES INUYASHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Anyway,i really like japan and other forign countries.MY name isn’t
    really yumiko but I really like that name .”I think I will name my daughter that!” Sorry I was spacing.
    Oh and george bush is a F***er!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Dont vote for him…
    oh yah,george bush SUCKS MONKEY BALLS!!!!!

    YAH ANIME RULES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. Birttany in Japanese is buritanii, and Iesha? Iesha is one of those names that isn’t a normal-“english” name…..its an “exotic” name, so when translating names like that into another language, they usually just stay the same……^^
    And i agree…..Bush, blows =P

  23. Also, as you can see, alot of people dont respond her ASAP, so if you want, click my name and e-mail me next time and ask….^^

  24. here*

  25. 劉徳浩 is chinese, how would you pronounce it or change it to a Korean name?
    劉 = Yu or Yoo?
    浩 = Ho?
    Any help would be great, thank you

  26. well, my name is keimi and it was chosen by my father who was japanese. as i am told, since i personally don’t speak japanese, the kanji that make up my name mean: kei- respect, mi- beauty. hope it helps in some way.

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