Japanese personal names
- also ordinary people had family names all through the history

Japanese personal names consist of two parts, one given name and one family name, as in many other countries of the world (1).
(1)When we write a person's name in Japanese, family name comes first and it is followed by given name. However, when we write our name with Roman letters, we usually use the Western style sequence, namely given name and family name. However, our neighbors Koreans and Chinese keep the original sequence, family name and given name, even when they use Roman letters. They are much more loyal to their own cultural tradition!
This system officially started when Family Registration Act was put into force in 1871 so as to enable the government to mobilize soldiers. In preparation of the Act an announcement was made in the previous September that ordinary people were "permitted" to use family name. However, many people refrained from registering their family names, because the use of family name was only "permitted", but not "obliged" when the registration started.

A teacher of my elementary school once explained children that the confusion took place because poor and innocent farmers did not have family names and were at a loss what names they should adopt. In fact, there were also cases where tenant farmers asked their land owner to allow them to use the latter's family name and as a consequence all families of a village came to have a common family name.
In fact, there were cases where tenant farmers asked their land owner to allow them to use the latter's family name and as a consequence all families of a village came to have a common family name. But, that was only a small part of the total history.

I case of my family, my grand mother used to explain me proudly that , in the Edo Era, when ordinary people are not allowed to use family name publicly, a head of our family was given the privilege and right to use the family name "Okada" by Lord Maeda in Kanazawa, the richest feudal lord in the whole country. The latter part of the family name, namely "da", was adopted from the latter part of the Lord's own family name and especially granted to our family.

From such knowledge, I once believed that ordinary Japanese people did not possess family name before the Meiji Revolution (1868), exactly speaking before the entry into force of the family registration system. But, that was a total misunderstanding. All Japanese people had sorts of family names irrespective of their social class throughout the history of Japan, though some of them might have forgot their own family names towards the end of the feudal age.

I will try to make a short explanation here about the development of Japanese personal names, so that you could grasp a rough idea.

In the present world, a personal name in most cases consists oftwo parts: the part which indicates the group to which the person belongs (family name for example) and the part which is particular to the person concerned (given name for example).

"Uji" and "kabane" given by the Emperor

In order to indicate the belonging of a person to a group of people, "uji" was introduced when Japan started to form as a political entity under Daio (2) in the fifth century. In combination with "uji", "kabane" was used to express the special social rank of the person concerned. "Kabane" system was revised several times and the final version is called "yakusa no kabane" (8 sorts of kabane) which was prescribed in 646. "Uji" and "kabane" are similar to clan name and noble title respectively.
(2) "Daio" means Great King. This title started to be used at latest at the end of the fifth century, as is shown by the sword excavated from the Inariyama Kofun. Daiou was replaced by "Tenno" together with the adoption of county name Nippon at the end of the seventh century.

Here I show an example of personal name from an early period.
An example of the sixth century; the combination of clan name and personal name was usual. In this case "kabane" is used extra, because the person was in a high rank. "No" is just a conjunction.
Both "uji" and "kabane" were given by Great King or Emperor. Emperors traditionally had competence to give "sei", which consists of "uji" and "kabane", to their subordinates. The usage of "sei" indicates the close relation of the family concerned to the Imperial Family and at the same time its subordinate status(3).
(3)The imperial family does not have any kind of family name or clan name till present, because it does not subordinate to any other people.
As the authority of the Emperor was consolidated, this competence was used to replace the earlier clan names with new "sei" and to give "sei" to the ex-members of the Imperial Family. In other words, clans were reorganized under the imperial system.
An example of personal name in Nara period (714-793); the combination of sei and given name. Fujiwara clan was originally called Nakatomi, but it was given a new "uji" by Emperor Tenchi.

"Myoji" was introduced

This "uji- kabane" system came to a stalemate, as time went.

As for "uji", the total number of prevailing uji had been reduced to only about 10 by the end of Heian Period. Among them four particular clan names became dominant: Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara and Tachibana. In particular, Fujiwara was prevailing among aristocrats and Minamoto and Taira among Samurai.

