Top 10 Most Common Surnames in Japan

Little is known about this fact, but until the Meji Period (1868-1912) the average Japanese lacked surnames, male and female alike. Surnames were a privilege of those in positions of power, nobility or possessors of remarkable artistic talent.

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It is estimated that there are around 100,000 nicknames in Japan. Many more than in most Western countries and far above neighboring nations such as Korea and China. However, the ten surnames below are very common, and millions of people share them.

The choice of surnames.

During the Meji Period, a great social and cultural revolution flourished in Japan, which by then was nothing more than an isolated island that refused to interact with the outside world.

Japan’s new leaders brought the country into modernity, making remarkable efforts to compete with foreign visitors, inventions, and diametrically opposed Western thinking. With the establishment of this new way of thinking, a rupture in the entrenched social systems originated, and each commoner was obliged by law to choose his own surnames.

Photo of old Japanese family

Many chose surnames that were already in use, mostly in hopes of gaining a little more status by sharing a surname with those who belonged to the nobility. Others appropriated surnames that referred to their business activity, their role in society or simply the region from which they came. Of course, there were many favorites that were repeated throughout Japan.

The ten most popular surnames.

In ascending order, the most common surnames in Japan are:

10 – Saitō

Population with surname: 980,000

Script: 斉藤

The first kanji (sai 斉) could refer to a dish prepared by Mongols and priests, but in a broader sense it is used to convey an image of purity and divine worship. The second (tō藤) can also be read as “fuji” and refers to a plant called Japanese wisteria. The fact that the kanji has been included in the surname points to a connection to the Fujiwara clan, which is very common in a large number of Japanese families.

9 – Kobayashi

Population with last name: 1,019,000

Script: 小林

It means “small forest.” Resorting to small in the kanji 小 and forest wood 林 (pronounced “hayashi”), the surname could be a reference to the place where its owner came from.

8 – Nakamura

Population with last name: 1,059,000

Script: 中村

Meaning: literally “in” or “in the middle” (Naka中), followed by village (mura村). A person within a village.

7 – Yamamoto

Population with last name: 1,077,000

Script: 山本

The surname is composed of mountain (yama山) and origin (moto本), in a simple way it could be said that it is a person of the mountain.

6 – Itō

Population with last name: 1,080,000

Script: 伊藤

The first kanji 伊, also used to refer to Italy, is traditionally used to refer to “that” or “that”. Along with the kanji mentioned above for Japanese wisteria 藤, we could say that the surname suggests a relationship with the Fujiwara clan, but a small one. The name is spelled and pronounced differently than “ito” 糸 (which has a short sound for the “o”), so it’s important to make sure you make a long pronunciation of the “o” at the end.

5 – Watanabe

Population with last name: 1,134,000

Script: 渡辺 (or sometimes 渡邊)

Crossing or passing over 渡, and “area” or border 辺.

4 – Tanaka

Population with last name: 1,336,000

Script: 田中

Literally meaning “rice field” 田 and “in the middle/in” 中, probably the surname comes from those who owned or worked “in the field” in any city or village.

3 – Takahashi

Population with last name: 1,416,000

Script: 高橋

The meaning is “high” 高 and “bridge” 橋, suggesting that perhaps the first families who chose the surname inhabited an area that crossed a deep valley and used to cross it through a bridge.

2 – Suzuki

Population with last name: 1,707,000

Script: 鈴木

It means “campaign trees.” Suzu鈴 is a small bell, like the ones used in the past to call the table. And 木 means trees.

1 – Satō

Population with last name: 1,928,000

Script: 佐藤

Along with the popular “tō” 藤, we find the kanji sa 佐, which means “to help.”



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