While clearing closets at my parents’ house in Nara in December following my mother’s death the month before, I came across a large square card in a pile of old documents. A snapshot of a baby looking at a birthday cake was glued in the center of the card, and I recognized that it was me at the time of my first birthday.

Interestingly, surrounding the picture my parents and relatives had written a few words expressing their best wishes for me. The message from my mom, written in red ink, read: “We named you Tomoko, with hopes that you’ll grow into a person as honest and pleasantly fresh as morning.”

My name is written using the two kanji — characters in Japanese based on Chinese ideographs — of 朝 (tomo) and 子 (ko). The first character means “morning,” and the second means “child” — so in English I am “Morning Child.”

Like many other people in Japan, my parents expressed, by choosing those kanji, certain aspirations or character traits they wished for me in life.

Today, I’m not sure if I’ve lived up to my mom’s expectations. I would like to believe I’m honest — but pleasantly fresh?

One thing, though, is beyond dispute: I was surely a child of my time. That’s because, between 30 and 40 years ago, Tomoko was one of the nation’s most popular female names.

In 1976, ’77 and ’79, in fact, a survey showed that Tomoko topped the popularity ranking — though the “tomo” part was written using the character 智, which suggests “wisdom” or “wit” and is different from the one in my name. But in the mid-1980s, along with many other “ko” names, Tomoko disappeared off the popularity list. Now, among 21st-century newborns, it is almost extinct.

As that short case study of just the name Tomoko clearly shows, Japanese given names have changed dramatically over the years, reflecting the collective consciousness of each generation and the dire needs of society at that time. Although other cultures also display trends in given names, some linguists and naming experts in Japan are expressing concerns over the liberal new ways in which parents are increasingly reading and pronouncing their children’s names written in kanji.

But before the controversy, the changes.

The best indicator of naming trends in Japan is a survey conducted every year by the Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. Drawing on data from its 10 million-plus policyholders, the major insurer annually makes public a list of popular names [see accompanying graphic]. In fact, those lists now go back a century — to 1912, when Emperor Meiji (明治) passed away and the reign of Emperor Taisho (大正) began.

That year, many people must have been mindful of the Imperial succession, because Meiji Yasuda’s survey shows that the most popular name for boys born in 1912 was Shoichi (正一), which features the shō (正) character, meaning “right” or “just,” from the Emperor’s name. To that was added ichi (一), which means “one,” signifying the first year of the Taisho Era (1912-26).

Not surprisingly, the following year’s most popular name for baby boys was Shoji (正二), comprising the same kanji character from the name of the Emperor with (二), which means “two,” tagged on instead. Then, with startling predictability, the name that topped the popularity ranking for boys born in 1914, the third year of the Taisho Era, was Shozo (正三), since the character 三 means “three.” Meanwhile, the most popular name for girls born in 1913 was Masako (正子), because that same kanji “正” can also be read as “masa.”

Likewise, the death of Emperor Taisho and the subsequent ascent to the Imperial throne of Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously in Japan as Emperor Showa), on Dec. 25, 1926, resulted in a rush of parents naming their sons after him, with a spike in the names of babies bearing the kanji 昭 (shō), meaning “bright” or “calm,” from 昭和 (shōwa), a compound kanji taken from the teachings of Confucius that translates as “calm and peaceful.

But as Japan dug itself deeper into the mire of militarism and then World War II, nationalism crept into the names people chose for their children, as Kunio Makino, a naming expert for the Japanese Web portal “All About,” and the author of many books on the subject, has observed.

“Toward the end of the war, many baby boys were named Isamu (勇), which means ‘courage’ or ‘bravery,’ and Masaru (勝), which means ‘victory,’ ” Makino said. “And in the years immediately after the war, as people tried to rebuild their lives from devastation, many boys were named Minoru (稔), Shigeru (茂), and Yutaka (豊) — all of which are associated with rich harvests and prosperity. It shows how people didn’t have enough to eat back then.”

As for girls’ names, it was overwhelmingly the case throughout the Taisho Era and the early years of the succeeding Showa Era for them to include the kanji 子 (ko) as a suffix. In fact, ordinary people became fond of using “ko” names for their girls — which had previously been allowed only for Imperial family members — when the dawn of the Meiji Era followed the ousting of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the move to constitutional monarchy in 1868.

Meanwhile, when it enacted the Family Register Law in 1898, the Meiji government, as part of attempts to rapidly modernize and Westernize the country, made it mandatory for each individual to have both a family name and a given name. Prior to that, people could change their name almost at will and few outside the ruling class even had a family name.

So changing times are reflected in the changing popularity of given names, as was again evident during the nation’s massive economic bubble period of the early to mid-1980s. Then, while students played hard into the night, salarymen’s working hours often extended well into the small hours, too, as they entertained clients at bars and clubs — and on golf courses on weekends. With so much disruption to people’s lives being the norm at that time, the names given to babies reflected people’s cravings for warmth in the family, Makino points out — with many girls being named Ai (愛), meaning “love.”

