“How do you do, my name is Saito Ichiro Sama-no-kami Minamoto-no-Ason Tadayoshi.”

We can be grateful to the reformers of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) for cutting Japanese names down to size. Renaming the Japanese people was part and parcel of their overthrow of feudalism. The system currently in use — surname followed by personal name — comes so naturally to us we tend to forget its revolutionary impact. The way the Japanese identify themselves today would have shocked their ancestors.

The Mr. Saito introducing himself above is imaginary, but his name, long enough to overwhelm a modern meishi (business card), was typical in pre-Meiji samurai or upper-class peasant circles. (Yes, contrary to popular supposition, most commoners had full names, sometimes very imposing ones).

Here’s how it breaks down: Saito, the family name, refers to a real or fictitious ancestor’s official post as head of ritual purification (sai) at Ise Grand Shrine in present-day Mie Prefecture, the nation’s holiest Shinto site. Ichiro, meaning “first-born son” (just as Jiro means “second son,” Saburo “third son,” and so on) isn’t so much a name, as it would be today, as a kind of decoy — more on that in a moment. Sama-no-kami means “Head of the Left Horse Stables,” an ancient title evocative of ancestry serving in the Imperial Palace, where all duties were divided for symmetry into “left” and “right.” Minamoto is a clan name. Ason is another ancient title, of the sort known as kabane — there were eight in all, awarded to clan chieftains most eligible for hereditary government office. And Tadayoshi is the personal name, whose utterance in everyday situations that decoy “Ichiro” made unnecessary. Why was that desirable? Because in Japan until the Meiji Era, personal names — used sparingly even today — were taboo.

There is no Western equivalent to the Japanese name-taboo. Westerners think of names as John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century British philosopher, defined them: “Meaningless marks set upon things (or persons) to distinguish them from one another.”

That’s more or less what the Meiji name-revolution made of Japanese names. But Japan’s past had been radically different in that respect.

“In many ancient cultures, names are animistic,” explains Herbert Plutschow, an eminent authority on the subject. “They were believed to be identical with the essence of things . . . The name was the thing and the thing the name.”

So it was in Japan of old.

“Given the identity of man, territory and name,” Plutschow writes in his 1995 book “Japan’s Name Culture,” “people treated names as sacred and surrounded them with taboo. Names were given and treated with the care and circumspection typical when dealing with things sacred and powerful . . . . Misuse of names (could) bring forth nefarious results, hence the need to control these sacred forces with ritual and taboo.”

A 12th-century episode involving a carelessly titled poetry anthology illustrates the point. It was called “Shika Wakashu.” The shi of shika means “words,” but is a homonym of the kanji character for “death.” When, shortly after the anthology’s release, both the Emperor who had commissioned it and the poet who had compiled it died, the sages of the day had little doubt as to the reason.

It is not strictly true to say that this kind of thinking has no Western equivalent. Sigmund Freud found one, and gave it a name — neurosis. “Obsessional neurotics,” he wrote in “Totem and Taboo” (1913), “behave exactly like savages in relation to names . . . One of these taboo patients of my acquaintance had adopted a rule against writing her own name, for fear that it might fall into the hands of someone who would then be in possession of a portion of her personality.” European kings in the 15th century began requiring their subjects to assume surnames, the better to supervise, tax and conscript them.

Some 400 years later, Meiji Japan followed suit, and for similar reasons. But pre-Meiji Japan moved to different rhythms. Its name-animism and name taboos turned a name into a special mark of divine or (what was perhaps not so different) political favor, bestowed only on those deemed deserving. Once conferred, it was to be used as sparingly as possible.

Custom and decree combined to constrict the diffusion of names, from the ninth-century Emperor Ninmyo’s injunction, “If there is anyone in the nation’s provinces whose name coincides with the Emperor’s name, he must change his name,” to supreme warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s so-called sword hunt of 1587 — a rigid class system (samurai, peasant, artisan and merchant, in that order) whose clearest symbol was a ban on non-samurai bearing either swords or surnames. (The surname ban, as we shall see, was honored more in the breach than in the observance.)

“Given the awesome power of animistic language and its intricate system of references,” Plutschow observes, “the Japanese have preferred to avoid direct naming.”

Emperors, holders of the most sacred names of all, were never addressed by them; 20th-century Western journalists broke the mold with Emperor Showa, blithely referring to him by his taboo personal name Hirohito, just as 400 years earlier the first Europeans in Japan had ignorantly — certainly not defiantly, since their own kings, queens and popes were known by their first names — addressed the likes of Hideyoshi by his name rather than by his title. That was something no Japanese would have dared do.

It makes for an eerie, formless world, this aversion to personal names — at least it does to moderns, foreign and Japanese alike.