At the same time, high rank "kabane" was given to too many clan people as a reward to certain service and they came to possess the noblest "kabane": "ason". Therefore, "uji-kabane" system could hardly distinguish a person from other people.

Around this time, the format of marriage also changed. Bridegroom used to live in the bride's family before this time, but from this time onward bridegroom inherited his father's estate and brought his bride into his house. Therefore, it became usual to call aristocrats not with "sei" but with the place name where they live.

Samurai, on the other hand, started to put the name of their domain to better identify themselves. This kind of family name is called "myoji". At the same time it became popular to insert bureaucrats' titles into personal names. "Sei" was still used in official occasions, but "myoji" became more and more popular in daily life and the number of "myoji" exploded.

An eample of samurai name in the 16th century.
The famous feudal lord Nobunaga's family name came from the family's homeground "Oda" in Echizen. The family "Oda" belonged to "Taira" clan. "Nobunaga" was the third son of his father, therefore "Saburo" (means "third son") and this Saburo was his usually used name. The now well known name "Nobunaga" was his given name, in other words, his "real name" and it should not be used in daily life. Nobunaga assumed the position "kami" (Governor) of Kazusa province.

At the same time it became popular to insert bureaucrats' titles into personal names. "Sei" was still used in official occasions, but such place names became more and more popular in daily life and the number of "myoji" exploded.

Because myoji came to express the ownership of a territory and the status in the society, its prevalence made ordinary people feel more and more uncomfortable to use "myoji". In Kamakura and Muromachi periods, ordinary people gradually gave up using their "myoji" publicly, though there was no official ban. They used "myoji" in private context or within their village community.

Practice in the recent past

During the latest feudal time in Japan, the Edo period, self restriction of ordinary farmers, merchants and artisans in using "myoji" became a common sense. Therefore, it was rather natural that some people forgot that they had a family name and certain confusion happened when Family Registration Act was introduced after the end of the Edo period. But, many of the farmers did not forget their family names and registered them under the new scheme.

There was no official decree prohibiting the usage of "myoji", as I explained before. On the contrary, most feudal lords appeared to promote the usage of "myoji" and they had enough reason to do so. They did this in return to the cancellation of their debt. As samurai were in chronic financial crisis, they were dependent on the contribution by rich merchants. Therefore, it is obvious that our ancestors had to donate much money to Lord Maeda, so that he allowed us even a special privilege of using "da" in our family name.

As for the given name, there was a strong belief that the real name had a strong magical power and its careless use might incur misfortune. Therefore, "kemyo" ( = nickname) was used in place of real name when somebody should be called in public and so on.

Here is an example of personal name of a samurai in Edo period (1603-1867). "Kuranosuke" originally meant "Deputy chief of treasury", but in this case this person had no relation to the original role.

In case of men, it was usual to call somebody in accordance with the order of seniority among brothers; Taro (first son), Jiro (second son) and so on.

Later, in particular in Edo period (1603-1867) ancient bureaucratic titles were frequently used as "kemyo" irrespective of the real position of the person concerned. The majority of ordinary people used ancient bureaucratic titles with such endings as -emon, -zaemon and -hei for kemyo as well as for real names.

Taboo of real names was stricter for women. Therefore, it is very difficult to know the real names of even very famous women who lived in the ancient and medieval time. Such names as Murasaki-Shikibu and Sei-Shonagon are combinations of their family name, fathers' official title and so on.

Even now, given names are spoken aloud usually within family circle or among small children in Japan. Even closest friends call each other with family names when they are grown up - but without any suffix such as -san. In the business world, it is preferred to call people with titles such as president, director and teacher, even without referring to their family names. Maybe because of such a tradition, I find it very awkward to call adults with given name or nickname, but that is unfortunately the necessary communication style in the present world dominated by the American culture.

Our personal names now simply consist of "myoji" and given name. "Uji" and "kabane" were excluded from personal names. As for given name, only real names are accepted by the authority. At the beginning of the modern time, the Civil Law prescribed that husband and wife shall have the same "myoji". Now, this new rule is thought to be obsolete by many people and discussions are going on whether husband and wife should be allowed to have different family names.

 2010.8.18, rev 2022.01.13