Japanese Surnames: Meanings & History with Illustrations

Did you know that not until the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), Japanese surnames did not exist to ordinary men and women? Today, Japan has a shockingly high number of 100,000 surnames in total!

During the Meiji era, the government required all citizens by law to register under a surname. While many decided to choose surnames that were already in use, there were also many who made up their own.

Many of these surnames have meanings to them and some even reflect how life was like back then in Japan!

You may notice that in some surnames, the kanji characters have relations to nature, locations or geographical features, such as mountain (山 yama), tree (木 ki), rice field (田 ta), bridge (橋 hashi), village (村 mura), middle (中 naka) etc.

In this blog, we will be sharing with you in ascending order, the top 5 most popular surnames in Japan, their meanings and a brief history behind them!

Top 5 Most Popular Japanese Surnames

japanese most popular surnames watanabe

5. 渡辺 / 渡邊 Watanabe

渡辺 / 渡邊 (Watanabe) is the fifth most popular surname in Japan, with a population of 1,150,000 people using it!

渡辺 / 渡邊 (Watanabe) means ‘to cross over a river’. This surname is originally a place name and refers to a location in the Osaka Prefecture of Japan which was settled by descendants of Emperor Saga (786 – 842). The first bearer of the Watanabe name was Minamoto no Toru, a son of Emperor Saga!

most popular japanese surnames tanaka

4. 田中 Tanaka

田中 (Tanaka) is the fourth most common surname in Japan, with a population of 1,350,000 people using it. 田 (Ta) means ‘rice field’ and 中 (Naka) means ‘in, middle’. Hence, 田中 (Tanaka) means ‘the center of rice fields’.

This surname originated from people who owned or worked with rice paddy fields during ancient Japan. Back then, owning a rice paddy field was a symbol of wealth.

As a way to show others their prosperity, a Japanese family with a house in the middle of their rice paddy field started calling themselves 田中 (Tanaka), and that is how it transitioned into people using this surname!

most popular japanese surnames takahashi

3. 高橋 Takahashi

高橋 (Takahashi) is the third most common surname in Japan, with around 1,450,000 people using it.

高 (Taka) means ‘tall, high’ and 橋 (Hashi) means ‘bridge’. This surname originated from a land in the Nara Prefecture of Japan, where it is said that there used to be a long bridge over a deep valley, and the surname was hence created from that situation. This surname is frequently found in eastern Japan and the Ryukyu Islands.

most popular japanese surnames suzuki

2. 鈴木 Suzuki 

Does the name 鈴木 (Suzuki) sound familiar to you? You may be thinking of the Japanese car brand right now, but Suzuki is also a popular surname in Japan!

It is the second most common Japanese surname with around 1,750,000 people having it. Fun fact! The founder of Suzuki Motor Corporation is named none other than… Michio Suzuki!

鈴 (Suzu) means ‘bell’ and 木 (Ki) means ‘tree, wood’. This surname originated from the land called Ise Shima Peninsula in the Mie Prefecture of Japan. The people who lived there used to gather rice straws which they called ‘Suzuki’, and that was how the surname came about!

most popular japanese surnames satou satō

1. 佐藤 Satō 

佐藤 (Satō) is the most common Japanese surname with an estimated 2,000,000 people having it!

佐 (Sa) means ‘to assist’, and 藤 (Tō) suggests the historic 藤原 (Fujiwara) clan from the Heian Period (794 – 1185). Back then, a great number of people used 藤原 (Fujiwara) as their surname.

As it became inconvenient to address so many people with the same surname, people started making their own surnames by combining 藤原 (Fujiwara) with other words, such as the name of their region or their job.

And eventually, that was how the surname 佐藤 (Satō) got created!

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