Like people elsewhere in the world, the Japanese have a fondness for the good old days. My great-grandfather’s “good old days” were the 1920s, a time when there were public rose gardens in Hongo, with bushes imported directly from Kew Gardens in London. That was a time when rickshaws pulled up alongside the long black walls of geisha houses, where the drivers would get on their knees to help the geisha enter the carts. In those days, the local fish sellers considered it disrespectful to ask customers to come to their shops and would instead go to the customers’ kitchens, prepare the fish, clean up and leave quietly.
The war changed all that. Great-granddad’s favorite maxim was: “Minshushigi ga yononaka wo dame ni shita (Democracy was the ruin of this world.)”
But even he agreed that democracy improved some things, like the names Japanese parents gave their children. “In my day, we didn’t have any fancy names, especially for women. Today’s children go by names so zeitaku (extravagant) and kirabiyaka (luxurious), they could all be royalty!”
Indeed, in his day, the majority of Japanese had pretty sad-sounding names. My great-grandfather was called Tsutomu, the kanji for which means dedication to hard work. It also connotes loyalty to the emperor and is one of the main characters in Jukyo (Confucianism.) His wife’s name was Take (bamboo) — a fashionable name for women of all classes, since bamboo stood for the straight and narrow, hardiness and durability.
The maid in their house was called “U” — which wasn’t even represented by a kanji character, but just by the hiragana “u.” Later, U got married to a neighborhood uekishokunin (gardener) called Tomekichi, whose name roughly means: “Stopping is good news.” Tomekichi, or just plain Tome (the kanji for stopping or remaining), was quite a popular name among the working class. After giving birth to four or five children, parents usually wanted to call it quits and named their last-born accordingly.
Upon hearing such stories, we kids were aghast. Take and Tsutomu were understandable. Tome was a stretch, but acceptable. But we had no idea what to make of U. We were compelled to giggle hysterically or reach for antidepressants. U!
Other popular girl names pre-1945 included Yone (rice), Kura (storage room or warehouse), Tomi (wealth or fortune), Maru (circle) and Mame (bean). All of these reflect the societal and parental values of the time — parents wanted girls to be hardy and equipped with survival skills, their daughters to have steady lives supported by thrift and household peace.
We’ve come a long way. In a matter of 60 years, the child-naming landscape has changed dramatically. In the 1980s, my female classmates had names like Misaki (beautifully blossoming), Mirei (beautiful bell), Reika (exotically beautiful fragrance) and Yui (one and only).
The boys were called things like Tsubasa (wings), Hisato (flying country), Kazuki (glitter of peace), Noriyuki (constitutional happiness).
As time went by, the zeitaku factor went up. There was even a period in the ’90s when it became fashionable to combine kanji in a way that gave your children foreign-sounding names. The ones I heard were: Emma (graceful linen), Emiri (“Emily,” river of beauty and intelligence), and Reo (“Leo,” center of graciousness). Just think, from U to “Emily” in seven short decades.
Then there were the parents who got creative. A friend of mine, whose entire youth was proffered up to the altar of reggae, called his first born — a girl — Mare (pronounced Malay), though he in fact intended to name her “Marley” (as in Bob, of course). The character for this was ki, which means “hope” or “rarity.” His parents protested that it was way too confusing, but persistence won out. No one could read the little girl’s name correctly, and when they did, everyone pointed out that it was an odd name for a girl.
There’s also the story of the father who wanted to call his son Akuma (devil). His reasoning was that a child should stand out in this world and get people to take notice. It didn’t work — the kuyakusho (ward office) stepped in and made him change it to something less prominent.
Interestingly, few Japanese parents opt for naming their offspring after themselves (which is why there are almost no “juniors” in this nation). This is merely our penchant for self-deprecation: The general assumption is that no kid would want to grow up being like his or her parents.