When reading longer lists of Japanese names — for example, in closing credits or attendance registers — I always have two rather contradictory impressions. On the one hand, there are a handful of very common surnames that seem to be around just everywhere. But on the other hand, you are always sure to find a name or two you feel you’ve never seen — let alone pronounced — before.

Incongruous as this may seem, both impressions have a pinch of truth to them. But, to start with, how many Japanese surnames are there anyway? This is a rather tricky question, because the total number of names crucially depends on how we decide to count them.

A first problem in this respect are surnames that sound the same but use different kanji characters. Take names with kawa (river), for instance, which can be written either 川 or 河. Accordingly, there is 川原 and 河原 for Kawahara, 川村 and 河村 for Kawamura and so forth.

Things get more complex when we include characters that technically count as the same but come in different versions. Well-known is shima (island), for which we have both 島 and the slightly busier 嶋. Another notorious candidate for uncertainty is sawa (swamp), where the traditional 澤 coexists with the simplified 沢. Does family 澤田 (Sawada) have the same surname as family 沢田 (Sawada), or will they be upset to be lumped together in this way?

Most particular in this respect are the Saitōs, whose first character, for sai, comes in no less than four different versions: 斉, 齊, 斎, and 齋. Incidentally, the former two are common in western Japan, whereas the latter are frequently found in the eastern and northeastern parts of the country.

Even if a name has identical kanji, there is still room for variation. That is because in quite a number of cases there are different readings for names that in writing look exactly the same. Thus, 高田 goes for either Takada or Takata, 河野 reads both Kawano and Kōno, and 東, for whatever reason, coexists as Higashi and Azuma. The most variegated name though is 丹生, which boasts a total of 26 different readings, including everything from Nioi to Mibu.

These are the main factors that make the counting of Japanese surnames exceedingly difficult. According to estimations by the site なまえさあち (Namae Sāchi, “Name search”; name.sijisuru.com/Columns/fnamenum), the total number thus varies between around 50,000 and 300,000, depending on how we count.

Counting problems notwithstanding, most surveys agree on the most common surnames. Here are the top 10, as given by the site 名字由来 net (Myōji Yurai net, “Surname origin net”; www.myoji-yurai.net/prefectureRanking.htm): 1) 佐藤 (Satō), 2) 鈴木 (Suzuki), 3) 高橋 (Takahashi), 4) 田中 (Tanaka), 5) 伊藤 (Itō), 6) 渡辺 (Watanabe), 7) 山本 (Yamamoto), 8) 中村 (Nakamura), 9) 小林 (Kobayashi), and 10) 加藤 (Katō).

Taken together, an approximate total of 12 million people have one of these surnames. This amounts to roughly 10 percent of the Japanese population, and thus goes some way to explain why we always find the usual suspects on these name lists.

Note that all of the top 10 names consist of two characters, and this is in fact a very clear tendency. Even among the top 100, there are only three one-character names — 林 (Hayashi), 森 (Mori), and 原 (Hara) — and only two names with three characters: 佐々木 (Sasaki) and 長谷川 (Hasegawa).

Surnames with more than three characters are extremely rare. So rare, in fact, that only one of them makes it into the top 5,000. Congratulations to the approximately 3,400 people called 勅使河原 (Teshigawara), who come in at rank 3,676 of the list. But that’s still nothing compared to the two five-character surnames known to be currently in use: 勘解由小路 (Kadenokōji) and 左衛門三郎 (Saemonsaburō). The former holds rank 92,602, while for the latter no ranking is available at all.

A list of extremely rare surnames, irrespective of length, can be found at bit.ly/hennanamae. It includes curiosities such as 辺銀 (Pengin), 鬼 (Oni, “Ogre”), and — can you believe it? — 砂糖 (Satō, “Sugar”).

Between the two houses of Satō, those with the rare, sugary surname (砂糖) and their ubiquitous peers (佐藤), there is a lot of ground to cover. This makes any list of Japanese names a most exciting read.

The top 10 Japanese surnames

  1. 佐藤 Satō
  2.  鈴木 Suzuki
  3. 高橋 Takahashi
  4.  田中 Tanaka
  5.  伊藤 Itō
  6.  渡辺 Watanabe
  7.  山本 Yamamoto
  8.  中村 Nakamura
  9.  小林 Kobayashi
  10.  加藤 Katō

In three weeks’ time, this column will take a look at Japanese first names.

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