The Japanese who changed their name

baby in white onesie

When high school students study Japanese history, they feel hard to remember the names of historical people such as 徳川家康、徳川秀忠 …So every year some students go to hate Japanese history class. But there was a more complicated culture about names than I’ve told you now.

This culture was very common, but for foreigners it would be very interesting, so today I want to explain it. Japanese people changed their name many times in their life.

The commoners did not change their name

Before starting to explain the name change system, I explain that this culture existed among the Samurai who ruled Japan. Therefore commoners like farmers did’t change their name.Besides, they did’t have a surname.So the commoners called themselves by their name including the name of their village or their job;

四葉村 の 権兵衛 Gonbee of Yotuba village

鍛冶屋 の 伝兵衛 Blacksmith’s Denbee

The system of the commoner’s name is very simple, and this rule existed in Europe as well. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci is Leonardo from Vinci, so he was born in a town called Vinci.

So how did the Samurai change their name?

Youmyo: the name for children

When the children were born to samurai, their parents gave a name for children “Youmyo”. It was the name that be used until they became an adult and that name sounds very cute.

Some famous clans have Youmyo decided on for the firstborn. And if their son had the traditional family Yomyo, it meant he would have been the clan’s patriarch.

The Famous Yomyos

Takechiyo(The Tokugawa Clan)
Inuchiyo(The Maeda clan)
Kamedomaru(The Oouchi Clan)

If the child grew up to 12-16 years old, it was time to change their name because they became adults. The parents performed a “Genpuku” rite of passage to become an adult and gave their child a name as an adult.

There was the name for family and the name for other people.

The children who did Genpuku, got a name as an adult, this name was called “Imina”. This is a real name at this time. For example Ieyasu of Ieyasu Tokugawa is Imina. Normally the samurai used a Kanji of their clan combining another Kanji to decide their Imina.

Actually Ieyasu Tokugawa changed his Imina sometimes like;


To begin with Motonobu was the first Imina when she made Genpuku. At this time Ieyasu was a vassal of the strong samurai “今川義元 Imagawa Yoshimoto”, and Yoshimoto gave a kanji of his name to Ieyasu. It was a symbol of trust among the Samurai. Later Ieyasu changed to Motoyasu. This 康 was a Kanji used by Ieyasu’s family, but his grandfather fought with Yoshimoto so Yoshimoto did not allow Ieyasu to use his grandfather’s Kanji in the first place. But he later allowed it because of his good work on the battlefield. After a few years, Yoshimoto died on the battlefield, so Yeyasu betrayed Yoshimoto’s son and became independent. At this time he abandoned the part of his name “Moto” that Yoshimoto gave, and changed “Ieyasu” to show other Samurai that he was independent.

It’s very interesting that a person’s name has many meanings, isn’t it?

So now we have studied about Imina, but at this time to call someone with Imina was very rude. That’s why we had an idea that people can manipulate a person if they know their name, for this reason the Samurai called another name like nicknames. This name is called “Tuusho”.

For example Tuushyo from Ieyasu was Jiro-Saburou. That’s why his childhood friends would have called him by this name, but using his master’s nickname is still too familiar to the vassals. So the vassals called the master’s title.

Normally the court of the emperor gave some titles to the Samurai even though he has no real power. Actually the Samurai didn’t care much about the court, but sometimes this title has strength like a Gucci bag, so they wanted to have a very high title and if a vassal’s owner had it, the vassals called him for their chief.

For example Ieyasu’s title was “Udaijin”, so if you had been with him you would have called “Udaijin”. It’s like what we call our boss “Director” or so.

The name is the culture

Thus, Japanese names had always changed depending on a person’s position and condition. In other words, one might think that the Japanese are very concerned about how others perceive them. It seems to be an East Asian tradition of paying attention to society rather than the individual. When you look at the culture of name, there is still much to learn from the differences between Western and Eastern societies in this way, isn’t there? We will continue to share about various traditional cultures, so please take a look if you are interested.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *