Butterflyblue on Japanese Name Trivia

Butterflyblue has a fascinating post on Japanese surname trivia. Compared to China, and especially Korea, Japan has a huge number of surnames.

Compare these numbers: China only has about 500 surnames. Korea only has 249. Japan has about 120,000….

The possibility of the same kanji (Chinese character) having multiple readings makes it imperative when exchanging business cards in Japan to have a little dialogue about the pronunciations of the characters on the respective cards. For example, 熊谷 can be “Kumagaya,” “Kumagai,” “Kumatani,” or “Kumaya” (all meaning ‘Bearvalley’)! Here are some more examples Butterflyblue lists under Weird Names.

  • 子子子 is pronounced “Nejiko” [Kinderkidson?]
  • 林林 is pronounced “Rinbayashi” [Woodgrove?]. This is just crazy. You will notice they are the same character.
  • 谷谷 is “Tanigaya” [Valleyvale?]. Again, they combined two readings for the same character.

Apparently, most Japanese didn’t have surnames until about 1875.

Some people at that time must have thought “soy sauce” [醤油 ‘shoyu’] and “tabacco” [煙草 ‘smoke grass’] made good names, I guess. Others went to the village chief or someone else they trusted and got themselves a name based usually on where they lived [in a rice field = Tanaka, in a forest = Morinaka, above the well = Inouye] or what they did for a living (“Watanabe” means “ferryman”; “Kodama” means “jeweller”).

I wasn’t aware that given names in olden times were often scatological.

Yes, in the Heian period and after, it was common to use “Kuso” in names, which means just what you think it means…. Names like “Kusoko” [Shitchild] and “Oguso” [Littleshit] were in vogue among the nobility [as well they should be!].

via Language Hat

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