Fiction

The Business of Being Named…in Japan

If you have a child or know a family with a newborn, you must be aware of the excitement of naming a baby. It’s a big deal. But I found the situation of my friends in Japan particularly interesting. So, I thought I would share this story (hopefully accurately), as you might be interested in. Maybe not.

The father, Kazuki, and the mother, Mizuki, started the process of naming their child months before the due date. Their approach was to start from the choice of the sound. This was fairly straightforward for them. Both of their names end in “zuki,” they wanted the same for their baby’s name. So, the first step was to choose one of about fifty Japanese sounds for the first syllable.

Now, both of the couple’s names, Kazuki and Mizuki, are gender neutral, which is increasingly common in Japan. So, the couple wanted another gender-neutral name. Among a few options, they chose Yuzuki. It’s a fairly popular name nowadays. The first step was easy.

By the way, if the parents’ names are not that similar and/or they wanted to start from scratch, it would require a little more creativity. The majority of Japanese names consist of 2 to 4 syllables. Note that a syllable typically consists of a consonant and a vowel (or just a vowel). Then, each syllable has a corresponding character. So, mathematically speaking, the number of combinations would be (roughly) 502+503+504, which is a little more than 6 million. But probably, only a fraction of those will be acceptable as names. So, this shouldn’t be too bad. After all, the combinations of five Latin alphabet letters would be 265, which is already over 11 million.

Now, if the Japanese had not imported characters from China, the life of the Japanese people might have been much simpler. The same for the process of naming a baby. Here is why.

The Japanese writing system involves three different sets of characters. The Hiragana set includes about fifty characters and the parallel Katakana set includes another fifty (strictly speaking, certain characters have a few variations). Note that each character of both of these sets redundantly corresponds to one syllable.

But the situation gets rapidly complicated with the Kanji set, which includes about 2,000 commonly used characters. However, for the purpose of naming, the government accepts the use of about 3,000 Kanji characters in total. Each Kanji character is usually associated with one to three syllables of sound. This already complicates the situation (cf. in Chinese, one character corresponds to one syllable). To make the matter worse, most Kanji characters are associated with both the original Chinese reading and a newly-assigned Japanese reading (based on the meaning of the character). Still more complication is due to the fact that Kanji was imported over hundreds of years. So, when the Chinese dynasty and the capital changed, some Kanji characters acquired new Chinese readings as well. As a result, most Kanji characters are associated with at least two, often more, distinct readings. Then, each of the readings is associated with one to three syllables of sound. Can you imagine a writing system more complicated that this?

Kazuki and Mizuki needed to deal with that, just like any other parents in Japan. Let’s recall that they had already decided on the sound of the baby’s name, Yuzuki. Since Kanji characters can be associated with one to three syllables, it is possible to choose one to three Kanji characters to go with this sound, e.g., Kanji(1) for “yu,” Kanji(2) for “zu,” and Kanji(3) for “ki,” or Kanji(1) for “yu,” and Kanji(2) for “zuki,” etc. Or, they could use Hiragana and/or Katakana for one or more of the three syllables.

Faced with the enormous number of possibilities, the couple turned to the Internet. One of the most popular web sites for Japanese baby naming is b-name.jp (all in Japanese). This website boasts about 300,000+ registered Japanese first names (cf. 30,000+ on Geneanet.org for first names in the Latin alphabet). Now, for the sound “yuzuki,” the web site showed over 500 different ways of writing (ゆづき, ゆづ季, 佑月, 佑槻, 佑都希, 侑月, 侑槻, 侑津希, and so on and on). Just for one three-syllable name/sound!

As the couple looked through the list, they came to a conclusion. They wanted to use the Kanji characters with a special meaning. First, they adopted the character representing the moon for the part “zuki.” This was because a supermoon was up on the evening of their first date. Then, they chose a character to mean tie, knot, connection, and union for the part “yu,”as the child obviously represents their union. This is how Kazuki and Mizuki named their child Yuzuki (結月). I surely hope that they all stay united to see many, many more supermoons together.

By the way, during the conversation with Kazuki and Mizuki, I also learned the following.

  • When registering a baby name in Japan, both the written form and the sound must be registered. However, there seems to be no regulation about the correspondence between the two. As a result, the parents could register an outrageous or even an irrelevant pronunciation. Whether such a request is granted seems to be in the hand of the clerk who handles the registration process.
  • Long time ago, it was probably easier to name a baby in Japan. For example, hundreds of years (?) ago, girls’ names were almost always exactly two syllables. Then, until several decades (?) ago, girls’ names were typically three syllables, ending with “ko.” On the other hand, boys’ names often had four syllables and generally sounded like an ancient warrior. Nowadays, Japanese baby names, both girls and boys, are way more diverse, even including the transcriptions of popular Western names, such as Leo, Emma, Emily, etc.
  • Recently, the number of births in Japan fell below one million per year. Compare this with over 4 million in the U.S.A., over 16 million in China (even after years of infamous ‘one-child policy’), and over 27 million in India (http://data.un.org). It is certainly a shrinking business in Japan