A Brief History on Japanese Family Names

The history of Japanese names is very interesting not only because their system of naming and the language are complicated and unique, but also because these names come from specific various sources. In fact, in the past, Japanese names only have the given or first names. Ancient Japanese commoners do not use a family name although they technically have a last name that is the place of their origin or birth, the position or rank that their family serves in the government, the product brand that a family of merchants sell, or the names of their fathers for those who are from families of farmers. But during the Meiji period, the government required all citizens, including the commoners, to adopt one of the approved Kanji characters to be used as their Japanese family names.

During the Meiji Restoration period, the process of acquiring a good family name is left at the hands of the individuals. Those upper class families just have to continue the use of their family names while the commoners either ask the help of a local sage or be creative themselves to come up with their own surnames. These Japanese family names were later on codified and the government did not allow anyone to just choose their own new family name unless the same comes from the government approved list of Japanese names.

The formal institutionalization of the system of naming in Japan began in the year 1870. The government actively participated in the gathering and registering of names of their citizens and made sure that the latter only used or were using Japanese family names that have already been approved or granted by the emperor. This process did not only organized Japanese names and the society in proper labels, but it also preserved the names so that they do not get extinguished due to lack of progenies.

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