A striking fact regarding modern Japanese surnames is their sheer number. There’s no precise count, but the consensus is that there are more than 100,000.

That will not astonish an American, whose melting-pot country harbors representatives of most of the world’s ethnicities and is consequently home to perhaps a million surnames; or a Finn, for Finland, with barely five million people, has tens of thousands of surnames — the most in the world in proportion to population.

But compare Japan to its neighbors China and Korea.

Chinese surnames are the most ancient in the world — they go back some 3,000 years, whereas in Europe the very concept of surnames was unknown before the 11th century.

Even so, and despite its population of 1.2 billion, China has only a few thousand surnames, while Korea makes do with a mere 200 or so. In South Korea, the top five names — Kim, Lee, Park, Choi, Jung — cover 55 percent of the population.

Japan breaks the Asian mold. It has roughly one surname per 1,000 people.

There’s another remarkable fact to consider. Think of all the great historical names, the prime movers of Japanese history up to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 — Fujiwara, Minamoto, Taira, Hojo, Ashikaga, Toyotomi, Tokugawa. How many of them are widespread today? Only one — Fujiwara, ranking 47th among the top 100. The rest are scarcely represented in the current population. On Feb. 13, 1875, the Meiji government passed a law requiring all Japanese to register surnames.

This was revolutionary. Consider what it replaced — Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s decree of 1587 forbidding all non-samurai (90 percent of the population) from bearing either swords or, that other mark of distinction, surnames.

Enforcement under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) was lax, and most peasants, artisans and merchants somehow, though not always easily, managed to acquire unofficial surnames for purely local use. It was the rough equivalent of acquiring personhood, for — economic marginality aside — the nameless tended to be excluded from village meetings and religious ceremonies.

Many peasants could legitimately claim samurai ancestry, class divisions having been far less rigid before Hideyoshi’s 1587 decree. Others claimed it illegitimately — genealogical forgery was rampant in the anarchy of 15th- and 16th-century civil warfare.

“In 1483,” notes Herbert Plutschow in “Japan’s Name Culture,” “the To-ji temple (in Kyoto) complained that too many peasants had assumed surnames without permission, but it was powerless to curb the practice.”

Ironic echoes of this ancient tension sound today as Japanese women, with the support of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, campaign for the right to retain their own surnames after marriage.

By the 19th century, impoverished daimyo (feudal lords) were actually selling surnames to commoners, some of whom had played the expanding money economy adroitly enough to become wealthier than their landed superiors.

Plutschow again: “In 1829, in Shimano village (now Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture), the head of a household association paid 50 ryo (gold coins) and was given a license to bear both surname and swords.”

Still, a commoner with a surname had to be discreet. Displaying it on official documents or flaunting it for anything but strictly local purposes was potentially a capital offense.

And here, in 1875, was the new Meiji regime not only entitling but requiring the lower orders to assume an officially acknowledged surname!

It seems liberal and progressive, but among the supposed beneficiaries suspicion prevailed over enthusiasm.

Commoners understood that the government wasn’t primarily interested in enhancing their dignity, but in conscripting, taxing and educating them with maximum efficiency — for universal conscription and compulsory education were central to the Meiji reforms. As for taxes, they had always been crushing, but at least to some extent evadable; the new koseki — the family-register system that survives to this day — would make them much less so.

So it was not always with good grace that commoners went about complying with a law that seems at first blush to confer a privilege. Perhaps they reacted as some of us do today to the necessity of acquiring yet another ID number — with heightened anxiety about a shadowy Big Brother and his all-seeing, ever-open eye.

But defiance was impossible. The most basic formalities of life — marriage for example — would become impossible without a duly registered surname. What surname, then, should a person register?

The seemingly obvious option was to register the unregistered surname they had been using all along. Many did just that, but vague fears of ancient name-taboos and of assuming a real, official name to which one was not certifiably entitled sent many others to the one accessible authority who could lay such fears to rest — the village priest.

Consequently, many of the 100,000-plus names in use today were more or less arbitrary compounds concocted some 130 years ago by hard-pressed temple priests all over the country. The top five surnames in Japan today are Sato, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka and Watanabe. Of these, all but Tanaka have ancient roots.

Tanaka is beautiful in its simplicity. Its component kanji characters are ta (rice paddy) and naka (inside). It means what it says and says what it means. Rice being the mainstay of the traditional Japanese economy, “in-the-paddy” seemed a natural and inoffensive choice for farmers of early Meiji bewildered and flurried by the choice they faced.

Many similar surnames grace modern Japanese telephone directories, tracing their roots to that same hectic quest, imposed from above, for personal identity in a land whose traditions had scant regard for any such thing.

So intimate a possession was a rice paddy that it spawned numerous surnames, explains researcher Hiroshi Morioka in “Miyoji no Himitsu” (“The Secret of Surnames”; 2009). If the paddy was broad, you could call yourself Hirota (wide paddy); high, Takada (high paddy); near a shrine or temple, Miyata (shrine-paddy) or Terada (temple- paddy) — and so on and on.

Or you might (with your village priest to guide you) seize on some other physical feature of the local landscape and use it as part of your new name — sawa (swamp or mountain stream), kawa (river), yama (mountain), no or hara (dry field), matsu (pine), sugi (cedar), kuri (chestnut). If the swamp or mountain stream was small — Ozawa; big — Ohzawa. Combine a stream and a field and you get Nozawa; a stream and a pine tree and it’s Matsuzawa.