In contrast, names these days show that people living in what has become an extremely urbanized society miss their links with nature, Makino says. This can be observed in the proliferation of kanji such as 翔 (shō), meaning “flying,” 海 (kai), which means “ocean,” and 空 (taka), meaning “sky.”

So how do parents decide on names for their babies? Well, there’s no shortage of methodologies out there to help with their selection, and many people actually combine two or more of them.

Sachiko Hoshino, a mother of two in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, says she came up with the name Shiori (栞) for her baby girl — the couple’s first — when she was born five years ago. She consulted naming books and found that the word’s original meaning was “guidepost” — though its most common meaning in spoken Japanese today is “bookmark.”

“She was a girl we had waited for for seven years,” Hoshino, 38, said. “It might sound a strange thing to hope for your child, but I wanted her to guide the family, or give us a blessing.”

Of course, Hoshino also liked the sound of Shiori, but before making a final decision on it she referred to books on seimei handan (fortune-telling from a person’s full name), which explained how the number of strokes needed to write the kanji characters determines the kind of character the name-bearer will have.

Although the field of seimei handan encompasses many schools of thought, the basic idea is to add the number of strokes it takes to write the characters of the name — whether it’s bestowed in kanji or kana (the two other non-Roman writing systems in Japanese, which are katakana and hiragana). For example, my given name is made up of 15 strokes, which, according to Makino’s book, would nurture a “broad-minded and generous person with lots of support from people all around her.”

Besides reams of books, there’s now also a plethora of free Web sites claiming to know how lucky names are; all you need to do is type in candidate names, and up pops an instant assessment of what the fates may hold.

These days, too, a growing number of parents are seeking out names that sound natural in other cultures, or will at least spare their children embarrassment if their life’s course takes them overseas.

Michiko Torii, a 34-year-old mother of two in Minato Ward, Tokyo, recalls changing her mind about her son’s name at the last minute — in fact right before she and her husband registered it at the Ward Office in August last year. At first, she decided to name him Keito after a childhood neighbor’s name that she thought was nice. But then she realized that, in an English-speaking country, it could sound like Kate — unequivocally a girl’s name. So the couple crossed out Keito and wrote Keisuke in place of it on the official papers instead.

Another consideration for the Toriis, as for many other parents in Japan, was to use kanji that would not involve too many strokes, because if they chose ones that were too heavy-looking, or congested, it would be time-consuming to write in school exams, which would leave less time for the child to tackle the questions.

Staff at municipal government offices normally screen names submitted on birth-registration requests and accept them if they are written using hiragana, katakana or characters from a government-approved list of 2,997 kanji.

From that list, many parents choose a combination of one to three kanji characters, often looking up their meanings in books and dictionaries. Before settling on the final choice, they also consider how various possibilities would sound, look and read. For instance, if the parents’ family name in kanji is very heavy-looking, many would prefer a given name for their child which involved fewer, or more open strokes with space between them.

In addition, unlike Western names, which often have biblical associations, Japanese ones include kanji with a wide range of connotations, including the four seasons — 春 (spring), 夏 (summer), 秋 (autumn) and 冬 (winter) — and virtues such as 真 (truthful), 仁 (considerate), 直 (straight) and 美 (beautiful), to name just a few.

Despite this apparent wealth of choices, however, some scholars argue that the list of kanji allowed for given names is still restricted compared to almost zero limit on kanji allowed for family names.

A panel of experts under the Justice Ministry periodically reviews the kanji list, and has in the past taken such characters as 糞 (feces), 屍 (corpse), 癌 (cancer) and 痔(hemorrhoid) off the list. You might wonder who in the world would even toy with the idea of using such characters in names, but from time to time some parents do beggar belief.

The most high-profile case in which parents fought with authorities over naming freedom concerned a boy born in Tokyo in the summer of 1993.

According to news reports from that time, a couple in Akishima City in western Tokyo tried to register their son with the name Akuma (悪魔) — which means “devil.” At first, the Akishima city office accepted the request, because neither of the two kanji characters — 悪 nor 魔 — was forbidden. But then it changed its stance after the Justice Ministry’s Tokyo bureau got wind of it and determined that the name “deviates sharply from the concepts of human names.”

The parents, though, were determined to to name the baby Akuma, and the issue was widely reported in the vernacular media and sparked a nationwide debate. Finally, as the controversy grew, the couple settled on Aku, which was written as 亜 (a) — whose meanings include “secondary” and “Asia” — and 駆 (ku) — meaning “race” or “run.”

Though that request was eventually accepted the outcome was not without its innuendo. That is because the kanji 駆 that is generally simply read as “ku” is a two-component kanji made up of 区 (ku), meaning “divide,” and 馬 (ma), which means “horse.” Consequently, though the baby’s name-kanji do not carry any devilish meaning, they can still appear as “A-ku-ma” — which, when pronounced, means “devil.”

