Japanese Patterns of Design

Japanese Surnames: Top 10 Ranking, Origin, and its Meanings

Japanese surnames are known for their wide varieties and origins. Many of them are derived from the name of places, geographic features, and occupations. Knowing the origin and history of them make you feel more familiar with Japanese surnames/family names and your Japanese friends!

Table of Contents

  1. Top 10 Japanese Surnames Ranking
  2. Top 60 Japanese American Surname Ranking
  3. Surnames of the common people
  4. Why the emperor has no surname
  5. The surnames of samurai derived from the place name.

1. Top 10 Japanese Surnames Ranking

Here we introduce you to the Top 10 Ranking of Japanese surname/family name in Japan. We added the representative family crest (Kamon) to each surname, however, it’s just an example and there are many different family crests attached to each surname.

     
  1. 佐藤 SATO
  2. 鈴木 SUZUKI
  3. 高橋 TAKAHASHI
  4. 田中 TANAKA
  5. 渡辺 WATANABE
  6. 伊藤 ITO
  7. 山本 YAMAMOTO
  8. 中村 NAKAMURA
  9. 小林 KOBAYASHI
  10. 加藤 KATO

1. 佐藤 SATO

One representative Kamon of Sato Family but not limited to this: Climbing Wisteria in a Circle (Maru-ni Agari-fuji)

Sato family’s estimated population is around 2 million people. It is a surname concentrated in eastern Japan, especially in the Tohoku region. In Akita and Yamagata in particular, around 7% of the population is the Sato family. On the other hand, even in western Japan, where there are few Sato surnames, there are many Sato surnames in Hiroshima, Tokushima and Oita prefectures. There is a historical reason for this.


Japan’s first nationwide civil war, the “Genpei Gassen” which broke out in the late 12th century, many of the warriors who followed the Taira clan (Heike) in this battle were from clans based in western Japan. After the war, these samurai lands were confiscated, but most of them were confiscated by the Minamoto clan (Genji) side in the three prefectures of Hiroshima, Tokushima, and Oita. The land that no longer had a Heike lord was given to the generals of the eastern part of the country who were attached to the Minamoto clan.
When a warlord was given a new domain, he sent his clan or party to rule over these lands.


As a result, surnames from eastern Japan have come in en masse and in these three prefectures, not just Sato, the composition of surnames is closer to eastern Japan than in western Japan. The root of the Sato surname is a descendant of the Fujiwara clan.

2.鈴木 SUZUKI

One representative Kamon of Suzuki Family but not limited to this: Embracing Ears of Rice (Daki-ine)

There are an estimated 1.8 million people using the surname nationwide, the second most common surname after Sato. While the Sato surname spread from the imperial court to the provinces and has multiple roots, the Suzuki surname is limited to Kumano in the Kii Peninsula and is a surname that spread throughout the country from here. Therefore, the surname Suzuki is not derived from a place name or occupation.

There are various theories about the roots of the Suzuki surname, but the most likely theory is that the Suzuki surname was born from a pile of rice straws called “suzuki” in Kumano. It is also said to refer to the special ears of rice used in rituals. The Chinese character for “Suzuki” was given later.

The Suzuki clan can be thought of as a clan with a strong connection to rice farming. The Kumano Suzuki clan later moved to Fujishiro (Kainan City, Wakayama Prefecture) and became a priest of the Oji Shrine, where they became associated with the Kumano faith and spread throughout the country with mountain priests.

3. 高橋 TAKAHASHI

One representative Kamon of Takahashi Family but not limited to this: Hat in a Circle (Maru-ni Kasa)

The Takahashi surname is the most common place-derived surname in Japan. The name of the place comes from a high bridge. Even in the Edo period (1603-1868), it was common to cross the river by ferry, except in urban areas. In ancient times, it would have been quite unusual to have a permanent bridge over the river. From this, surnames with the word “bridge” were born, such as 橋本 (Hashimoto), 大橋 (Ohashi), and 船橋 (Funabashi), but the most representative of these is Takahashi.
This is the origin of the high bridge, but a bridge over a deep valley could not be built on a very low place, so it became a high bridge.

Also, large bridges become Takahashi. Today, a straight bridge can be made out of concrete, but in the pre-Edo period, long bridges were built with a raised center to add strength. The Takahashi surname was found all over the country, both east and west. It is widely distributed in Japan but is more common in eastern Japan.

4. 田中 TANAKA

One representative Kamon of Tanaka Family but not limited to this: Three Counter Clockwise Swirling Water Pattern (Hidari Mitsu-domoe)

The Tanaka surname is one of Japan’s most representative surnames of topographical origin. Unlike place names and surnames, topographical surnames are often widely distributed throughout the country because the same topography will produce the same surname. The root of “Tanaka” is literally the “inside” (中) of “ta” (田). Before the Edo period, the Japanese economy was based on rice. The rice paddies were the most important asset for rice production, and the vastness of the rice paddies was also a sign of the family’s wealth.