It’s easy to imagine the process becoming fun as people got into the spirit of things. It was, after all, an ancient spirit. Plutschow discusses the names peasants gave their fields, combining auspicious kanji characters that, in keeping with the animistic powers that names were supposed to have, would make the land productive.

He states: “From a document of Kumikaze manor dated 1324, for example, we find the following (field) names: Yukiyoshi (Good Going), Tomokichi (Common Good), Masayoshi (Real Good).”

Is your house at the north end of a dry field? Then why not become a Kitano? At the west end? Nishino. Is there a well or other water source below? You are hereby dubbed Inoue (literally, “above the well”).

Yamagishi (mountain coast), Nagai (long well), Taniguchi (valley entrance) . . . the possibilities are endless. If anything similar had occurred in Korea and China, they too would be awash in surnames.

Samurai no less than commoners had to scramble for identity. Among the first initiatives taken by the infant Meiji government, Plutschow notes, was the abolition in 1869 of “most surnames recognized by the Tokugawa shogunate.” The new order “recognized only the surnames of those who served the new government.”

“You have to be careful about names,” Plutschow cautioned in an e-mail exchange, “and remind yourself that most Japanese assumed their family names in the early Meiji Period. Even if you are a Sato now, whether you were one in the Edo Period is questionable and retraceable only in a few cases.”

Altogether, 89.5 percent of Japanese surnames, Plutschow calculates, derive from or mimic place names — names of villages, of village neighborhoods, of old provinces (there were 66 provinces in pre-Meiji Japan), of modern prefectures (there are 47). Top five among the latter, according to the researcher Morioka, are Yamaguchi (ranking 14th overall), Ishikawa (27th), Miyazaki (67th), Chiba (87th) and Fukushima (133rd).

There are, naturally, occupational surnames, many rooted in the ancient clans that ruled their territories more or less independently before submitting to Imperial rule in a gradual process culminating in the seventh-century Taika Reform.

The most powerful clans — those claiming descent from heavenly deities — named themselves after the territories they ruled; clans with a less impressive ancestry took professional names identifying distinctive occupational skills. The Hattori were weavers, the Akazome dyers, the Kaji smiths, the Inukai (a prime minister of that name was assassinated in 1932) dog breeders.

The Wataribe are of particular interest. Watari means “a crossing”; be means something like “guild.” The Wataribe ran ferry services all over Japan in the days before bridges. We know their descendants and namesakes today by another form of their name — Watanabe.

“In one village,” Plutschow says, “the priest was reading the ‘Taiko Ki,’ Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s biography, when he was approached by villagers seeking surnames. He gave them surnames of ‘Taiko Ki’ heroes: Hashiba, Kinoshita, Kato, Katagiri, Shibata, Sakuma, Oda, Matsushita and Hachisuka.” What’s the point of a name if it doesn’t set you apart from your fellows? The Kims, Lees and Parks of Korea must sometimes wonder; the Satos, Suzukis and Takahashis of Japan probably don’t.

Sato is Japan’s commonest surname, but even so, only 2 million of the nation’s 125 million souls answer to it — as do 1.8 million to Suzuki. Even where they are most concentrated, in Akita and Yamagata prefectures, Satos make up only 7 percent of the population, says Morioka. That’s high, but not high enough to overwhelm a person’s individuality.

The kanji character to is significant, Morioka explains. It suggests a link to the Fujiwara clan — “to” is also read “fuji.” The Fujiwara clan in effect, if not quite officially, ruled Japan throughout the Heian Period (794-1185). Three of the top 10 names (Sato, Ito, Kato), and 10 of the top 100, end in “to,” or its equivalent, “do.” The Fujiwara cut a broad swath in their day, and claims of Fujiwara descent — clear, shadowy or outright fictitious — are a big part of the history of Japanese surnames.

As Morioka tells it, one branch of the Fujiwara clan in the mid-Heian Period acceded to the hereditary court office that might be translated as “Judge of the Left Guard.” “Left” is written with the character sa. “Sa” plus the Fujiwara “to” equals Sato.

Down the centuries, the original Satos flourished as samurai of high, but not the highest, rank. It was their comparatively modest status that enabled them to confer their name upon their vassals. The great daimyo refrained as a rule from doing that — the greater the name, the stricter the taboos surrounding it. That is why there are so many Satos and so few Tokugawas, Toyotomis and Ashikagas.

The original Suzukis were a family of Shinto priests in Kumano, in today’s Mie and Wakayama prefectures. Plutschow recounts their mythological origins: Three brothers were confronted by a deity riding a dragon. One brother made an offering of hackberry (enoki) trees and received the name Enomoto, moto meaning “source.” The second brother offered round mochi rice cakes and was named Maruko, “round child.” The third brother offered rice ears and was named Suzuki — “rice ear” in the Kumano dialect.

Suzuki descendants became priests of the Kumano shrines and also, apparently, warriors. The Kumano cult spread east; so did the Suzuki name. Suzuki today is the leading name in eight eastern prefectures, says Morioka; it is comparatively rare in western Japan — except in Wakayama Prefecture.

Takahashi, says Morioka, is Japan’s commonest surname among those originating as a place name — not one single place name, in fact, but several.

The name means “high bridge.” Bridges in early Japan were rare enough, most river crossings being done by ferry, so the existence of one might well work its way into a district or shrine name and the surnames of the local elite. Plutschow traces a Takahashi clan back to the eighth century — serving, he says, “in the Catering Bureau of the Imperial Household Ministry.”

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