Friday, September 24, 2004

English and Japanese surnames

Surnames for us common folk are relatively new in human history. Until a few hundred years ago, only the ruling class had them. Everyone else had only first names and were distinguished from their same-named compatriots by their fathers (Eric, son of Davis) or where they lived (William of Langley). These identifiers are also what eventually evolved into many of today’s English surnames. Many other surnames come from occupations: smith, baker, butcher.

In Japan, surnames are depicted with kanji, or Chinese ideograms. Most surnames indicate a place, as you can see in the most common ones: Tanaka (“middle of the paddy”), Fujita (“wisteria paddy” [as in a rice paddy next to trees covered in wisteria vines]), Hashimoto (“base of [or under] the bridge”), Yoshino (“lucky field”), Matsui (“pine well,” as in a water well amid pine trees), and Suzuki (bell tree, or belled tree).
Most last names are written with two kanji, but some are depicted with only one kanji, others with three or even more.

The reason that last names come first in Japan has to do with the Japanese language: Hundreds of years ago, someone today known as Fujita Hiroshi would have been known as “Fujita no Hiroshi,” which can mean “Hiroshi of the Fujita [family or clan].” But because they most often refer to a place, surnames could have gotten their start as geographic reference points. In other words, in Hiroshi’s place, “Fujita no Hiroshi” could have meant “the Hiroshi who lives by [or owns] the wisteria paddy.” Just as appellations like “John the Smith” became simply “John Smith,” the “no” eventually disappeared from Japanese names, too.
It could also be that way back in feudal Japan, the last name of a peasant, merchant, or other commoner came from that of the wealthy landowner on whose land he lived or whose land he farmed.

Even so, that such a large percentage of Japanese names are place names suggests that the land-owning class was just following an already-established practice when they became the first people to give themselves last names. Or, to look at it another way, the fact that the aristocrats were the ones who got surnames first explains why there are almost none that suggest hard work!