Butterflyblue has a great post on Japanese family names. Did you know (to take one startling fact) that Japan has more such a large number of different surnames than any other country in the world (about 120,000)? I’ll let you discover various piquant examples in situ, but I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph:

Yes, in the Heian period and after, it was common to use “Kuso” [‘shit’ — LH] in names, which means just what you think it means. The famous poet “Kinotsurayuki,” who wrote the Tosa Diaries, is a notable example. His birth name was “Ako Kuso,” which means “my child…shit.” Amazing that a man with this kind of name grew up to be successful in life. Nor is he an isolated case. Names like “Kusoko” and “Oguso” were in vogue among the nobility. The book explains that this has to do with the belief in the god of the toilet. Since the toilet god keeps you healthy, it stands to reason he would be helpful in rearing a healthy child. This seems very out of place in the Japan of today, but it persists in a small way in the superstition that a pregnant woman should keep her bathroom clean if she wants to have a beautiful baby.

(Via No-sword.)

Addendum. Mark Liberman points out in the comments, and in more detail in this Language Log post, that the U.S. has far more surnames. Of course, in a sense it’s an unfair comparison, because the U.S. has surnames from just about every ethnic/linguistic group in the world, but butterflyblue’s statement is clearly incorrect as it stands.


  1. Whereas, just across the “East Sea” (Sea of Japan), here in Korea, where we have so very few surnames, the practice of naming children “Shit” or “Toilet” or other nasty things was practiced, I’m told, not out of a superstition about bathrooms, but out of a semi-pragmatic response to infant mortality rates.
    People had a superstitous fear that the (supernatural) Powers-That-Be were greedy SOBs, and would immediately “take away” (ie. kill) any child with a nicer name meaning something like “beauty” or “truth” or “great joy”. So, as more than one old guy has told me, unsavoury names were given to children, and their names were not written on Family Registers for the first few years, until it was agreed that the “danger” had passed. Then they would be given their “real” names and entered onto the register. (How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions by Sang-Hun Choe and Christopher Torcha, claims that this too was simple pragmatism, as people were waiting to see whether kids would survive early childhood diseases before bothering with a birth documentation.)
    I suppose sometimes it would have been entered retroactively, but apparently often it was not: I knew at least one older gentleman whose real age was a few years older than his recognized age (meaning his Korean age—an additional year or two depending on when in the year you’re born—was actually his true Western age). He took delight in the fact he could report himself a few years younger than he actually was… which is a funny thing in an age-hierarchical society like this.

  2. My favourite Japanese given name ever is 八十 (Yaso), literally “eight ten”. The idea is that the sequence skips the number nine, “ku”, which is synonymous with 苦, an originally Buddhist term for suffering, and so suffering should skip the namee too.
    Kind of like the “no floor numbered 13” (or “4”) principle applied to personal names.

  3. What an interesting post.
    I wonder how many surnames there are in the Philippines; there seems to be numerous. Many people have Spanish surnames (de los Santos & de la Cruz are the most popular), but there are those with surnames coming from indigenous Philippine languages, Chinese, and Arabic.
    The Chinese in the Philippines have an interesting naming system dependong on the era. A name like LOCSIN came from SIN LOK came from the 1700’s. In the mid 19th century, there were Hispanicized Chinese names like COJUANGCO (maiden name of the former President Aquino) and YUCHENGCO (no, I don’t think Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is a Chinese Filipino). Then during the American colonial rule, the Chinese combined their surname with the Spanish surnames like Tiu-Laurel. And after WWII, the names look more Chinese like KHO or CHAN or whatever.
    Also this part of Butterflyblue’s blog entry resembles the Philippines somewhat: Is it true that most people didn’t have surnames until 1875?.
    During the Spanish colonial rule, the government felt that the native Filipinos had to have a standardized way of having surnames. Many Filipinos chose religious surnames like DE LOS SANTOS and DE LA CRUZ mentioned above. And many Filipinos had no surnames at all. It was hard for the Spanish authorities to keep track of them.
    So there was a 140+ page book published called “Catálogo alfabético de apellidos” (Alphabetic Catalog of Surnames) written by Governor General Narciso Zaldúa Clavería. It’s basically a collection of words culled from Spanish and basically a bunch of Philippine languages. There’s even surnames like OT-OT (fart).
    My ancestors’ surnames are in that book .. except for one – Buenpacifico. Which is obviously Spanish. But it doesn’t appear to exist in other Spanish countries.

