How Japanese give names to their children

※ This article discusses how Japanese parents find names for their children. My Japanese friends taught me.

In Austria, it typically works the following way: You buy one of these First names: Over 6000 names with origin and meaning books (or First name lexicon in general). Each parent sits down and crosses out names, they don’t like. Often the names are associated with someone’s own past. A roommate, they did not like, or a teacher, who was very strict. You don’t want to name your child after someone, you associate with bad memories. Popular first names include Lukas, Tobias, Katharina and Anna.

Just like in Austria (Philip versus Philipp), names in Japan (Chiyu versus Chiyuu) can be very similar in pronunciation.

In Japan, it works differently. Parents mostly choose a pronunciation first. Names of popular people, friends or relatives are in the top list just like in Austria. So you can write their name in Hiragana. After that you have to decide upon the Kanji writing (Chinese characters). This is more important because names are always written in Kanji. Each Kanji has one or more meanings (mostly one). For example, 学 is study and 温 means warmth. Do you recognize how the latter character occurs in onsen ( 温泉 ), the word for Japanese hot springs? For every Kanji, there are multiple readings. 学 is mostly pronounced "gaku" (がく), but also "mana" (まな) in the context of " 学 ぶ" (まなぶ, manabu). So if your chosen name in Hiragana contains "gaku" or "mana", you can consider the Kanji 学 in the name. If your name contains "on", you can consider using the Kanji 温 at that position. In the best case, you chose characters with meanings you hope to become defining characteristics of that person.

Now, the interesting part to me was the following: Kakusu ( 画数 , かくす) is the word for "stroke count". 学 needs 8 strokes to be written properly. One of my friends pointed out that her first name has a stroke count sum of 12. Her surname has a stroke count sum is 27. And certain tuples like (12, 27) are considered good or bad. 5 students were involved in the discussion and in 3 cases, the parents considered the Kakusu of the names.

However, Namiko Abe points out that the name finding process is more generic than I just explained. It does not have to follow the pronunciation-writing order. Name choices can be inspired by an image, a wish, kanji characters, names of relatives, sounds or as a memorial. I found the article itself very well-researched. Worth a read!