Language | BILINGUAL

Getting to know Japan on a first-name basis

by Peter Backhaus

Contributing Writer

Once upon a time there was a husband and a wife who had three boys. The first one was called 太郎 (Tarō; literally, “big boy”), the second one 二郎 (Jirō, “second boy”), and the third one 三郎 (Saburō, “third boy”). Although all three of them had a happy childhood, young Jirō never could quite understand why their parents had given them such commonplace names. And so when the time came to have his own children — two boys and a girl — he called them 伊作 (Isaku, Isaac), 麗王 (Reiō, Leo), and 恵令奈 (Erena, Elena).

This is not the beginning of a Japanese fairy tale a la “Peach Boy” 桃太郎 (Momotarō), but a true story, recounted to me years later by one of Jirō’s kids. I’m divulging it here because it recaptures in a nutshell a few general characteristics of Japanese name-giving practices.

The most comprehensive source with respect to given names is the annually updated ranking by the Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. (www.meijiyasuda.co.jp/enjoy/ranking) The database offers various categories, including a chronological overview of the top 10 names for boys and girls from the present back to 1912.

To start with girls’ names, the most remarkable trend has been the rise and fall of the character 子 (ko, child). While names like 和子 (Kazuko, 1930s and ’40s), 恵子 (Keiko, 1950s), 由美子 (Yumiko, 1960s) and a number of others were all the hype in the middle decades of the past century, few such names have made the top 10 since the late 1980s. Recent years have seen only slight signs of recovery, with names like 桃子 (Momoko), 菜々子 (Nanako) and, most recently, 莉子 (Riko).

Another interesting phenomenon, observable in the early days of the database, is female names written in the katakana script, for example キヨ (Kiyo) or ヨシ (Yoshi), a practice that from today’s point of view appears somewhat odd. As witnessed by the current popularity of names like さくら (Sakura) and ひなた (Hinata), nowadays femininity is commonly associated with the hiragana script.

As for boys, it is interesting to see how generations of parents were eager to relate their kids’ names to the imperial era they were born into. An example is the high occurrence of the names Shōichi, Seiichi, Masakazu, Masaichi and a couple of others in 1912. All of these are written 正一, which marks the first year of the 大正 (Taishō) Era (1912-26).

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the first few years of the 昭和 (Shōwa) Era (1926-89; also see the aforementioned popularity of 和子 [Kazuko]), though nothing comparable occurred in 1989 when the era changed from Showa to Heisei. Remarkable, however, is the strong increase in use of the character 悠 ( or hisa), which is most likely related to the birth of Prince 悠仁 (Hisahito), Emperor Akihito’s first grandson, in 2006.

A controversial, much-discussed issue is the trend, for both boys and girls, toward so-called キラキラネーム (kirakira nēmu), “glittering” names in which the kanji characters chosen have little to do with how they are actually read. One example, just to show how it works, is 黄熊, meaning “golden bear.” In allusion to the world’s most famous bear character, the child’s parents want this to be read ぷう (Pū, as in Winnie-the-Pooh).

An entirely different approach to finding out about common names of an era is to look at placeholder names as they occur in instructions on how to fill in forms at companies, schools, offices, etc. I randomly selected 50 such 記入例 (ki’nyū-rei, fill-in examples) from the web and analyzed what given names were chosen for the model males and females they contained.

As with many things, there is a gender bias in my data, with 14 females as opposed to 36 males. With respect to the former, the most common name was Hanako, which occurred a total of nine times in three variations: the standard 花子, the kana-ized はな子, and the Romanized “Hanako,” given on two applications for overseas matters. Though the sample is rather small, this strongly suggests that the Japanese version of Jane Doe goes by the name of Hanako.

And what about her male counterpart, Japan’s John Doe? Here, too, the picture is quite clear. The default name for model males, used in the forms a total of 18 times in kanji plus once in Roman alphabet, is none other than Tarō (太郎), our “big boy” from the opening.

So even though the name never made it to the top of the name ranking, we can now understand why his brother Jirō took issue with the way he and his brothers were named by their parents — and why he looked West for entirely different names for his own kids.