  4. Chris, that’s fascinating — you should do a post on the subject (giving the original Chinese names if you know them).

  5. I suspect that there are several other linguistic/political entities whose name count is greater than 120,000. Certainly the residents of the U.S., who come from all over, have several million distinct surnames. The exact count is hard to determine, partly because of lack of complete data but also because of the problem of distinguishing distinct names from typographical-error variants, and the definitional question of whether genuine variant spellings of the “same” name should count as different or not. However, I’ve worked with American surname lists with more than 2 million distinct entries on them.
    See this post over at Language Log for some further info.

  6. Thanks — I’ve changed the entry to reflect your correction. It was sloppy of me to repeat the claim without checking, but it was late and I was in a suggestible frame of mind.

  7. speaking of names – if you haven’t played with it yet, you should use a java-enabled browser and go to the Baby Name Voyager which gives you a wonderful ethnohistoric picture of the United States through trends in baby names. It’s really fun — did you know that as a first initial, W is on the decline while Q, X, and Z are ascendant?

  8. “Amazing that a man with this kind of name grew up to be successful in life.”
    It is a common practice in many cultures to give names with negative connotations to avoid bringing the evil eye on a child or jinxing the kid in some way. I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that wasn’t involved here as well.

  9. Oy! Some months ago I had a prospective cusomer who was a young Korean boy, non-English-speaking family in tow. He initially gave his age as twelve, but after discovering he had to be fourteen to achieve his objective, announced that twelve was his Korean age; his Canadian age being fourteen. I thought he was just being remarkably creative, as he was when translating the prices to his parents. It’s facinating to discover that he could have been telling the truth, or at least riffing off something that was true for older relatives.

  10. my friend is a filipino and he says that many filipinos have a euroupean backround, can you clarify this?

  11. The Philippines were ruled by Spain for centuries.

  12. I was surprised at the conjecture of 120,000 surnames in Japan, but in Torrance, California, with many residents of Japanese ancestry, I see nearly every day Japanese family names that are new to me. Does this estimate include Okinawan names, which many “mainland” Japanese immediately recognize as not “mainland” Japanese names?
    What was Yugoslavia has only a small fraction of the population of Japan, but I have read that there are substantially more than 14,000 surnames in that region, a name density that must compare favorably with that of Japan.

  13. what does my name mean?

  14. This is relly cool

  15. HELLO!! i have been looking up my names meaning since last year and i still dont know what it means so if you know tell me my name in japanese is either Tairoru or Teiraa k? now can you please tell me what one means Taylor and what does it mean…thankyou ps: write back

  16. HELLO!! i have been looking up my names meaning since last year and i still dont know what it means so if you know tell me my name in japanese is either Tairoru or Teiraa k? now can you please tell me what one means Taylor and what does it mean…thankyou ps: write back

  17. Superuntitled says

    It depends on how you want it pronounced–Taylah or Taylar(u). For most English words written in katakana, the general rule is to leave off the final “r” and draw out the Japanese “a” sound (like extending the final schwa sound and omitting the ending “r” on the U.S. East Coast). Tairaa would be a more conventional form, but hey, it’s your name, and if you’re more likely to respond to it with an ending fluid, then by all means ask people to call you Tairaru.

  18. What does Atsutomo mean in japan???

  19. Japanese says

    i have gathered about 7 thousand japanese names at my website https://genametor.com/en/list/japanese/

Speak Your Mind