Did you know that up until 1875, the average person in Japan did not utilize a family name?
Yup... on February 13, 1875, it was made law for every Japanese person to take a family name.
It's not as weird as it sounds - no last name?
Just look to western family names such as Robertson or Samuelson. I'm just picking two random names. Basically, the family name means: Son of Robert or Son of Samuel.
It meant that if you were John Robertson and Steven Samuelson... it meant you were John son of Robert and Steven son of Samuel. It also meant that when you had a son, the family name would change.
If I am John Robertson and I have a son name Hud, he becomes Hud Johnson (Hud son of John).
I think it's cool, but infinitely confusing.
Other means of creating a family name could have been derived from the town they were born in (Joseph of Galiea, for example) or their occupation (Harry Potter).
In Japan, this 1875 revelation was a big deal for the common person.
Before this, according to Hideyoshi Toyotomi's law of 1587, all non-samurai (which was about 90% of Japan's population) were forbidden to bear swords or have surnames. Having a samurai sword and having a surname - that was for those more elite than the commoner.
For the more elite, there were family names... names for the noble-born, warrior samurai class, but the middle-class: the merchants and artisan sometimes unofficially adopted names to lend themselves a bit of class distinction—but they weren't supposed to.
There are records showing that sometimes the feudal lords (daimyo) who were a little short on tribute for the Shogun, sometimes sold surnames... though I assume this was frowned upon and probably kept hush-hush.
In fact, for a commoner to flaunt a surname would be inviting trouble, so it would be extremely rare indeed to see any signed documents from a commoner bearing given and surname.
Up until 1875... before Japan became exposed to the world, the powerful family names of Japan included: Fujiwara, Minamoto, Taira, Hojo, Ashikaga, Toyotomi, Tokugawa.
But nowadays? Only Fujiwara is ranked 47th among the top 100 Japanese family names. These rest are mere blips.
So... the commoners - who made up 90% of Japan's population - lacked a surname (family name).
In Japan, these commoners did have a given name, and would utilize the above methods of description for a family name: the place they were from or their occupation.
But... with the advent of the law to have a family name in 1875, the common folk sort of went a bit crazy and picked whatever name they wanted.
This means they could have chosen:
- the family name of one of the upper class families;
- one created by a priests at a local temple;
- one they made up themselves.
Consider, if you will that China only has maybe 3,000 surnames, Korea has about 200. And forget about that dumb joke about "my wife is so fat she has more Chins than a Korean telephone book". The Top five surnames in South Korea cover 55% of the population: Kim, Lee, Park, Choi and Jung.
Middle names are still not common in Japan, which was why I - with my five names in total - was oohed and ahhed at by many of the junior high school classes I taught at.
When asked 'why' I had so many names, I couldn't think of a logical answer except to say that it ensured I was more of an individual, rather than one of many... an alien concept to many Japanese, as the nail that stands up gets hammered down.
Anyhow... names such as Chinen, Higa or Shimabukuro appear to be common on the faraway Japanese island of Okinawa... and do not tend to show up anywhere else in Japan (unless a person has left Okinawa).
When choosing last names, nature plays a huge role: Names such as Suzuki (bell tree), Yamaishi (mountain island) Kurokawa (black river), are all variations of a theme.
And... because everyone loves laws, on March 17, 1876 a new law says: spouses must both keep their original family (maiden) names. The men kept the last name... and the women kept the last name. And when they got married, they maintained whatever name they had when they entered the union.
There was no hyphenating a name.
It's like in my house. Wife's name is family Raby (probably derived from poor folks living in the shadow of Raby Castle (built in England in the 14th century), and my family name is Joseph. My son is simply known as Hudson Joseph. Not Hudson Raby-Joseph.
This was a short-lived Japanese decision, however as Japanese chauvinism reared its head in 1898 when the country opted top return to the old civil law requiring a wife to adopt her husband's family name.
Here is some data from the Shirōka Lab of the Department of Humanities, Shizuoka University, who have denoted the Top 30 Family Names In Japan:
1 Sato - (佐藤): Means: 'Help Wisteria'
Common in eastern Hokkaido, in Tohoku (Akita in [articular), in eastern Kyushu, but not many in Kansai (Osaka & Hyogo Prefectures); rather unusual in Okinawa. The name comes from the Fujiwara clan.
2 Suzuki - (鈴木): Means 'Bell Tree'
Common in Aichi (Mikawa in particular) and in northeastern and southern Kanto (Shizuoka Prefecture); most common surname in the southern Kanto region. Not common in Kyushu and Okinawa.
3 Takahashi - (高橋): Means 'High Bridge'
Most common in the Tohoku region (particularly around Kitakami in Iwate Prefecture) and in Shikoku.
