Japanese Names Stink!

Now before you pounce on me, this isn’t a post dissing the way Japanese names sound, or any part of their culture. In fact I think quite the opposite – I’ve always wanted a Japanese name and a while ago I picked one out for myself: 夜神理在 (やがみ リア). The full name means “God of the night (last name), existing in truth (first name).” The name itself sounds cool, and the meaning is pretty neat too, but how in the heck would you guess how to pronounce it?

It would turn out that a majority of the time, even native Japanese can’t correctly guess the pronunciation of a name. The different pronunciations exist for a given Kanji in a name so haphazardly that you’re often better off asking how to pronounce it. And this even works in vice versa. Imagine you’re given a name over the phone, so you don’t know how to write it in Kanji properly. Sure, you can give an educated guess, but to be safe you will have to ask the speaker to explain to you the Kanji the name uses!

Let’s look at a rather nasty example. 一 on its own can be read as いち、いつ、いる、かず、ひと、 or もと in names. Pairing it with the Kanji 海, you have the name 一海… which is read as うみ, the kunyomi of the latter character (海). It’s like 一 was not read at all! To make matters worse with another example, 一寿, which is read かず, holds the same pronunciation as 一 could have on its own. So now you can see the frustration with guessing names!

I struggle with this a lot in reading Japanese literature, and it always irks me when they don’t provide the pronunciation of the name at least once, when it’s first introduced. So then I decide to look it up, and I get a myriad of possible pronunciations. So I honestly just pick one that sounds cool while I’m reading it to myself and stick with it. Then the same can be said obviously about the authors themselves. Take for example the name 正岡 容, an author. There are a few ways this could be read, such as ただおか よう, せいこう よう, まさこう いれる, and so on… But the actual pronunciation is まさおか いるる. 容 can be read as い・れる, but this rarely ever happens (the correct / more common Kanji for this word is 入れる), and the fact that the pronunciation was changed to いるる (and the kana aren’t written) is even more mind boggling! The only pattern here is that all pronunciations are Kun’yomi, or a variation of one.

I feel like this gets better with place names, but the rules apply here as well. For example, 福岡県 (ふくおかーけん, the Fukuoka prefecture), is readily easier to read. Standardly speaking (this doesn’t account for the set of name-only readings), 福 is only ever read as ふく. Likewise, 岡 can be read as either コウ or おか. Well ふくこう sounds odd, but maybe it could have been ふっこう as a contraction (a word exists pronounced this way, 復興 meaning revival). Alas, the name is read ふくおか. And if you’re curious, 福岡 means “hill of fortune.” The general trend for names is that they are most often read with Kun’yomi.

But just to confuse you, the Japanese also assign name-use-only pronunciations to Kanji, called 名乗り (なのり)… And each Kanji typically has a lot of these. This accounts for the excruciating amount of variations for the Kanji 一. So going back to 福, it can be read as とし、とみ、ふ、ふき、ふっ、ぼく、and よし! An example of this is the name 福子, read としこ OR とみこ. If you want to see the name readings for a Kanji, take a gander at 電子辞書’s Kanji dictionary.

So how does one conquer Japanese names, you ask? The simple answer is you don’t. If the native Japanese speakers struggle with writing their own names, then you shouldn’t feel so bad if you have difficulty too. What might do you some good, however, is taking a peek at the 1000 most common Japanese names and getting a feel for how they work. The only way to get a grip on Japanese names is through exposure, so take a read here!

The only other tip is to keep these things in mind:

  1. 1. Names are often read with either the Kun’yomi or Nanori pronunciations
  2. 2. Sometimes the Kanji’s meaning is completely irrelevant to the name, as in it exists for pronunciation only. A prime example is 芥川 (あくたがわ), read with Kun’yomi only, which means “garbage river.”
  3. 3. Ask when you’re unsure. It won’t come off as offensive, and you’re better off getting it right than offending them by assuming and getting it wrong.

If you can remember those three simple rules above, you’ll have a better chance of getting the correct pronunciation. Good luck!

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