After the late Heian period (794-1185), it was the samurai’s job to cultivate as much of the flat land as possible and turn it into rice paddies and protect it with military force. This is why there are so many surnames with the word “ta” (田) in the topographical surnames. The surname “Tanaka” is the most common surname among the topographical surnames with the word “inside” (中) because it is common to build rice fields around a house. The roots are said to be the descendants of Takeuchi no Sukune.

5. 渡辺 WATANABE

One representative Kamon of Watanabe Family but not limited to this: Three Stars and Kanji Character One (Watanabe-boshi)

Watanabe is the second most common place name after Takahashi, but its origin is limited to one place. There is no other example of a surname occurring in a single place and spreading across the country to such an extent that it is common for surnames to be in the top of national rankings to have multiple roots. The roots of the Watanabe surname are in the country of Settsu (present-day). Descendants of the Saga Genji clan, descendants of Emperor Saga, lived in a place called Watanabe, Nishinari-gun, Settsu and organized a kindred group called the Watanabe Party. Mr. Watanabe is a descendant of this Watanabe Party.

The place-name Watanabe no longer exists, and this area is now quite inland, but it was once called Watanabe Tsu, the largest port in the Seto Inland Sea, which was established near the mouth of the Yodo River. Since it held the port, the Watanabe Party became a naval force, and some clans, such as the Matsura Party, were born from the clan that were active as naval forces. The Watanabe surname is more common in eastern Japan, especially in Tochigi and Niigata prefectures.

6. 伊藤 ITO

One representative Kamon of Ito Family but not limited to this: Bird’s Nest Pattern in a Hermitage (Iori-ni Mokko)

The Ito surname, like the Sato surname, is a descendant of the Fujiwara clan. The “I” (伊) in Ito is derived from the name of the place. Ito means “Fujiwara clan of Ise”, and the Fujiwara clan, who became the guard of Ise, took the “Ito” from the “I” of “Ise” and the “Fuji” of “Fujiwara” of Fujiwara, and called themselves Ito.

The Ito surname is still overwhelmingly prevalent in the former Ise Province of Mie Prefecture, and is clearly a descendant of the “Fujiwara of Ise”. The northern part of Ise, in particular, has by far the most surnames in most municipalities, and the highest number of surnames in Mie Prefecture as a whole. Mr. Ito is represented by the Ito Zaibatsu (financial combine) of Nagoya. It opened in the early Edo period and has been a representative of Nagoya’s business world for 400 years, which is now Matsuzakaya.

7. 山本 YAMAMOTO

One representative Kamon of Yamamoto Family but not limited to this: Crossed Falcon Feathers in a Circle (Maru-ni Chigai-takanoha)

The name Yamamoto is derived from one of Japan’s most representative topographical origins and is the most representative surname in western Japan. Yamamoto means the foot of a mountain. In modern times it is sometimes shunned as dangerous to live at the foot of a mountain, but in ancient times it was more common to live at the foot of a mountain than in the middle of a plain. Even now, if you go to a rural area in the valley, the path close to the river has been developed as paddy fields, and houses are often lined up on either side of the single road that led to the foot of the mountain.

This is the original landscape of Japan, and it is from these places that Yamamoto-san was born. It is common in western Japan, but is distributed throughout the country except in the Tohoku region. Also, in the southern part of Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, many people write 山元 instead of 山本.

8. 中村 NAKAMURA

One representative Kamon of Nakamura Family but not limited to this: Wood Sorrel with Swords in a Circle (Maru-ni Ken-katabami)

The Nakamura surname can be said to be derived from both place names and directions. The word “Nakamura” originally meant the main village in relation to the central village or a branch village. The Nakamura surname, which means “central village” in Japanese, is an azimuthal surname, but many of these places are also called “Nakamura”, and many families took Nakamura as their surname because they lived there. For this reason, it is generally considered a place name surname. There is a theory that Nakamura is the most commonplace name in Japan, and it is not possible to simply identify its roots from the last name.

In the Edo period, there was only a very short period of time when the Nakamura family was a daimyo (feudal lord), but the Nakamura family was famous for many other famous families besides samurai generals, among them the Nakamura family of Kabuki actors. There was also the Nakamura family, one of the ten Senke craftsmen in Kyoto. The Nakamura surname, which has its roots in various places, is still widely distributed throughout the country today.

9. 小林 KOBAYASHI

One representative Kamon of Kobayashi Family but not limited to this: Swallowtail Butterfly in a Circle (Maru-ni Ageha-cho)

The Kobayashi surname is literally a topographical surname that originated from a small forest, like a thicket, and has its origin in many parts of the country. Especially in Nagano and Gunma prefectures, there are also place names and it is known that there was a Kobayashi family from ancient times.

