Introduction to Japanese Girls' Names
The Most Popular Japanese Girls' Names of 2012
Source: Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance
Most of the Japanese female names on this list are from an earlier generation—all the -ko, -e, and -yo names that were ragingly popular at the turn of the century, but that sound dated now. Since 1980, the popularity of these traditional names has fallen, and names ending in -ka, -na, and -mi (beautiful) have taken over the top-ten lists of popular Japanese girls' names.
This dramatic shift is common in Japanese naming practice. Unlike in the West, where a name may be in constant use for thousands of years, in Japan names cycle out of use in a matter of generations. Names from The Tale of Genji have been dead for ages; the hot names of the 17th and 18th centuries are now used only for actors' and geishas' stage names; even names from the late 19th century sound hopelessly dated. One one hand, that means that there are layers upon layers of fresh names awaiting onomasts. On the other hand, if you're using this page to find a name for your Feudal Era heroine, you're out of luck. Most of these names would sound as out-of-place as a 17th-century English girl named Keisha.
Popular Sounds, Unpopular Sounds
Few names, especially few girls' names, start with B, D, G, J, or Z. These voiced consonants sound rough and uncivilized; the Japanese far prefer the refinement of unvoiced consonants like Ch, F, H, K, S, Sh, and T. This is true not only of personal names, but of all names.
Japanese Name Meanings
All Japanese names have a meaning, but some of the meanings don't mean as much as other meanings. Confused yet? Let me explain.
Some Japanese names consist of a single word: Sakura, "cherry blossom,"for instance. However, it's more common for a name to be made up of a stem and a suffix: Fuji, "wisteria," plus -ko, "child," makes Fujiko, "wisteria child." The meaning of the suffix doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the "stem" of the name. Nishie, west + tree branch, does not mean "tree branch that points west" or "tree branch from the west." The suffixes indicate mainly that the word is a name and not a noun, in much the same way that Romance languages tack -a or -ia onto the end of women's names. Each suffix presumably has a flavor of its own, but I'll leave it to a native Japanese onomast to explain them.
Because of this sporadic meaning-blindness—which affects all Japanese naming conventions—the meanings below contain some brain-busting combinations. Patterned accordingly? Sound of jewels Nara? Think of these combinations as individual syllables that sound good together, rather than a name with a single meaning.
I have included -ko, -e, and -yo names with their stem names, and I'm in the process of bringing -ka, -ki, -ho, -mi, -na, -ne, -no, -o, and -ri names together under their stem names as well. Where the stem doesn't stand alone, I list the cluster of names under the -ko form.
These names are only the ones I've seen attested to in modern name lists. There may be variants I haven't run into; for example, the only variants of Sayo on this list are Sayoko, Sayomi, and Sayori, but the names Sayoe and Sayona are also possibilities. If you're using this list to generate character names, feel free to swap suffixes about.
- -e (bay or tree branch)
- -ka (scent, perfume)
- -ki (tree)
- -ko (child)
- -mi (beauty)
- -na (Nara?)
- -no (field)
- -o (generation; also a boy's suffix)
- -yo (generation)
Inventing Japanese Names
For more names, or for kanji spellings, go to the Japanese <-> English Dictionary Server. You may have a hard time picking out the spelling that corresponds to the name's meaning because the Japanese play a sort of literary game with names. Any kanji whose reading fits the sound of the name can be substituted for the original kanji, with extra points given for piquant new meanings. For example, Shishiwakamaru, the bloodthirsty swordsman of Yu Yu Hakusho, is named shishi (lion), waka (young), -maru (a common suffix for samurai boys' names). However, Shishi is written not with the "lion" kanji, but with a doubled kanji that means "death" (shi), so his name appears to mean "death-death-young-maru." Native speakers know that "death-death" is a kanji pun for "lion."
Therefore, when you go to the dictionary server, you'll find that many names have several, even dozens of, spellings. If you can't figure out which combination of kanji is the name's original meaning, just pick the prettiest and go with it.