I have a friend who gets mad when people read his name “David” as Day-vid instead of Dah-veed. Well, David, imagine living in Japan.
First it was kana. Then it was kanji. Then it was kanji’s numerous readings. Then it was counters. And now I’ve finally come to terms with my current “hardest part of Japanese”: reading names.
I’m not really concerned with why names are so hard to read. Last names are often pretty easy to read, since there are so many of them. First names are a nightmare since people are more concerned with the number of strokes and the meaning of the kanji when deciding their child’s name rather then how easy it is for a passerby to read.
On pretty much all forms that require name input, there is a box for the katakana reading of the name, so teachers actually almost never pronounce names wrong since their list of names comes with the reading. When registration doesn’t require the reading, problems always arise. Just the other day, my student Ayamu (歩) was registered at an event as Ayumi. Indeed, that’s a potential reading for that name. But that reading sounds like a girl’s name, incidentally, as mi is often the end of girl’s names in Japan. Confused? Well, we’ll try to clear that up.
With that said, it’s not impossible to guess name readings. In general, read it with the kun’yomi (訓読み), the Japanese reading of the kanji. For instance, 高 has an on’yomi (音読み) reading of こう and a 訓読み reading of たか. 森 has an 音読み reading of しん and a 訓読み reading of もり. Thus, a good guess of the name 高森 is たか・もり rather than こうしん, the latter sounding like a noun of some sort. Indeed, 高森 is read as たかもり. As exceptions occur in English grammar, so too do exceptions occur in names: 水戸 is read as みと, not みずと/みずど. And like you did with English, the only real course of action is to deal with these exceptions as they come. For now, we’ll deal with the 80%.
Throughout this post, remember that the same rules apply for family names and place names.
Kanji to Be Familiar With
The following Kanji appear in many Japanese family names. In general, they have one reading when it comes to names. Don’t let this list distract you too much though. Use it only when you come across a specific kanji.
Family Names Everyone Can Read
What better place to start than the top 20 Japanese names. For obvious reasons, you should be familiar with all of these. They’ll come up very frequently, so you should have no trouble getting these names right:
1 佐藤 さとう
2 鈴木 すずき
3 高橋 たかはし
4 田中 たなか
5 渡辺 わたなべ
6 伊藤 いとう
7 中村 なかむら
8 小林 こばやし
9 山本 やまもと
10 加藤 かとう
11 吉田 よしだ
12 山田 やまだ
13 佐々木 ささき
14 山口 やまぐち
15 松本 まつもと
16 井上 いのうえ
17 木村 きむら
18 清水 しみず
19 林 はやし
20 斉藤 さいとう
Oh, and that last one, 斉藤, if it included the alternate kanji people use for the name (斎藤, 齋藤, and 齊藤), would be the ninth or eighth most popular Japanese name.
Not too bad, right? 井上 and 清水 both threw me off the first time, and all the とうs (佐藤、伊藤、加藤、斉藤) and 佐々木 are read with their 音読み. (The rule for 佐 is to use its さ reading when it begins a word but its すけ reading when it finishes one; the rule for 藤 is to use ふじ when it begins a word but とう/どう when it finishes). Most of the others follow the basic 訓読み.
In the top 100 names, only a few might trip you up:
If the above didn’t seem ridiculous, then you’re probably on the right track.
“Rules” for Reading First Names
While last names have some good consistency, first names can be difficult to learn to read. As was mentioned before, the box for name readings isn’t just for show—guessing someone’s name can be very difficult.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to guess someone’s name. In fact, not only are some names so common you’ll see them again and again, but some of the kanji have very common, consistent readings.
First, name endings:
The above four are very common endings to names, and when you see them, you can be pretty sure that they’re pronounced that way. For instance, 裕也 is ゆうや and 鉄也 is てつや; 一郎 is いちろう and 次郎 is じろう; 裕太 is ゆうた and 健太 is けんた; and 安子 is やすこ and 圭子 is けいこ. Say what you will with the first kanji in each name, the last part is the name sound, without fail.
A note about genders, the first three (也, 郎, 太) are male names and the last one (子) is a female name. In addition, old women’s names are very easy to read, since they’re usually in katakana or hiragana. If they have a kanji in their name, it might just be the 子. On that note, when people in Japan think of “older” names (such as Maurice or Dorothy in America), names with 子 come to mind.
Secondly, some very common kanji within names (all, incidentally, girl names):
Combinations of these are also very popular. 奈菜, 奈美, 香菜, 里奈, and 美香 are all normal names, for instance, and are all pronounced exactly as the above rules suggest.
To give you an idea of how common the above are, 1/4th of my entire school has first names including the above nine kanji, with some (like 伸太郎) having multiple. Some of those who don’t, have names written in kana (as is common with girls) or have kanji that are very common in this area of Japan, but which don’t deserve a mention on something like this.
Of course, these nine kanji aren’t the end-all-be-all, but they should get you started in the right direction.
Easy-To-Read Famous People’s Names
So, now you have some of the basics down, let’s look at some famous people’s names (I’ve bolded the kanji that have been mentioned in the post):
This is hardly an exhaustive list, and I plan to add more when I think of them.
Now that you’ve read the above, can you understand these names? And if they’re male or female? (highlight to reveal)
鈴木美香 すずき・みか 女
佐藤裕也 さとう・ゆうや 男
高橋奈々 たかはし・なな 女
小林はな子 こばやし・はなこ 女
山口次郎 やまぐち・じろう 男
阿部桃香 あべ・ももか 女
近藤茂 こんどう・しげる 男
武田進 たけだ・すすむ（or しん） 男
長谷川雄一郎 はせがわ・ゆういちろう 男
木下麻理 きのした・まり 女
How’d you do? Not bad?
Of course, this is hardly exhaustive. There’s a lot to deal with when you first stumble into the world of Japanese names, but it’ll get easier. Remember too that, like difficult kanji and usage of counters, even native Japanese people can have problems with them sometimes.
All you can do is soldier on and learn them as they come.
Good luck, and enjoy movie credits!