Japanese (and Chinese) Names

 
On this page

Asian Languages

About Reading Kanji

Reading Examples

What does all that mean?

Some Pronunciation and Writing points

My character names

 

 

Back to People Main Page

So, I was asked to explain in more detail about the name stuff. Keep in mind, the following is for Japanese. If we were to add on all the possible permutations of all the Asian languages, there'd be too much. Trust me, Japanese itself is a lot. >.>;;

I get pretty amused at people who think they can slap together a name by telling an internet dictionary some random word and using the word to make up a name. Sure, that works okay but ultimately, you end up with some really weird names. I get that L5R isn't "really" Japan, but when we're using the language as basis for the names, we should try to follow it somewhat. My brain sort of bled the first time I saw an L5R map, because several of the location names were written backwards. <.< They've fixed the map since then, fortunately.

I used to always get some person or another wanting to know how to write their character's name. Eventually, I would agree and then they hand me something like "Akiko." I'd write out the hiragana... あきこ... and they'd go, "No, I know how to do that. I  mean in those, like, symbol things. You know, the big ones."

Now, since Kanji and hiragana are actually - when written correctly - the same size, I must assume they mean "difficult" when they say "big."

A name like "Akiko" literally has over a hundred possible kanji sets. I know a dozen different Akiko's and none of them write their name the same way.

So~! With that said, I'm going to try and explain some of the linguistic mechanics. Click to the Character Names if you just want to see what my characters' kanji sets are.

 

Asian languages:

With the Hallyu wave (Korean Wave of popularity) going strong, it's a good idea for us to take a moment and do a small public service announcement.

 

This is - to my deep chagrin - very accurate. Reference noted there in the image.

Within Japanese - which is what most of this page discusses - there are three writing systems. The "cute and squiggly" hiragana - ひらがな - which is a phonetic alphabet. Phonetic alphabet means that each symbol has a sound and when you see that symbol it always means the same sound. It doesn't trick you, it's easy. English does not use a phonetic alphabet any place except in those /slanty things/ in dictionaries. The second is the "plain-looking spaced out symbols [sic]" called katakana - カタカナ - which is a phonetic alphabet for any word that is borrowed from another language. Your name, unless you were born in Japan AND have Japanese heritage, would be written in Katakana. The third is kanji- 漢字 - which are those scary "big" symbols that are borrowed from Chinese.

For reference, when written horizontal on the page, the characters go from left to right, just like we do in English. When written vertically, top of the page in a column down to the bottom, the columns are aligned from the right to the left. It can be confusing, and was the unfortunate situation of said L5R map (can you guess which map I was looking at? I'm told that only one or two of them came out with that particular error).

Mostly, we'll be looking at Kanji on this page.

 

About reading Kanji (the sounds that go with the symbols):

In Japanese, each symbol has an on reading and a kun reading. The On reading is an approximation of the original Chinese pronunciation of the symbol - compounded by several different dynasties pronouncing the word differently. Note that bit about different dynasties. I say "on reading" as if it's singular, but the actual usage of the reading might have three or four subtle differences based on the ACCENT of the era. Sort of like what you'd expect if you were to try and spell everything based on how a French person said a word and how a German speaker said a word. Heck, we have trouble sometimes figuring out what word Japanese mean when they speak English! And remember that Chinese has its own kettle of reading fun.

The kun reading came along when the Japanese adopted new kanji symbols... but they already had a word in Japanese for whatever that symbol meant. Kun readings are entirely Japanese, where the Chinese character was attached to a Japanese word or similar concept that was already in use.

AND THEN we have Nanori which is the commonly used pronunciations ONLY USED in names. And there are further other readings for the other languages that also used the Chinese symbols in the basis of their languages. If you want to see more details on how all this works, a really rather good analysis is on the wikipedia page for kanji. Just click down to the section titled "Reading."

 

Reading examples:

Let's take part of a pretty common word. Any Anime fan knows that sensei 先生」means "teacher" or "doctor." Literally, it means "before, life." The second character there - the "life" character is read "sei" in this word.

That same character can also be read with the following readings in Japanese: sho, i-kasu, i-keru, u-mareru, u-mu, o-u, ki, na-su, na-ru, mu-su, nama, ha-eru, ha-yasu, o, oi. In that list, the dashes indicate where the kanji drops off and is followed by hiragana to finish the verb. In u-mareru, the kanji only replaces that first 'u' sound; the rest is hiragana on the end of the word. Also, while you might expect this symbol to always mean life, in the instance of "U-mareru" it actually means "birth" as in "to be born." Ki with this symbol usually means something straight or neat. Hayasu is "grow" as in "growing a beard." While these all have something to do with "life" they aren't as straight forward as you might imagine.

Really, it's actually not fair of me to use "life" as an example, because this particular kanji is one of the oldest recorded kanji. Because of its age and the general ability of it to fit in a lot of different phrases, this kanji is thought to  have the  most recorded usage readings in Chinese. But, as an example of how downright freaky odd readings can get of kanji, it serves well. By the way, that list of possible readings up there? Doesn't include the name readings.