Makino, who recalls being bombarded with interview requests from the media when the Akuma controversy heated up, says parents who insist on odd names tend to suffer from inferiority complexes or a sense of hopelessness about their own lives. In the past, some of the names his clients have sounded out with him for their babies have included Takkuru (after “tackle,” by a rugby-fanatic dad), Taigasu (by one who said “I’m a fan of Hanshin Tigers” [baseball team in Osaka]) and Hokkaido (suggested “because I live in Hokkaido”).

“I advised against them all,” said Makino, who has given more than 100,000 consultations to prospective parents. “You cannot name your kids just because you like baseball or rugby, because you never know whether they will be sports-oriented or not.

“I think people who come up with bizarre names for their children tend to feel that they couldn’t live the life they wanted to, and they feel that they have been hindered by many rules and restrictions. The only freedom they have at their disposal, they think, is the right to name their child.”

Besides the wacky or plain bizarre, though, a further headache awaiting many babies as they grow up is that an increasing number of parents are exploiting a loophole in the law that fails to dictate how kanji in names are to be read and pronounced using kana.

Since most kanji can convey numerous meanings, and so be read in numerous ways, parents trying to make their offspring stand out are opting for unconventional ways in kana to read the kanji used for their name. Consequently, they are often anointing them with a name that, when read in kanji, others can only guess at.

Let’s take Meiji Yasuda’s survey again, for example. 大翔 has been among the most popular names for boys in the last few years. Boys with that name used to be called Hiroto. But recently it has also begun to be read as: Haruto, Yamato, Daito, Taiga, Sora, Taito, Daito and Masato. Likewise, the female baby name that topped the 2011 popularity-ranking list was 陽菜, but its readings ranged from Hina, Haruna and Hinata to Yua, Yuua, Yuina and Yume.

Because Japan does not have a custom of putting kana alongside people’s kanji names in many official records, including the family register, this has caused untold confusion and has led to mistakes being made in identifying people by government officials, teachers and so on.

Yet some parents have taken the quest for uniqueness even further by assigning names whose kana pronunciation cannot even be guessed by anyone not told what it is.

Minoru Sato, a professor of Japanese philology at Akita University, observes that this trend, which surfaced about 20 years ago, has spun out of control in the past few years. And names are something in life that people find hard to criticize, he said, noting that the trend likely has something to do with the rapidly rising number of nuclear families, in which grandparents and other members are losing their traditional clout.

“Parents in a nuclear family don’t have their own parents or in-laws around to give opinions or pressure them to name their children in certain ways,” said Sato, who in 2007 wrote a book titled “Yominikui Namae wa Naze Fuetaka” (“Why We See More Hard-to-read Names”) about this issue.

“They don’t have anyone who would give them naming advice (based on common sense),” he said. In addition, he noted, “It used to be common in families to partially adopt a forebear’s name, such as by incorporating one kanji character from the father’s name, which had also been taken from the father’s — so they’d share the same kanji over generations.

“Nowadays, though, such traditions are almost entirely gone. Parents today name their children in whatever ways they like, treating kanji as symbols of images they want to get across. They are often inspired by names they see in the media, whether it’s novels, TV dramas, manga or anime.”

Sato even sees this as a threat to the kanji culture in this country. “We teach our children in school how to read kanji, both the on-reading (Chinese-reading) and the kun-reading (Japanese-reading) styles,” he said. “But with names, there is no system in place for learning how to read them. It might make for some fun wordplays, but I’m worried that people will lose interest in learning kanji seriously.”

What people can’t or don’t want to be seen criticizing in person, they nowadays do anonymously on the Web. For instance, an online bulletin-board at dqname.jp — which goes by the name of “DQN-Nemu — Aa Kanchigai, Kodomo ga Kawaiso” (“DQN-Names, Alas, They Get It So Wrong, Poor Kids”) — lists and ranks the so-called DQN names. DQN is Internet slang meaning “idiotic.” While the anonymous nature of the site makes it hard to tell whether all of the crazy names listed there actually exist, it shows how some people find the need to share their shocks and sneers at well-intended, but hard-to-decipher names.

True, silly names probably exist across all cultures, with a 2010 survey commissioned by “BabyWebsite” listing some of Britain’s most unfortunate names, such as Stan Still, Hazel Nutt, Barb Dwyer and Justin Case. But this whole quandary in Japan over the figurative and phonetic complexities of kanji use in names is probably unique to this country.

Makino says people should give it plenty of thought before naming their children because the names will be used by many others and not just them and the bearers. And once given, names are hard to change. To do so in Japan involves having a name-change request approved by family courts — who must be convinced there are “valid” reasons necessitating the change.

“The first generation of babies with very hard-to-read kanji names is around 20 years old now, and many of them are looking for jobs, but they are struggling,” Makino said. “Companies don’t want to hire someone whose name is impossible to read. They are the first ones to be booted out of the recruiting process, because employers suspect that they were raised by parents who lack common sense — and because their names could cause confusion in business.”

If names are now being seen to indeed have such a potentially negative impact on their bearer’s lives, perhaps coming generations of parents will set off a whole new orthodox trend in names. Either way, names will continue to provide a fascinating look into the psychology and cultures of Japan.

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