Introduction to Japanese Girls' Names
The Most Popular Japanese Girls' Names of 2014
Source: Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance
Most of the Japanese female names on this list are from an earlier generation—all the -ko, -e, and -yo names that were ragingly popular at the turn of the century, but that sound dated now. Since 1980, the popularity of these traditional names has fallen. For two decades, names ending in -ka (fragrant), -na, and -mi (beautiful) took over the top-ten lists of popular Japanese girls' names, but recently there's been a shift back to the type of simple, two-syllable names that haven't been popular in a century: Hana, Noa, Mei.
But these are short names with a difference. For centuries, girls' names were a word in ordinary Japanese: crane (Tsuru), pure (Kiyo), chrysanthemum (Kiku). Even after parents began using endings like -ko and -e to mix things up, they just clipped the endings onto the same words: Tsuru became Tsuruko, Kiyo became Kiyoko, Kiku became Kikue. The same names, plus or minus a fashionable new ending, were the only names in use for at least 500 years. But now, for the first time since the 1600's, Japanese parents are giving their daughters names that don't have meanings in ordinary Japanese.
Mei and Rio, Airi and Yua, none of these names mean anything. Parents can assign any meaning they like to them by spelling them with different characters, but they're free of the weight of centuries of associations. As Japanese culture becomes more individualistic, that's a quality parents prize.
A few of the names that are currently popular do have traditional meanings. Hana is "flower," Hina is "doll" or "chick" and implies something tiny and cute, Aoi is "blue" or "hollyhock," Sakura is "cherry blossom," and Koharu is "little spring." But don't expect them to be spelled traditionally.
Popular Sounds, Unpopular Sounds
Few names, especially few girls' names, start with B, D, G, J, or Z. These voiced consonants sound rough and uncivilized; the Japanese far prefer the refinement of unvoiced consonants like Ch, F, H, K, S, Sh, and T. This is true not only of personal names, but of all names.
Japanese Name Meanings
All Japanese names have a meaning, but some of the meanings don't mean as much as other meanings. Confused yet? Let me explain.
Some Japanese names consist of a single word: Sakura, "cherry blossom,"for instance. However, it's more common for a name to be made up of a stem and a suffix: Fuji, "wisteria," plus -ko, "child," makes Fujiko, "wisteria child." The meaning of the suffix doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the "stem" of the name. Nishie, west + tree branch, does not mean "tree branch that points west" or "tree branch from the west." The suffixes indicate mainly that the word is a name and not a noun, in much the same way that Romance languages tack -a or -ia onto the end of women's names. Each suffix presumably has a flavor of its own, but I'll leave it to a native Japanese onomast to explain them.
Because of this sporadic meaning-blindness—which affects all Japanese naming conventions—the meanings below contain some brain-busting combinations. Patterned accordingly? Sound of jewels Nara? Think of these combinations as individual syllables that sound good together, rather than a name with a single meaning.
I have included -ko, -e, and -yo names with their stem names, and I'm in the process of bringing -ka, -ki, -ho, -mi, -na, -ne, -no, -o, and -ri names together under their stem names as well. Where the stem doesn't stand alone, I list the cluster of names under the -ko form.
These names are only the ones I've seen attested to in modern name lists. There may be variants I haven't run into; for example, the only variants of Sayo on this list are Sayoko, Sayomi, and Sayori, but the names Sayoe and Sayona are also possibilities. If you're using this list to generate character names, feel free to swap suffixes about.
- -e (bay or tree branch)
- -ka (scent, perfume)
- -ki (tree)
- -ko (child)
- -mi (beauty)
- -na (Nara?)
- -no (field)
- -o (tail, as in the end of a rope; also a boy's suffix, although boys' -o names are spelled with different kanji)
- -yo (generation)
Inventing Japanese Names
For more names, or for kanji spellings, go to the Japanese <-> English Dictionary Server. You may have a hard time picking out the spelling that corresponds to the name's meaning because the Japanese play a sort of literary game with names. Any kanji whose reading fits the sound of the name can be substituted for the original kanji, with extra points given for piquant new meanings. For example, Shishiwakamaru, the bloodthirsty swordsman of Yu Yu Hakusho, is named shishi (lion), waka (young), -maru (a common suffix for samurai boys' names). However, Shishi is written not with the "lion" kanji, but with a doubled kanji that means "death" (shi), so his name appears to mean "death-death-young-maru." Native speakers know that "death-death" is a kanji pun for "lion."
Therefore, when you go to the dictionary server, you'll find that many names have several, even dozens of, spellings. If you can't figure out which combination of kanji is the name's original meaning, just pick the prettiest and go with it.