Understanding Japanese Naming Conventions to Enhance Investigations


Japanese names are composed of two parts:

  • Surname
  • Given name



Japanese surnames always appear before given names when written in Japanese. 

Until 2020, it was the official policy of the Government of Japan to place given names first and surnames second when romanizing Japanese names (for example, Yamada Takeshi becomes Takeshi Yamada). Today, the policy has been changed to place surnames first even when names are romanized.

When written in Japanese, the majority of surnames are two Kanji characters long, such as Nakamura (中村), or Suzuki (鈴木). However, there are exceptions that are either one or three characters long. For example, the common surname Mori (森) is one character long; the common surname Sasaki (佐々木) is three characters long.

Given Names

When written in Japanese, given names always appear after surnames. Most given names are written using two Kanji characters, though exceptions are not uncommon.

Some Kanji characters tend to be used more often in surnames of one gender than another. For example, ‘Ko’ (子 child), ‘Haru’ (春 spring), and ‘Mi’ (美 beauty) are more commonly found in female names; ‘Ro’ (郎 son), and ‘Ki’ (木 tree) are more commonly found in male names.

Familial Connections

The majority of Japanese children adopt the surname of their father. According to Japanese law, married couples must share the same surname or the marriage will not legally be recognized. Though couples may pick which surname to use, over 95% of heterosexual couples choose to use the husband’s surname.

Writing Names in Japanese

In Japanese official documents, names are usually first written in Kanji (based on Chinese characters) followed by a phonetic spelling of the name in Katakana —  a phonetic script system exclusive to Japan. These phonetic guides are included to assist Japanese readers in connecting a name’s written form to its pronunciation.

Kanji characters can have multiple pronunciations, and there are occasionally names that use the pronunciation less commonly associated with a Kanji character. The phonetic Katakana is included to disambiguate for readers an individual’s correct name.



Kanji: 池田   真紀  

Katakana: イケダ・マキ

Romanization: Ikeda Maki  or  Maki Ikeda

The family name is Ikeda (池田), the given name is Maki (真紀). 

Kanji: 佐藤   勉

Katakana: サトウ・ツトム

Romanization: Satō Tsutomu  or Tsutomu Satō

The family name is Satō (佐藤), the given name is Tsutomu (勉). 

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