In Nagano Prefecture, the Kobayashi surname is by far the most common surname, and in the northern part of the prefecture, it is the most common surname in most municipalities. In Nagano Prefecture, where the Kobayashi surname is predominantly found, there are several origins of the Kobayashi surname, but the most famous is the village of Kobayashi (now Iida City) in the former Ina County, where the Suwa clan lived and took the name Kobayashi.

Also, the Kobayashi clan in Gunma Prefecture has its roots in the village of Kobayashi (now Fujioka City) in the former Midorino County. It is an old house from the Kamakura period, and the name “Kobayashi Party” appears in “Azuma Kagami”, the official history book of the Kamakura Shogunate.

10. 加藤 KATO

One representative Kamon of Kato Family but not limited to this: Snake Eye (Janome)

The Kato surname is also a descendant of the Fujiwara clan. The “ka” (加) in Kato is the “ka” (加) of Ishikawa Prefecture in the Kaga (加賀) Province. Kato has several branches, many of which are descendants of the Toshihito line of the Fujiwara Hokke. The Kato clan began when Kagemichi, the seventh generation of Fujiwara Toshihito, became Kaga no suke and took the name “Kato” as “Fujiwara of Kaga”. Many Kato family members of the samurai family are said to be from Mino.

The Kato surname is widely distributed, except Shikoku and Kyushu, and is especially common in eastern Japan, especially in the Tokai region. This is especially true in the northern part of Aichi Prefecture, where 9% of Seto City’s population consists of Kato families. It is unusual for a city of 100,000 people to have such a high rate, let alone a small town or village with a small population, and more than 3,000 households in Seto City alone have Kato families living there.

2. Top 60 Japanese American Surname Ranking

The U.S. Census Bureau created a ranking of surnames in the U.S. based on the results of the 1990 census. The first Japanese surname to appear is “Tanaka,” which ranks No. 3565 in the U.S. Sato” and “Suzuki” are the fifth and eighth Japanese American surnames, respectively, indicating that many Japanese American surnames are from western Japan.


Also, in the case of Yamazaki (山崎), which is read differently in the East and West, Yamasaki in the West ranks higher than Yamazaki in the East. In addition, “Higa” (比嘉) is the twelfth most common surname among Japanese Americans and the most common surname in Okinawa Prefecture. “Oshiro” (大城), which is also concentrated in Okinawa, is also in the 22nd position, indicating that many people are from Okinawa.

Japanese Family Crest: List of the Lineage Symbols

  1. Tanaka (田中)
  2. Yamamoto (山本)
  3. Nakamura (中村・仲村)
  4. Watanabe (渡辺・渡部)
  5. Sato (佐藤)
  6. Yamada (山田)
  7. Kimura (木村)
  8. Suzuki (鈴木)
  9. Kato (加藤)
  10. Yoshida (吉田)
  11. Takahashi (高橋)
  12. Higa (比嘉)
  13. Kobayashi (小林)
  14. Nakano (中野・仲野)
  15. Hayashi (林)
  16. Hashimoto (橋本)
  17. Saito (斎藤・斉藤)
  18. Sasaki (佐々木)
  19. Mori (森・毛利)
  20. Matsumoto (松本・松元)
  21. Ito (伊藤・伊東)
  22. Oshiro (大城)
  23. Maeda (前田)
  24. Fujimoto (藤本)
  25. Miyamoto (宮本)
  26. Shimizu (清水・志水)
  27. Nakagawa (中川・仲川)
  28. Ikeda (池田)
  29. Morita (森田・守田)
  30. Yamashita (山下)
  31. Abe (阿部・安倍・安部)
  32. Murakami (村上)
  33. Inouye (井上)
  34. Harada (原田)
  35. Fujii (藤井)
  36. Uchida (内田)
  37. Nishimura (西村)
  38. Tamura (田村)
  39. Otani (大谷・小谷)
  40. Matsuda (松田)
  41. Yoshioka (吉岡)
  42. Ono (小野・大野)
  43. Inoue (井上)
  44. Yamaguchi (山口)
  45. Ogata (緒方・尾形・小形) 
  46. Hamada (浜田)
  47. Yamasaki (山崎)
  48. Nagata (永田・長田)
  49. Yokoyama (横山)
  50. Okamoto (岡本)
  51. Kawamoto (川本・河本)
  52. Kawakami (川上)
  53. Honda (本多・本田)
  54. Yokota (横田)
  55. Kawamura (川村・河村)
  56. Ogawa (小川)
  57. Noda (野田) 
  58. Hara (原)
  59. Endo (遠藤)
  60. Arakaki (新垣)

3. Surnames of the common people – Japanese Surnames

Photo by Ningyu He on Unsplash

1.Origin of place names – Japanese Surnames

The easiest way to distinguish a house from a house is to distinguish it by where it is located.
Unlike today, in the old days, relatives would have lived much closer together.
The place-name part often contains a smaller place name that is closer. In fact, the roots of surnames are most likely to be derived from place-names.

