What’s in a name? 

Ichimaru Okazaki’s World War I! registration card. “U.S. World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942,” entry for Ichimaru Okazaki, digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/13035010:1002), accessed 8 February 2024. 

Do you ever wonder about names in the Japanese American community? Many cultures utilize traditional naming conventions. For example, traditional Irish and English customs sometimes follow a pattern where the first son is named after the paternal grandfather and the second son for the maternal grandfather; the first daughter might be named for the maternal grandmother and the second daughter for the paternal grandmother. These can be clues in your research, but patterns were not steadfast. 

In traditional German families, children were sometimes given two or three forenames, in addition to the father’s surname, such as Carl August Leberecht Saupe, who was always called by his second name, “August.” 

Patronymic surnames originate from the father’s line. The German surname, Harms, originally meant “son of Harm” (a variation of Herman), with “s” being a suffix meaning “son of.” Likewise, Johnson initially meant the son of John and Erikson meant the son of Erik. 

In some Latin cultures, children may have two surnames, paternal surname and maternal, such as Maria Rivera y Pruneda (Forename + Paternal Surname + & + Maternal Surname). Some southern families call children by their middle names. 

With Japanese American families becoming more ethnically diverse, you may need to research a variety of naming conventions as part of your mixed family history. Just remember, not all families followed (or still follow) traditions. 

Writing Names
Japanese names are typically written surname first, followed by the given name, but Western names are the reverse. When transcribing documents from Japanese to English, keep a consistent order for the names. Japanese children generally carry the father’s surname; the given name may have been chosen for reasons such as luck, season or desired personality or physical traits. 

Some families choose to carry specific kanji from one generation to the next. For example, Okazaki 岡 Ichimaru 一丸 named his first child Maruko 丸子, carrying the character 丸 from father to daughter. Sometimes a character may suggest birth order, but not always. While  Ichimaru 一丸 was the eldest son (as suggested by the character 一 meaning one), another family used the same character (一) in the given names of six of their eight sons. When researching the names in your family tree, try to determine which characters are carried through generations, and why.

Pay attention to how male and female names are written. While reviewing your koseki, you may notice that some female names are written in hiragana or katakana, rather than kanji. 

Transliterating Personal or Place Names 
Names can generally be both read and written in different ways. Take care when translating Japanese documents. Unless you knew the person, try to include all variations of a name when translating your records, (e.g. 佐三二 can be read as Samiji or as Sasanji; 雅次 can be read as Masaji or Masatsugu). Place names can be read in different ways, as well. The place name of Sashiyado written in English on a passenger manifest, was mistranslated; by examining the kanji 指宿, it should read as Ibusuki. 

Some women’s names include “ko” as a suffix, such as Yoko, Shoko or Mariko. Be sure to compare your understanding of the name to the documents. Kiyoka is often miswritten as Kiyoko in U.S. documents, but the name 清香 in Japanese documents is unquestionably Kiyoka. 

You may encounter name changes among your ancestors. In the U.S., Ichimaru’s wife was always called “Hamako.” This name was on all her documents, including census’, passenger manifests, her Evacuee Case File from the Gila River Relocation Center, and her records from the camp at Crystal City. 濱子 (Hamako) was written on her father’s koseki, and her husband’s. However, her relatives in Japan only knew her as “Yoko.” According to family lore, several siblings died young during an epidemic; those who survived were given new call names, to confuse the spirits. This is a good example of combining oral history with documentary evidence. 

Issei who came to the U.S. and Canada before World War II often informally acquired Western names. This practice may have been a way for them to integrate into their new culture. Men may have taken on the names of George, Tom or Frank.

Women may have adopted names such as Mary, May or Jane. These names were often legalized during the naturalization process; Kimiko became Margaret Kimi, Masashi became Masashi Frank. 

When researching, look for a variety of names and spellings. Koshiro Kumagai legally became Frank Koshiro Kumagai upon his naturalization, but other documents named him as Frank, Frank K.,  K., or F. K. Kumagai. Additionally, be creative when researching by names, especially indexes. Sasanji Okazaki was written as Sassange Okaziki in the 1920 census. One index from a 1906 border crossing from British Columbia to Seattle showed him as Sasauzi, though the original looks more like Sasanzi.

Nisei also tended to adopt nicknames, but that may have been a product of the era; Terumi went by Tee and Kazue went by Kay. Betty, Sue and Jane were common nicknames among Nisei girls who weren’t given Western names on their birth certificates. Other times, the nicknames were based on personality or physical traits.

This was particularly true among boys and young men: Happy, Porky, Bacon, Spud, Mayor, Bako and Rusty. These nicknames, conventional or not, were rarely legalized. Fusae often used the middle name of Betty or Mae, but her birth certificate contained neither and no name change was filed, until her surname changed with marriage. 

Having something written by your ancestor is a treasure. Finding their signature, whether in English or Japanese, helps bring their stories to life. Look for signatures in places like World War I or World War II draft registrations, incarceration records, marriage records, social security applications or naturalization documents. 

World War II Draft Registration with Signature Oral Histories 
Did you have a nickname in your youth? If so, how did it come about? When you interview your elders, or write your autobiography, be sure to include nicknames, as well as the story behind those names. Your descendants will likely enjoy reading about them. 

Resources for Further Information
“Japanese Names.” Sengoku Daimyō. https://sengokudaimyo.com/japanese-names.

“Saimei-Handan – Fortunetelling Based on Your Name.” Japanese Names.info. 

Suzuki, Mayami. “A Long History of Japanese Names.” Tofugu. 10 September 2014.
“Understanding Japanese Naming Conventions to Enhance Investigations.” Sayari Learn. https://learn.sayari.com/understanding-japanese-naming-conventions-to-enhance-investigations/

Nichi Bei News columnist Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to LindasOrchard@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily of the Nichi Bei News.

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