When you take a formal Japanese language course, the sample dialogs will introduce the characters by surname, often names like Tanaka (田中) and Ogawa (小川) that are formed with simpler kanji. Occasionally, the textbook will throw a Suzuki (鈴木) or an Itō (伊藤) into the mix to help you feel good about all the complex characters you are learning. But when you arrive here and people start handing you their business cards, you learn quickly that you have no idea how to pronounce even common last names.
To overcome my own deficiency in this area, I sought out a list of the 200 most common Japanese family names. I will post a few articles listing them out, arranging them in groups to help make the memorization process easier. Today’s list focuses on those names that have a size component: Large (大), Medium (中), and Small (小).
Let’s start big, with the 大 character, which is often translated as “large,” “big,” or “great.” Within the collection of most common surnames, this character always appears in the initial position, and it is always pronounced as “Ō.” Normally, a romaji long “ō” is associated with the two-kana pairおう. But in the case of 大, “ō” converts to おお instead.
|大久保||Ōkubo||Great Longtime Protector|
Let’s move on to names that include 中, which translates to “middle,” “center,” or “in.” When used in names, it is always pronounced as “naka” (なか). For most of the names below, the 中 character appears at the start. But as you might expect from a character that implies “within,” it doesn’t always need to come first.
|中川||Nakagawa||Center of the River|
|中島||Nakajima||Center of the Island|
|中村||Nakamura||Center of the Village|
|中野||Nakano||Center of the Field|
|中田||Nakata or Nakada||Center of the Rice Field|
|中山||Nakayama||Center of the Mountain|
|田中||Tanaka||Rice Field Center|
Among the size-related name kanji, 小 is the most complex, although just barely. While it always appears at the start of a name, its pronunciation changes based on what follows. For some names, it uses “o” (お) for the sound, but in other names it takes on the “ko” (こ) sound instead.
|小田||Oda||Small Rice Field|
|小松||Komatsu||Small Pine Tree|
You might recognize some of these names from news, entertainment, sports, or business uses. For instance, the current governor of Tōkyō is named Koike (小池). And there’s that company named Komatsu (小松) that makes large earth-moving equipment, like bulldozers. You would think its name would start with 大 given its product line, but I guess it doesn’t work that way.
The names in this initial set are not too difficult to remember, especially since so many of them use characters that come early in the kanji learning process. For Japan Everyday members, a downloadable study list of these names is available, and similar lists will be provided in upcoming name articles.
Downloadable Content Available
Click here to access the name list for this article.
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