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
The 30 most common Japanese surnames (2010)
Japanese Kanji symbol English ao 青 blue, green -bashi, -hashi 橋 bridge -da, -ta 田 rice paddy -do, tsuchi 土 earth fuji 藤 wisteria fuku 福 good fortune; wealthy furu 古 old -gawa, -kawa 川 river -guchi, -kuchi 口 mouth, entrance hama 浜 beach hana 花 flower -hara, -wara, -bara 原 field; plain hayashi 林 grove, woods hiro 広 broad -daira, -taira 平 flat; smooth i(i) 井 well ike 池 pond ishi 石 stone iwa 岩 rock kami 神 god, deity kami, ue 上 upper, top ki 木 tree kita 北 north (k)o 小 little kuro 黒 black matsu 松 pine miya 宮 shrine mori 森 forest moto 本 base; origin mura 村 village naka 中 middle nishi 西 west numa 沼 swamp, lake -no 野 field; plain oo 大 large; great oka 岡 hill saka 坂 slope saki 崎 small peninsula, cape sawa, zawa 沢 marsh; swamp shiba 芝 lawn shima 島 island shita 下 lower; below; base sugi 杉 cedar tree suzu 鈴 bell taka 高 high take 竹 bamboo tani 谷 valley -to(u) 藤 wisteria toku 徳 virtue wa 和 peace; harmony yama 山 mountain
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.
Source: Shirōka Lab of the Department of Humanities, Shizuoka University
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 and 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 except 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） -