On Japanese Names

In high school, I was assigned a really fun essay: it was all about your name. Why did my parents name me that? What does your name mean? What’s the language of origin? Is it a cultural name?

I duly searched baby name websites for the Japanese half of my real first name, Rei, which is from my grandmother’s name Reiko. (The other half of my real first name is a pretty common name, often used for middle names these days) They said that Reiko meant “pleasant child” (-ko, a common suffix in girls’ names, means “child”).

The kanji for “ko”

So, then, “Rei” must mean “pleasant.”

Except when it doesn’t.

Japanese names are often written in kanji form; that is, in Chinese characters (though the Japanese read the kanji differently to Chinese people). But because a variety of kanji can be read in a variety of ways, the meaning of a Japanese name–even if it sounds the same–can be different, depending on the kanji that is used.

My grandmother’s Reiko, for instance, originally used a character for “Rei” that she didn’t like, so she  used a different one. In my full name in Japanese, my character for “rei” isn’t my grandmother’s–in many families, a kanji character is passed down or used by successive generations. (On my grandfather’s side, the kanji “ya” was passed down–Yasujyo, Yachio, Yajuro, Yasuhiko…)

My “rei” does not meant pleasant; it means mountain summit. Here are the different kanji you can use for “rei.”  Pieced together, my Japanese name is said the same way as one would say it in English, but the kanji meaning is “tranquil mountain summit” which is, um, well… I guess it’s a personality to strive for?

But if you’re searching on baby name sites for meanings for Japanese names, just know that the meaning there might only be the most common meaning, based on the most common kanji rendering of the name. Or just some uninformed meaning. Which is completely fine if you’re just looking for a quick name to use for a character and you think you might want to go Japanese.

I named a character in Book the First Hikari, which means “light,” which fit the character. I named a character in a short story Kimiko, because I wanted her to have a quick English nickname that she’s known by while her full name often gets ignored.

If you’re writing a story about Japan, with Japanese characters, then I expect a little kanji talk and some kanji research–a common conversation: “Wait, she uses that character for ‘Yasu’ in ‘Yasuko?’ Really? I didn’t know that could be read like that!”

Popular Japanese Girls and Boys Names: 2015
Behind the Name: Japanese names

6 thoughts on “On Japanese Names

  1. I love that: tranquil mountain summit. Sounds like a goal to strive for. ^_^ I love the name Rei though because it's the name of my favorite sailor scout. ^_^One of my favorite mangas has a main character named Hikaru. I found myself trying to name a cat after that once. One of my favorite Japanese names is from an old video game idea that starts in Tokyo. Her name is Kaori Kei. I'm not sure the last name is real, but I picked her first name just because I liked it. I looked it up just now and it says it commonly means \”fragrant\” or alternatively, \”weave songs.\”


  2. Kaori can be a first name, I think. I always thought it would be more accurate if my name meant, like, \”grouchy reader person.\” But hey, tranquil mountain summit it is! It's better than some kanji meanings turn out to be!There's a pretty famous American-born Japanese pop star named Utada Hikaru–Utada's her last name, because the Japanese put the last name first.


  3. Dude. I named my daughter Kimiko. Most of the time, we do call her Kimi, but they try to use her full name at school. It drives me nuts to hear people at her school pronounce it. They say Kah-mee-ko, and I'm all NO, it's Kimi-ko. GAH. Anyways, I wanted to have a daughter named Michita, and my husband, who is half-Korean, said we could use the name and call her Chi, but first we need daughter named Kim so that together they could be Kimchi. I didn't like Kimberly or just Kim, so I reached to my Japanese roots (my dad's side) and chose Kimiko–child empress according to all the baby name sites. We had a son after that (who didn't get named Chi) and I'm done having kids, so there will never be a Chi. Still, it's a fun story to let my daughter know how she got her name.


  4. Where do they get \”Kah\” as the first syllable from? Honestly! The Kimiko in my short story gets shortened to \”Kim\” and her boyfriend has issues saying her full name, which she kind of resents. Kimchi!! Hahaha!


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