Modern Japanese names (日本人の氏名 nihonjin no shimei) usually consist of a family name (surname), followed by a given name. This order is common in Asian countries, while middle names are not generally used. Japanese names are usually written in Chinese characters (漢字 kanji) in Japanese pronunciation. Japanese family names are extremely varied: according to estimates, there are over 100,000 different surnames in use today in Japan. Common family names in Japan include Satō (佐藤), Suzuki (鈴木) and Takahashi (高橋) (please refer to the table below).

Surnames occur with varying frequency in different regions; for example, the names Chinen (知念), Higa (比嘉), and Shimabukuro (島袋) are common in Okinawa but not in other parts of Japan; this is mainly due to differences between the language and culture of Yamato people and Okinawans. Many Japanese family names derive from features of the rural landscape; for example, Ishikawa (石川) means “stone river,” Yamamoto (山本) means “the base of the mountain,” and Inoue (井上) means “above the well.”

Until the Meiji Period, common Japanese people did not have a family name. Only the nobles, samurai and some merchants and artisans did. At the time, the vast majority of the population were peasants. The new Meiji government made it compulsory for everyone to choose a surname, using only authorised kanji. Up to the Tokugawa period common people would refer to themselves as being from a particular region, or from a particular branch of business. The names taken by Japanese people in the Meiji period were either those already in use among the upper classes, or they were created by local priests or even simply made up. This perhaps explains why there seem to be around 100,000 Japanese family names currently in existence.

Common particles in Japanese surnames

Japanese English
ao blue, green
-bashi, -hashi bridge
-da, -ta rice paddy
-do, tsuchi earth
fuji wisteria
fuku good fortune; wealthy
furu old
-gawa, -kawa river
-guchi, -kuchi mouth, entrance
hama beach
hana flower
-hara, -wara, -bara field; plain
hayashi grove, woods
hiro broad
-daira, -taira flat; smooth
i(i) well
ike pond
ishi stone
iwa rock
kami god, deity
kami, ue upper, top
ki tree
kita north
(k)o little
kuro black
matsu pine
miya shrine
mori forest
moto base; origin
mura village
naka middle
nishi 西 west
numa swamp, lake
-no field; plain
oo large; great
oka hill
saka slope
saki small peninsula, cape
sawa, zawa marsh; swamp
shiba lawn
shima island
shita lower; below; base
sugi cedar tree
suzu bell
taka high
take bamboo
tani valley
-to(u) wisteria
toku virtue
wa peace; harmony
yama mountain

The 30 most common Japanese surnames (2010)

On February 13, 1875 (明治8年) it was officially decreed that all Japanese must adopt surnames. An additional decree from March 17, 1876 mandated that spouses must both keep their original family (maiden) names. It was in the year 1898 that Japan returned to the old civil law that obligated wives to adopt their husbands’ family name.

Position Surname Notes
01 Sato – 佐藤 (サトウ、サドウ) Common in eastern Hokkaido, in Tohoku (Akita in particular), in eastern Kyushu, but not many in Kansai (Osaka & Hyogo Prefectures); rather unusual in Okinawa.
02 Suzuki – 鈴木 (スズキ、ススキ、ススギ) 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.
03 Takahashi – 高橋 (タカハシ、タカバシ) Most common in the Tohoku region (particularly around Kitakami in Iwate Prefecture) and in Shikoku.
04 Watanabe – 渡辺(ワタナベ、ワタベ) 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.
05 Tanaka – 田中(タナカ、ダナカ、デンチュウ) 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.
06 Ito – 伊藤(イトウ) 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.
07 Yamamoto – 山本(ヤマモト) 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.
08 Nakamura – 中村(ナカムラ) Common all over Japan, with a higher rate in western regions, in particular Kinki and Kyushu.
09 Kobayashi – 小林(コバヤシ、オバヤシ) Common in the Kanto, Shinetsu, Kinki and Chugoku regions.
10 Saito – 斎藤(サイトウ)
11 Kato – 加藤(カトウ) Originating in old Kaga (now Ishikawa Prefecture), but not many in the Hokuriku region, common in the Chukyo region.
12 Yoshida – 吉田(ヨシダ、キチダ、ヨシタ) Originated in Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward, commmon all over Japan escept for Okinawa, most common in Hokuriku, Kinki and Shikoku.
13 Yamada – 山田(ヤマダ) Evenly distributed all over Japan.
14 Sasaki – 佐々木(ササキ) Originated in Yonehara City, Shiga Prefecture, common in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Chugoku regions and in Fukui Prefecture.
15 Yamaguchi – 山口(ヤマグチ) 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(マツモト) Very common in western Japan and in Kanto.
17 Inoue – 井上(イノウエ、イカミ) Very common in western Japan.
18 Kimura – 木村(キムラ) Common all over the country except for Okinawa.
19 Hayashi – 林(ハヤシ) Very common in the Hokuriku and Kinki regions as well as in Yamanashi Prefecture.
20 Shimizu – 清水(シミズ、キヨミズ、ショウズ)
21 Yamazaki – 山崎(ヤマザキ、ヤマサキ) Very common in western Japan.
22 Ikeda – 池田(イケダ、イケタ)
23 Abe – 阿部(アベ) Common in the Tohoku region.
24 Mori – 森(モリ) Common in western Japan.
25 Hashimoto – 橋本(ハシモト)
26 Yamashita – 山下(ヤマシタ、ヤマモト) Common in western Japan.
27 Ishikawa – 石川(イシカワ、イシガワ)
28 Nakashima – 中島(ナカジマ、ナカシマ) Common in the Chugoku and Kyushu regions.
29 Maeda – 前田(マエダ、マエタ) Common in western Japan.
30 Fujita – 藤田(フジタ)

Source: Shirōka Lab of the Department of Humanities, Shizuoka University