How many Japanese surnames do you know? I’m sure you know some of the surnames of famous Japanese people such as, “大谷 (Ohtani)” for 大谷翔平 (Shohei Ohtani), who is currently one of the most popular players in Major League Baseball, “近藤 (Kondo)” for 近藤麻理恵 (Marie Kondo), who is famous as an organizing consultant, or, “宮崎 (Miyazaki)” for 宮崎駿（Hayao Miyazaki), the renowned Japanese animator, director, producer and co founder of Studio Ghibli. With so many surnames in Japan, they can be hard to remember, so we will tell you about some of the most common ones and their origins. The surname ranking and numbers used in this article are taken from the website below.
The surname at the top of the rankings and most used in all of Japan is 佐藤(Sato). It is said that there are currently about 1,862,000 people with the surname Sato in Japan, and most of them live in the Tohoku region. The kanji 佐 (Sa) means “to help or assist”, and 藤 (to) means “wisteria flower”. The surname “Sato” is said to have originated from one of the members of the Fujiwara clan (藤原氏), a famous noble family in ancient Japan, and the surname 佐藤 (Sato) is said to have started from there.
鈴木 (Suzuki) is the second most common surname in Japan, with about 1,791,000 people nationwide. You may know this name from the famous Japanese baseball player 鈴木一郎 (Ichiro Suzuki) who played for the Seattle Mariners in America. The kanji 鈴 (Suzu) means “bell”, and 木 (ki) means “wood”. There are many theories about the origin of the surname Suzuki. However, the most popular one is a theory that the name originated in the Kumano region of Kii (紀伊, present-day Wakayama and the southern part of Mie prefecture), where there was a ritual of putting a stick into a pile of rice straw after harvesting to pray for a good harvest for the next year. The stick used in this ritual was called “すすき (Susuki)”, which is thought to have been the origin of the Suzuki family name.
The third most common surname is “高橋 (Takahashi)”, with about 1,405,000 people. The kanji 高 (taka) means “high” and 橋 (hashi) means “bridge”. Although there are many theories about the origin of this surname as well, the most popular one is that it originated from a bridge built over a ravine in Yamato Province(present-day Nara Prefecture). It is said that when the bridge was seen from the ground, it appeared to be much higher than it actually was, therefore the people living there began to call themselves “Takahashi”.
Coming in at number 4 in the rankings is “田中 (Tanaka)”. There are about 1,330,000 people in Japan with this surname, and most of them live in the western part of the country. The meaning of this compound is 田 (ta) meaning “rice field” and 中 (naka) meaning “inside” or “middle”. It is said that the roots of this surname started from the fact that many people literally worked in the middle of rice fields. Japan has a long history and culture of harvesting and eating rice, which may have also influenced where this surname came from.
With an estimated 1,069,000 people, “伊藤 (Ito)” is the fifth most common surname in Japan. In addition to the Ito surname with these specific kanji, there is another surname with the same pronunciation but different kanji, 伊東 (Ito). This surname is especially common in Mie Prefecture, and seems to have originated there as well. The origin of this surname is said to have started from one of the descendants of the Fujiwara clan (藤原氏), like the Sato surname. The descendant came to Ise (present-day Mie Prefecture) and started using it as a surname by combining “伊 (I)” from 伊勢 (Ise) with “藤 (to)” of 藤原 (Fujiwara).
The sixth most common surname in Japan is “渡辺 (Watanabe)”, with about 1,059,000 people nationwide. In addition to 渡辺, another common surname with the same pronunciation is written 渡邊 (Watanabe). You may not believe this, but there are 58 different surnames in total that are pronounced Watanabe! The kanji 渡 (Wata) means “to pass” and 辺 (be) means “around” or “neighborhood”. Although it is said that there are several roots of the surname Watanabe, the most believed theory is that it comes from the occupation “渡部 (Watabe)” a ferryman job from long ago.
“山本(Yamamoto)” is the seventh most common surname with 1,045,000 people, most of whom live in the western part of the country. 山(Yama) means “mountain” and 本 (moto) means “book” or “main”. The origin of Yamamoto is said to have come from the people who lived at the foot of mountains, as most of the land in Japan is covered with them. Yamamoto means “the foot of the mountain” because “本” can also mean “base” or “root”. Incidentally, another common surname “山下 (Yamashita)” also comes from “the foot of the mountain” and has the same meaning as Yamamoto.
At Number 8 is “中村 (Nakamura)”, with an estimated 1,040,000 people nationwide. 中 (Naka) means “middle” or “center”, and 村 (mura) means “village”. The origin of the Nakamura surname dates back to the Yayoi period, when rice cultivation was first introduced to Japan. Rice cultivation later became the main form of agriculture, and as it developed, it would eventually transform into a village. As more villages formed and started to spread, the center of the village became known as “中村 (Nakamura)”. Depending on the cardinal direction that the newly formed village was facing, new surnames emerged. For example, surnames below are said to have emerged this way.
・上村 (Uemura, Kamimura) *上 (Ue) means “upper”
・下村 (Shimomura, Shitamura) *下 (Shita) means “under”
・北村 (Kitamura) *北 (Kita) means “north”
・西村 (Nishimura) *西 (Nishi) means “west”
“山田 (Yamada)” is the 12th most common surname in Japan, with 810,000 people nationwide. The kanji 山(Yama) means “mountain” as introduced in the surname 山本(Yamamoto), and 田 (ta) means “rice field” as introduced in the surname 田中 (Tanaka). The origin of the name literally means “rice fields in the mountains”.
“斎藤(Saito)” is said to be the 19th most common surname in Japan, with about 540,000 people in the country. The kanji 斎 (sai) means “to serve the gods by purifying the body and soul” and 藤 (to) means “wisteria flower” like in the surname Sato. Like Sato, the roots of this surname also have a lot to do with the Fujiwara clan (藤原氏). A member of the Fujiwara clan served as the director of 斎宮寮(Saigu-ryo), a government office near Ise Shrine in Mie prefecture. The surname 斎藤 (Saito) is said to have been started as “斎宮寮の藤原 (the Fujiwara of Saigu-Ryo)”. In addition to 斎藤(Saito), there are also surnames such as 斉藤, 斎藤, 齊藤, and so on, with the same pronunciation but slightly different kanji characters. It’s funny because all of them are said to have accidentally come about due to the miswriting of kanji characters by people working in the government office.
There is a long history of different surnames in Japan that all came about in various ways. The origin of Japanese surnames can be traced back to occupations, topography, landscape, place names, and even directions. It might be fun to look up the surnames of Japanese people that you know. You never know, there might be an interesting story behind their surnames too!
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Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture, and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education of Japan and got her Master’s degree in March, 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.
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