The name readings, various typical readings of that kanji if you were to put it in a name, are: asa, iki, iku, ike, ubu, umai, e, oi, kyuu, kurumi, goze, sa, jyou, sugi, so, sou, chiru, naba, niu, nyou, bu, mi, mou, you, ryou.

Ow. Right?

Exactly.

Conversely, if you wanted to take the sound "sei" and put a kanji to it, you would have to choose from 84 different kanji, according to my dictionary.

For the sake of fairness, let me give you another example, this time of a kanji that isn't well know as having one of the most difficult readings to figure out. Flame, as in "recca no honou."  「炎」is the symbol representing the "flame" in the title. It has a pretty limited number of readings: En, honoo, mo-eru, nuku. There are 72, 2, 5, and 4 other kanji with those same readings, each number respective to the individual reading.   En is usually used whenever the symbol is part of a kanji phrase (like "enjou (flame, up) suru" to go up in flames). Honoo is a noun form. Mo-eru is the verb form for "flaming" or "burning." And finally, Nuku is usually the reading we find in names.

Yeah. Usually. Sometimes people will just have a weird reading tacked onto the symbol, though it's usually based on some poem or phrase that they heard. But the essential thing to remember is that in some (admittedly rare) situations, the name reading is a random selection of any of the other possible readings, and sometimes with a dialect/accent twist (like we sometimes say runnin' instead of running).

Now then, remember that bit about kun readings, where the Japanese already had a Japanese word for something? They didn't see the point in learning the Chinese word, so they just took the symbol, dusted off the original Chinese readings, and tacked their original word to that symbol. For instance, East has the original reading of "tou"... as in Tokyo. But the Japanese already had two words for "east" - higashi and azuma. So some word sets ended up with the Chinese reading - like the city - and some kept the original Japanese word. Realistically speaking, this was a pretty good practice as it avoided some really bad linguistic splits between the various classes that would have only gotten worse over time. For us poor sods who are learning the language, or trying to figure out enough to not look like idiots, it's a pain.

It gets worse. Because sometimes the Japanese just took pretty looking kanji and assigned them to a word. "tempura" 「天麩羅」or 「天婦羅」is a pain in the arse to write. The kanji in the middle switches out, though the first version there is more common. I don't honestly know what the middle kanji of the first version is, but the second is (heaven, bride/woman ,guaze/thin silk/Rome)... which the first time I saw, I thought it was some fancy word for a really good prostitute or something she wore. When you figure out all the meanings, it makes no freaking sense especially when you realize it is fried food. The word isn't native to Japan, though people aren't entirely positive where the dish came from, everyone agrees it's not actually native to Japan. The word is probably actually Portugese. The symbols were randomly assigned.

And not only does each character have multiple readings in Japanese - there are the Chinese readings (also multiple readings), Korean, and so forth. Usually, each of the other languages have readings very similar to the Chinese reading, but they sound slightly different. So if your character is from, say, the Unicorn clans, which are distinctly Chinese/Mongol in dress... you might have a different reading all together.

 

What does all that mean?  Basically, when you body slam your e-translated stuff into a name, you are usually taking the noun version or the verb version of the kanji and forcing it into a name. In English that works out okay. But in Japanese, sometimes it comes out pretty funky.

REALISTICALLY SPEAKING... this doesn't actually matter. Except for when you take the part of the reading that is the kanji part of the verb, and drop off the verb endings. For instance, in umeru - to be born. It's written like 生める. If you just take the reading that is actually the kanji, you just take the 'u'.  When you've done this, you have changed the word to something else entirely - one of 58 different kanji, none of which are actually the "life" kanji.

This doesn't mean you can't try to come up with your own stuff. Someone who is familiar with the language can tell you both which reading is a verb reading, and ought to know how to change the verb reading to a different part of speech. And you can feel totally free to use any of the possible readings you come across to make a name sound right. Two of my characters have had the same "sound" of their name, but they changed out the kanji to reflect new phases of their lives. I did this by just looking up the sound I didn't care if I changed and just scrolled through the kanji until I found another kanji that had the same reading, but a different meaning that I liked. (Kaikahun is blossoming flower flame, but she's called Kai (with the kanji for ashes) in later years).

A lot of people when they introduce themselves, if their name is weird, will introduce themselves by saying "My name is Kotarou, as in the 'ko' from (some random phrase, in which one symbol is read 'ko') and 'tarou' from (another random phrase or verb with that reading)" or they will do something similar by giving the verb readings of the kanji in their names. This is especially true with foreigners who have adopted kanji symbols to adapt to their name, because often to make the correct sounds, rather obscure readings are sometimes hauled out. Michael becomes "maikeiiru" and he'd have to find kanji that sort of fit together to make that reading. All of which, by the way, is dependant on the other person recognizing the sample phrase well enough to pick out the appropriate kanji. You can see this in Twelve Kingdoms when the rat hanjyuu Rakushuun introduces himself. His name is weird, and so he goes through the effort of explaining the origins of his name.

