Reading Japanese Size-based Names

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.

NameRomanizedGeneral Meaning
大橋ŌhashiLarge Bridge
大石ŌishiLarge Boulder
大久保ŌkuboGreat Longtime Protector
大森ŌmoriLarge Forest
大西ŌnishiLarge West
大野ŌnoLarge Field
大沢ŌsawaLarge Marsh
大澤ŌsawaLarge Swamp
大島ŌshimaLarge Island
大谷ŌtaniLarge Valley
大塚ŌtsukaLarge Hill

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.

NameRomanizedGeneral Meaning
中川NakagawaCenter of the River
中島NakajimaCenter of the Island
中村NakamuraCenter of the Village
中西NakanishiMiddle West
中野NakanoCenter of the Field
中田Nakata or NakadaCenter of the Rice Field
中山NakayamaCenter of the Mountain
田中TanakaRice Field Center
山中YamanakaMountain 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.

NameRomanizedGeneral Meaning
小川OgawaSmall River
小沢OzawaSmall Marsh
小澤OzawaSmall Swamp
小田OdaSmall Rice Field
小野OnoSmall Field
小山KoyamaSmall Mountain
小島KojimaSmall Island
小松KomatsuSmall Pine Tree
小林KobayashiSmall Grove
小池KoikeSmall Pond
小西KonishiSmall West

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.

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[Image Credits: acworks/photo-ac.com]

Tim Patrick

Tim Patrick is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and now life in Japan. Find his latest books at OwaniPress.com.

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