Also, surnames came into existence from the late Heian period to the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912), and only place names that existed during this period can be the root of a surname. Additionally, place names often change over time, especially kanji, so even if the kanji is slightly different, it is often the root of the surname.

In addition, there are cases in which the surname derived from a place name indicates that the person is from that place, not the place where the person lives. In some cases, when a person moves to another land, he or she takes his or her native place as his or her last name.

2. Terrain-derived – Japanese Surnames

Photo by Mark Boss on Unsplash

As the population grows and the number of houses in the same place name increases, it is now necessary to distinguish between houses and houses by something other than place names. In those cases, they used the topography of the place where they lived and the appearance of the land as their surname. The most common pattern is one that uses the geography of the land itself, such as a mountain (山) or river (川). In other words, “Yamamoto” (山本) who lives at the foot of the mountain, “Kawabe” (川辺) who lives by the river, etc. There are various types of rivers, such as large rivers (大川), small rivers (小川), streams (沢), rivers that flow in the mountains, rivers that flow fast (瀬), and abysses that flow slowly (淵).

The next most common ones are those that indicate a relationship with people, such as “rice fields” (田) and “fields” (畑). One of the representative ones is “Tanaka” (田中).

In Japan, where rice was the basis of life, they developed new rice fields and expanded the area of rice paddies as much as possible. There are many variations, including “Ota,” (太田) “Hirota,” (広田) and “Oda,” (小田) which occupy the area of rice paddies; “Takata,” (高田) “Kawada,” (川田) and “Hamada,” (浜田) which indicate the location; and “Miyata” (宮田) and “Terada,” (寺田) which indicate the owner.

3. Azimuth and directional origin – Japanese Surnames

How do we distinguish between houses when the place names and topography are the same? In this case, it is a surname derived from the direction or azimuth that is used.

It is usually determined by the center of the settlement or which direction it is in terms of the location of the main house. Basically, “North, South, East and West” are used, but also “Right and Left”, “Front and Back”, “Up and Down”, “Inside, Middle and Outside” and so on. The “Aside” and “Side” are also elements of the surname.

Of these, “Up and Down” can be literally based on height, such as “downhill” or “uphill,” but in general, “up” is often used for upstream and downstream of a river, or closer to the capital of a city road, and the opposite is “down”. Many surnames were created by connecting these words for direction and direction with words such as “mountain”, “river” and “village”.

4. Occupational origin – Japanese Surnames

Nowadays, it is not uncommon for parents and children being in different professions. However, in the pre-Edo period (before the 17th century), the occupation was basically hereditary. Thus, it was possible to point to a particular house by occupation, unless it was something that the majority of the settlement was engaged in, such as farming or fishing.

The surname derived from the occupation has changed over time.
In ancient times, the official occupation became the surname. Such as “Inukai” (犬飼/犬養), which had dogs, and “Okura” (大蔵), which is derived from the Okura dormitory that managed the finances of the imperial court.
There are also surnames such as “Kureha,” (呉羽) which is derived from a family from Wuji in southern China who were in charge of clothing, and “villager,” (村主) which has its roots in the ancient word “suguri,” meaning village chief.


During the Heian period (794-1185), the surnames of aristocrats and temples and shrines that had been the domain of the manor were born. The “Shoji” (庄司/庄子) who actually managed the manor on behalf of the aristocrats in the region are among them.

4. Why the emperor has no surname – Japanese Surnames

Those who were given a surname by the emperor expressed their loyalty to the emperor by accepting it and calling themselves by it. So the emperor has no surname. From the Yamato period through the Showa, Heisei, and Reiwa periods to the present, the emperor and the imperial family have not had a surname.

5. The surnames of samurai derived from the place name – Japanese Surnames

As a place of economic profit and military power, the samurai took their domain as “一所懸命” (the land that they risked their lives to protect in one place) and took this as their surname. In other words, taking a place name as a surname was meant to prevent others from intervening and embezzling by claiming, “This place is my domain! Such a place was called “名字ノ地” (a place of the surname). 
Originally, the samurai’s surname was the place name of the estate’s “名字ノ地” (a place of the surname). Therefore, when the estate changes, the surname changes as a matter of course.

Have you found Japanese surnames you are familiar with? Or even your Japanese surnames on the list? Let us know if you have any stories to share with us!

References

Hiroshi Morioka, Ketteiban! Myoji no Himitsu [Ultimate! The Secret of the Surnames], Asahi Shimbun Publisher, 2009

Noriyuki Okutomi, Myoji to Namae o Shiru Jiten [The Dictionary to know Surnames and Names], Tokyodo Publisher, 2007

Hiroko Matsuyama

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