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What Does My Name Mean in Japanese?

I get asked this a lot by friends and family. They will meet someone with a name like Takashi, Hiroshi, Akiko, or Hiroko (the first two are men’s name, the latter two women’s) and ask me what the names mean.

Unfortunately it's not that simple. Japanese names, especially common ones like those I listed above, can be written with dozens of different characters, and so unless and until I see the name written in the characters the particular person uses, I can't say. All I can do is explain this quirk of the language, and then ask to see the characters.

Some names are only written one way, however. So with names like that, for instance Akina (a woman's name) or Saburo (a man's name), I can answer the question. But most names don't work that way in Japanese, so I need the characters. Once those are in hand, the answer is simple.

If you simply want to know if a Japanese name belongs to a man or a woman, there is a way to do it. The process is a bit algorithmic and takes practice, so it is described sepraately in Japanese Names.

With non-Japanese names, such as John, Bill, Lisa, Laura, or any other common name in English that comes from Europe in some way, there simply is no meaning. Most of the common names in English find their origins in Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, or even Hebrew, which means they are in no way related to Japanese names at all.

In other words, your name means nothing in Japanese. In many cases, it cannot mean anything simply because the sounds do not exist in Japanese. Take, for instance, a name like Robert, Richard, or Roger. Japanese has no "r" sound, though it does have a dental consonant that is roughly halfway between an "r" and an "l". It also does not have final consonants, except for the "n" sound, so each of these names are phonetically impossible in Japanese. They can't and don't exist, so trying to find meaning for it would be foolish.

Many common men's names in English, including Bill, George, David, and others are also phonetically impossible. Women's names in some cases, such as Ana or Amy, are phonetically possible, but they still have no meaning for the reasons stated above.

What some English natives do is attempt to find characters with sounds that approximate their English name and use that as a "Japanese" name. Japanese people are quite uncomfortable with this and will be very unlikely to accept it, instead opting to do their best to pronounce your English name in Japanese.

This means that the name Roger ends up sounding like "lohjah", and a friend in mine in Tokyo, Craig, had his name sound like "kuleihguh". This is just the way it works in Japanese culture, and you will have to get used to the Japanese phonetic version of your name as referring to you.

Also, the names of foreigners are written using the Katakana script, not with the characters (Kanji, that is) or the other script, the Hiragana. The Katakana script is reserved primarily for foreign loan words, foreign names, and for emphasis in certain types of printed material, though it also shows up in advertising and telegrams, among other places. So here are the names I mentioned above in Katakana:

Name in Katakana Pronunciation Name in English
ロバート robaato Robert
リチャード richaado Richard
ロジャー rojaa Roger
ビル biru Bill
ジョージ jouji George
ディビッド deibiddo David
アンナ anna Ana
エイミ eimi Amy
クレイグ kureigu Craig

Note that the pronunciation above is the standard romanization for Japanese, which if you don't know may seem a bit confusing. Just go with it if it's unfamiliar. The point is that the English names are written in the Katakana script using the best phonetic approximation possible in Japanese. Because they are foreign names, the approximation is sometimes fairly poor, but there is nothing that can be done about that.

So if you've been wondering if your name might have some meaning in Japanese, chances are it does not. Unless you have a Japanese name, in which case you just need to know the characters used to write it, and then the meaning is obvious.

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