You can tell a lot from a person’s name. Assuming it is a name you are familiar with, you can almost always tell the gender of the person named. There is also a good chance you will be able to gather some hints about their age, socio-economic background, and perhaps even their race. In addition to the factual information the name may suggest, it may also invoke some stereotypes. Like it or not, a name can very much shape the way we are treated in life.
The information coded into names is just as significant in other languages we may not be familiar with. And, unfortunately, this is something that is lost completely when a name is left untranslated or is transliterated. This isn’t to say that the practice of leaving names as they are is wrong. It is just one of the truly inevitable losses in translation.
In today’s entry, I am going to take a look at some of the basic foundations of Japanese names, and some of the things that we can glean from them. From gender and age to birth order and socio-economic background.
Although there are a lot of trendy, modern exceptions, gender in Japanese names is usually very clear. Some of the most obvious involve traditional gender indicating suffixes. Names ending with 子 (ko) and 美 (mi) are always female. Names ending with 郎 (rou) or 助 (suke). A name with this sort of ending may also give a hint about the age. Just as with English names though, traditional names stay more popular with boys than with girls. Girl’s names ending with 子 were most popular between 1930 and 1980, peaking in 1945. Names ending with 美 were most popular 30 to 50 years ago. Boy’s names ending with 郎 and 助 are still relatively popular, they are traditional, but not too old-fashioned to name a baby.
More modern gender indicating suffixes are 菜 (na) and 香 (ka) for girls, and 翔 (to) for boys. These almost always indicate that the bearer of the name was born within the past 20 years. In the opposite direction, there are truly old names that tell you without a doubt that the bearer is going to be very old. In the case of a girl, while there is no straightforward rule, this would most likely be a name that is two characters and that is written without using kanji. Common “old woman” names are うめ (Ume), きん (Kin), and はな (Hana). Common “old man” names are often directly saying which son he was; 三郎 (Saburou, meaning third son), 四郎 (Shirou, fourth son), 五郎 (Gorou, fifth son) and so on.
And in much the same way as there are names often considered to be “lower class” or “chav names“, there are what are referred to as キラキラネーム (kirakira names, literally “sparkly names”). These are names that are considered to be attempts to stand out, by using characters and pronunciations that don’t match, or by giving a child an obviously strange name like “Angel” or “Silk” in English. This style of name is strongly associated with the poorly educated and the lower classes, leading to negative stereotypes.
As a final addition, the placeholder names in Japanese (similar to the John and Jane in John Doe and Jane Doe) are 太郎 (Tarou) for men and 花子 (Hanako) for women. They are about as clearly gendered as you can be in Japanese names.