What’s in a Name?

Quite a few people have asked me where Mayuki’s name came from, and Japanese names work a bit differently from Western ones, so I think it might be worth explaining here.

Japanese law only allows people to have two names, a given name and a family name. The family name is determined by the name on the family register. The given name is chosen by the parents, but once registered, it is very difficult to change, unlike England. In addition, there are limits on the characters you can use in a name. You may only use hiragana, katakana, and particular kanji. (The kana are the syllabic scripts, like alphabets, and kanji are the ideograms from China.) There are over 2,000 kanji to choose from, but you can’t, for example, use the kanji for “cancer” or “corpse”, if I recall correctly.

Within those limits, however, you have almost total freedom. What is more, if you write the name in kanji, you can choose the way that it is pronounced freely, because the pronunciation is not officially recorded, and thus not officially regulated. It is sensible to choose a pronunciation that naturally goes with those kanji, but that practice is not universal.

Thus, choosing a name for you baby is not a matter of choosing from a list of names. There are popular names, but creating your own is also quite common. Even for the popular names, you can choose the kanji you want to write it with; there are double lists of popular names, one for the pronunciation, and one for the written characters. It is not uncommon for a name to be in the top ten on one, but right down on the other. If a popular sound has a lot of possible, and sensible, kanji, its numbers might be evenly split six or seven ways on the written list. On the other hand, a moderately popular pronunciation with only one sensible set of characters could appear very high up the written list.

One side effect of this is that it always makes sense to ask someone how to pronounce or write their name in Japan. There are many names where you can make a good guess, particularly going from the written form to the spoken, but not always. For example, Megumi, a popular girl’s name, can be written 恵美 or æ„›, but the second character can also be read “Ai”, which is another popular girl’s name. Girls names, in particular, might be wholly or partially written in kana, because they are perceived as feminine. Yuriko writes her name with two kana, for the first two syllables, and then kanji for the final “ko”.

The other thing that some people consider is the number of strokes that it takes to right the name. There’s the practical issue of not requiring a young child to learn lots of highly complex kanji right at the start, but there’s also a form of fortune telling based on the absolute number of strokes, and the number fo strokes combined with the number in the family name. Some people apparently take it very seriously, to the point that baby name books include advice on getting round grandparents who don’t like the name you’ve chosen because it has the “wrong” stroke count. The best way, apparently, is to say that you’re relying on a different regional tradition, because there are lots of different rules for which combinations are good and which are bad.

Anyway, we completely ignored that one.

I wanted Mayuki to have a very Japanese given name, because she’s half Japanese and half English, but already has a purely English family name. Western-derived names, like Anna, are quite popular at the moment, but Anna Chart doesn’t sound at all Japanese. I finally managed to win Yuriko over on this point.

So, the next stage was to think about the sound we wanted. Obviously, it had to be something that English-speakers could pronounce correctly, and that would be fairly easy to spell, and have only one sensible English spelling. However, it also had to sound nice.

That left far too much choice, so we narrowed it down by looking at kanji. Because kanji are ideograms, they give the name its meaning. Thus, I wanted to give her a kanji name. I didn’t want a name ending in “ko”, even though that’s very common for Japanese girls’ names, because the kanji means “child”. Similarly, I wanted to avoid cute names like “Flower bud”, which are fine for young girls, but less appropriate when she’s fifty and trying to become the first female Prime Minister of Japan. For example. The kanji meaning “beautiful” is also a very common component of girls’ names, but I was a bit ambivalent about that. I mean, obviously she will be, but I felt I’d prefer a name that didn’t focus on appearance. For similar reasons, I wanted to avoid flower names.

So, I went through a drew up a list of characters I liked. One I really liked was 真, which means “genuine, real”, and, in names, is commonly read “ma”, which is the first syllable of my mother’s middle name, “Mary”. Yuriko decided that she wanted to include ç”±, which means “reason”, and is the first character of her mother’s name.

That gave us “ma” and “yu”. “Mayu” and “Yuma” are both possible, but we decided to play around a bit with the sounds. “Mayuko” has that “ko” character, so that was out. “Mayumi” is quite a common name, and has the beauty kanji last. “Mayuna” was another candidate; the “na” would normally be written with the “na” from “Kanagawa”, and is a very popular final syllable for girls’ names right now. But then we thought of “Mayuki”. We liked the sound, because it seemed somehow bright, and it manages to be a bit unusual without being strange. “Mayumi” and “Miyuki” are both common girls’ names, but “Mayuki” is not (yet). So, it sounds like a girls’ name, but not like one that everyone has heard a million times already.

When we looked at candidate kanji for the final syllable and discovered that we could use the kanji for “joy”, which is my father’s wife’s name, that settled it.

真由喜: “genuine reason for joy”.

Posted in Japan, Japanese, Our Child.

2 Comments

  1. I see you have it all wrong – again. The above maybe the intellectual rationalisation you have employed to fool the rest of the world, but you cannot fool me!! The derivation of the name is obvious once you move away from the Japanese characters.

    “May – uk -i”

    May is the month I was born, UK is the country I was born in and I have always considerd myself No 1. How much plainer can this be? Clearly you have named your daughter after me!!!!!

    What do you mean “self-centered”? Do you not accept the obvious progression from the geocentric to the heliocentric to the iancentric? What did they teach you at that University?

    This is all really about me isn’t it? Isn’t it?

  2. Have tried, once again, to explain to John that it is Ma-yu-ki and not my Yuki, his Yuki, or anyone else’s Yuki. He remains unconvinced. Fortunately, I understand that Yuki will be an acceptable nickname if necessary.

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