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Molly McArdle
July 12, 2017

In Japan, names are incredibly descriptive. Tokyo, before 1868, was known as Edo, which means estuary. When it became the imperial capital of Japan, the name changed: Tokyo means east capital. Hiroshima, located on a series of islands at the mouth of a bay, means “Broad Island.”

When written, Mount Fuji’s name means, literally, “wealth,” “abundant,” and “a man with a certain status,” but the spoken word predates its written meanings. The original meaning of Fuji is not entirely clear: it could mean immortal, without equal, or never ending. The late 18th and early 19th-century scholar Hirata Atsutane theorized that Fuji meant “a mountain standing up shapely as an ear of a rice plant.”

A person’s full name, in Japanese, consists of a family and then a given name — in that order. Japanese script is rendered in kanji, characters of Chinese origin first brought to Japan by Buddhist monks in the fourth century. Like many languages, context matters. Many kanji share the same pronunciation (homophones). Similarly, a single kanji may be pronounced in different ways. Because of this, pronunciation cannot necessarily be determined by spelling, and spelling cannot necessarily be determined by pronunciation.

Popular Japanese Names

Traditionally, Japanese boy names were often named according to their birth order. Ichirou, for instance, means “first son;” Jirou, “second son.” Japanese girl names often had the kanji “ko” (or 子) added as a suffix, which means child. Aiko, for instances, combines it with the kanji for love (“ai,” or 愛).

According to The Japanese Times, Aoi, which means "hollyhock," was the most popular Japanese girl name in 2016. The ranking, which was determined by Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co., looked at the names of some 17,456 names of children born last year. 

The most popular boy name was Hiroto, formed by combining two kanji characters which mean "big" and "fly." Both Aoi and Hiroto snagged the No. 1 spots for two years in a row. 

The Japanese Times noted that many Japanese Olympians have inspired name trends in Japan. The name Kei shot up 818 spots to No. 60 after tennis player Kei Nishikori took bronze in the Rio Olympics. Gymnast Kohei Uchimura, who earned two gold medals, drove his given name up to No. 41 on the list of boy names. 

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