4 Watanabe - (渡辺): Means 'Crossing the river Bank'
Originated in Osaka City's Chuo Ward, common all over Japan except for Okinawa; nowadays more common in eastern Japan, in particular in Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures as well as Chukyo and Kyushu regions.
5 Tanaka - (田中): Means 'In Middle Of The Rice Paddy'
Common all over Japan, but - except for Okinawa - more frequent in western Japan (in particular the Sannin region); most common family name in Fukuoka and Osaka Prefectures. In eastern Japan very common in the Hiki region, in Saitama (Iruma in particular) and the Koshinetsu region (Nagano Prefecture) as well as Hokkaido.
6 Ito - (伊藤): Means 'That Wisteria'
Found mainly in the Chukyo, Tohoku, Kanto, Sannin and Kinki regions; very common in Aichi and Mie Prefectures; highest number in any Japanese city found in Nagoya.
7 Yamamoto - (山本): Means 'Mountain Base'
Common in western and northeastern Japan; most common surname in the Hokuriku region (Sanyo), the Sanin region (Kinki); in eastern Japan more common in Saitama and Shizuoka Prefectures.
8 Nakamura - (中村): Means 'Middle of the Village'
Common all over Japan, with a higher rate in western regions, in particular Kinki and Kyushu.
9 Kobayashi - (小林): Mean 'Small Forest/Woods'
Common in the Kanto, Shinetsu, Kinki and Chugoku regions.
10 Saito - (斎藤): Means 'True Wisteria'
Very common in northeast Japan.
11 Kato - (加藤): Means 'Growing Wisteria'
Originating in old Kaga (now Ishikawa Prefecture), but not many in the Hokuriku region, common in the Chukyo region.
12 Yoshida - (吉田): Means 'Joyful Rice Field'
Originated in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward, commmon all over Japan escept for Okinawa, most common in Hokuriku, Kinki and Shikoku.
13 Yamada - (山田): Means 'Mountain Rice Field'
Evenly distributed all over Japan.
14 Sasaki - (佐々木): Means 'Helpful Tree'
Originated in Yonehara City, Shiga Prefecture, common in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Chugoku regions and in Fukui Prefecture.
15 Yamaguchi - (山口): Means "Mountain
Common all over Japan, with higher precentage in western Kyushu; the most common prefectural name that is also used as surname.
16 Matsumoto - (松本): Came from the place name.
Very common in western Japan and in Kanto.
17 Inoue - (井上): Means 'Above the Well'
Very common in western Japan.
18 Kimura - (木村): Means 'Tree Village'
Common all over the country except for Okinawa.
19 Hayashi - (林): Means 'Woods'
Very common in the Hokuriku and Kinki regions as well as in Yamanashi Prefecture.
20 Shimizu - (清水): Means 'Pure Water'
Found throughout Japan, especially in the east.
21 Yamazaki - (山崎): Means 'Mountain Cape'
Very common in western Japan.
22 Ikeda - (池田): Means 'Rice Paddy Near The Lake'
Common throughout Japan.
23 Abe - (阿部): Means 'Section Nook'
Common in the Tohoku region.
24 Mori - (森): Means 'Forest'
Common in western Japan.
25 Hashimoto - (橋本): Means 'Bridge True'.
A better translation might be 'one who lives near the bridge'. Common throughout Japan.
26 Yamashita - (山下): Means 'Mountain Below'
Common in western Japan.
27 Ishikawa - (石川): Means 'Stone River'
Found mostly in eastern Japan and the Ryūkyū Islands.
28 Nakashima - (中島): Means 'Middle Island'
Common in the Chugoku and Kyushu regions.
29 Maeda - (前田): Means 'Front Rice Paddy'
Common in western Japan.
30 Fujita - (藤田): Means 'Wisteria Rice Paddy/Field'
Common in western Japan and the Ryūkyū Islands. Some bearers descend from the Taira clan, others from the northern Fujiwara.
You will notice that a lot of these names have a 'wisteria' connection - like what's up with that? Apparently these names were chosen to show a connection to the powerful Fujiwara clan, who were also known as the wisteria clan.
The Fujiwara clan is best known for Fujiwara no Hidesato (10th century), who governed the province of Shimotsuke, which is now Tochigi-ken, from a place called Sano. My buddy Jeff Seaman lived in Sano. Regular story suggestion-maker Matthew and myself lived in Tochigi-ken, as well.
The wisteria is a nice-looking flower on a vine. In Japan young leaves of the W. floribunda are cooked and eaten, blossoms are blanched and its seeds are roasted. The seeds and leaves of the Wisteria japonica were used as a famine food... desperation food. And here's why:
The blossoms of the wisteria are edible both raw or cooked, but the rest of the plant is toxic... with as few as two seeds being enough to kill a child.
There you go... name ranks, name meaning and a bit of education on flowers or how to commit your next murder, though this blog does not recommend such actions, because that would be against the law on so many levels.