The 11th-century classic “The Tale of Genji” mirrors it well. Imagine a 1,000-page novel, almost none of whose 430-odd characters is ever identified by a personal name, though modern translations generally assign fixed “names” in the interest of readability.

Characters in the original are referred to by transient nicknames or by titles — “captain,” “councilor,” “mistress of the west wing,” and so on — which change as they are promoted or demoted, and are shared by many besides. The royal characters are known by numbers: First Prince, Second Princess. Lady Rokujo, one of Genji’s conquests, takes the name she is traditionally known by from her residence on Kyoto’s Rokujo (Sixth Avenue). Genji himself goes by his various titles; he is rarely named in the original text.

And Murasaki Shikibu is not the “name” of the court lady who wrote the Tale: Murasaki means “purple” and is one of the nicknames given to the novel’s fictional heroine, Genji’s consort; Shikibu refers to the Ministry of Ceremonial (Shikibusho), where the author’s father had served.

Prior to 1875, when the Meiji reformers “modernized” the entire system (or, if we accept Freud’s terminology, cured it of its neuroses), Japanese children received their taboo personal name not at birth but in an initiation ceremony held for boys at 15, for girls at 13.

Modern first names like Ichiro (first son) and Jiro (second son) are reminders of earlier times when these were convenient substitutes for tabooed personal names. There were equivalents for girls — Aneko, for example, meaning “first daughter”; but girls seem on the whole to have drawn more interesting everyday name-substitutes such as Ako (Cute), or — more interesting still — Kusako (literally, “Shit Child”). The point was not to disparage females but, explains Plutschow, “to keep demons away from them.” Boys on occasion were vulnerable to similar protection. The 10th-century poet Ki no Tsurayuki was known in infancy as Akoguso — “Cute Little Shit.”

Early Japan was a loose agglomeration of some 1,000 clans paying vague deference to the Emperor — a deference stoked by essentially meaningless but dignifying Imperial titles, of which the “Ason” displayed by our fictitious Mr. Saito above was one.

That arrangement (though not the titles) came to an end with Japan’s first revolution, a centralizing drive known as the Taika Reform, whose opening act was a palace coup in 645. Prime architect of the coup, and of the ensuing constitution that (in theory at least) invested absolute, nationwide power in the Emperor, was one Nakatomi no Kamatari (614-669).

The Nakatomi clan in ages past had been high-ranking Shinto ritualists. Buddhism eclipsed them after it arrived from Korea and its supporters gained increasing influence at court. But with the coup, the Nakatomi were on the cusp of new power and prosperity. Symbolic of fresh beginnings, the Emperor, in gratitude for Kamatari’s backing, accorded the clan a new name.

Like most clan names, and in accord with the age-old Shinto view of land as being divine, the name was toponymic — a place name, that of the Fujiwara region of the Nara Plain. For centuries thereafter the Fujiwara carried all before them. They presided over the brilliant cultural flowering of the Heian Period (794-1185), in which Murasaki Shikibu and Ki no Tsurayuki — to name only two literary luminaries — flourished.

By marrying their daughters to emperors, the Fujiwara effectively controlled the throne, so dominating the court bureaucracy and its hereditary offices that some designation more precise than “Fujiwara” became necessary.

How to distinguish one Fujiwara branch from another? A device we noticed in the “The Tale of Genji” seemed to come naturally — ministers were referred to by the location of their residences: Ichijo (First Avenue), Nijo (Second Avenue) and so on. Thus Fujiwara no Michinaga, the greatest power in the land around the time Murasaki Shikibu was serving at court and writing her masterpiece, was known in his own day as Mido Kampaku — Mido referring to a temple he built and at which for a time he resided, Kampaku being his title, one translation of which is “civil dictator.”

Because Fujiwara ministers commonly resided on the estates of their wives’ families, these “names” (Ichijo, Nijo, and so on) were not transmitted down the generations, and so cannot properly be called surnames. But in them at least the notion of surnames was born. It was to mature later as family groups solidified at the expense of the more unwieldy clans they emerged from amid the political chaos of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

No equivalent evolution occurred in China or Korea, which is why Japan today has so many more surnames than its closest neighbors and cultural parents.

Two other Heian Period clans must be mentioned, if only because their names are famous even now. These are the Minamoto and the Taira. Both were offshoots of the Imperial family, claiming descent from ninth-century ancestors born royal but, as younger sons, divested of royal status.

Three hundred years later, with the Fujiwara in decline, they fought Japan’s first and greatest civil war. The Minamoto emerged victorious to inaugurate the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and spawn the unique breed of warrior-noble known as the samurai.

Our Mr. Saito, we notice, claims (probably fictitiously) Minamoto ancestry.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press, 2008). His Web site is at www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com

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