As a side note, most parents who want their children to be somehow special or learned will do complex names. "Usagi" from Sailor Moon has a really basic name, and even though there is a kanji for "Usagi" 「兎」she never uses it, which could be a backhand reference to how simple and straightforward she is... not necessarily a desirable trait.

 

Some pronunciation and writing points:

As mentioned elsewhere, Japanese only has one final consonant sound - the 'n' sound. All other final sounds of words are actually vowels. David becomes "dabido" or "dabidu," Michelle become "misheiru" and so forth.

All written letters are spoken. There are no 'hidden' vowels like we have in English, and no hidden consonants like in French. What you see typed out is what is spoken. The only exceptions are in casual speech, especially if you are speaking quickly. When an 'i' is between two voiceless sounds (like 'k' or 't' where you make the sound with your tongue and air, but no voice) the 'i' can disappear, so that "chikatetsu" becomes "chkatetsu" without really giving space or breath to the I. Also sometimes when a 'u' is the last sound after a voiceless consonant (like "desu" sometimes just sounds like "des"). FORMAL or POLITE conversation NEVER skips these sounds.

A double consonant means you are supposed to pause a little and say that sound harder than you normally would.  

A= ah, i = ee, u= oo, e= eh, o= oh. Never anything else. Unlike English, these five sounds are the only vowel sounds, and combining them doesn't change how they are read. When there are multiple vowels, pronounce all of the sounds. "au" is Ah-oo. ei = eh-ee

K/c is always a hard sound like "key" and never the soft 's' sound like "peace."

G is, again, a hard sound like "get" never soft like "George"

J is the soft "g" sound, as in "jet" or "George"

Tsu - sort of feels like you are trying to spit. You make a SSS sound and do a silent t in front of it.

H- is very soft, and sometimes actually sounds like an f. This isn't too different from English h sounds.

F- is really their H sound. Just realize that if you see an F, it's not the hard F that we use. Japanese don't like showing their teeth, and you have to show your teeth to make the English F. In Japanese, F is really an H sound with lots of extra air. Say 'who' then put extra strength/air behind the "wh" and you have the Japanese F.

r/l - .... I think it's pretty cliche to even touch on this sound, since 'engrish' is so well known now. This sound isn't really an 'r' or an 'l' as we know it in English. It's actually pretty close to the d-like sound we make when we say "water" ( which we usually say as "wadder"). This is called a liquid sound, and depending on the listener this sound could be an r, l, or d.

When a final 'n' sound is in the middle of a word, if the next letter is a vowel, then we usually add an apostrophe after the n to separate it from the vowel. This is for writing with English letters only. It's pretty clear in hiragana.  For example, one of my character's names is En'arashi (炎嵐). The first symbol is 'en' and the second is "arashi." This e-n-a-ra-shi is not to be confused with e-na-ra-shi. They do actually have two different pronunciations because they have two different syllable counts. Similarly,  Micheal up there has to decide how his ma-i-ke-i-ru is going to be split along kanji lines, because the kanji set of mai-kei-ru would be pronounced slightly differently than the kanji set of ma-ike-iru. Not a lot, but some.

If you are going to try and learn how to write your characters names in Japanese, please for the love of all the spirits, stick to one writing system (I'm looking at a particular Unicorn clan).

 

What my character names look like:

The next section is huge font to make it easier for you to see the kanji.

 

  • Chigonoha (Blood Leaf) 血木葉
  • En'arashi (Fire, storm)  炎嵐
  • Karai (spicy)  辛い  
  • Kaikahun (Blossoming {open,fower} Flame) 開花焚, sometimes just called "Kai" (ashes) 灰.
  • Ki - (tree or wood) 木 
  • Koten - (flame, sky/heaven) 火天
  • Kokka (bone fire) 骨火
  • Moesashi (ember) 燃えさし
  • Heizan (calm/cold)  平安
  • Nenmu (burning dream) 燃夢
  • Muka  (dream flame) 夢燃 (yes, just backwards from his brother. They are twins, remember)
  • Kasai (fire, especially a large fire) - 火災
  • Yokaze (Night wind) - 夜風
  • Cha (tea) 
  • Fuu (wind)
  • Ishi (stone)  
  • Itoko (Thread child) 糸子of the Ishigawa (Stone River) 石川 line 
  • Ginyue (silver moon) 銀月of the Chihi (blood flame) 血火 line, formerly Gin'an (apricot) 銀杏
  • Yagiri Den  (night mist) 夜霧
  • DenLord - Himitsu (secret), 秘密
  • Dokuyaku (Arsenic) 毒薬
  • Boshi (the record of name and life written on a tomb stone) - 墓誌
  • Kyoufu (terror) - 恐怖
  • Kutsuu (torment/pain) - 苦痛
  • Yamashi Originally written as (mountain, persimmon) 山柿. Later changed to (mountain, written record) 山誌

 

 
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
Back to top
 
 
 
Back to top

 

Kitsune/L5R main Contact me

Main Home