Some people didn’t have to win a beauty pageant to be called “Miss Kyoto.”
If you’ve made a moderate amount of Japanese social or business acquaintances, or even just enjoy video games or anime set in Japan, odds are there are a few family names you’re familiar with. Sato and Suzuki are by far the most common surnames in Japan, with others such as Takahashi and Tanaka also showing up very frequently.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? Myoji Yurai Net, a Japanese surname database, recently released the results of a study in which researchers analyzed data from government statistics and phone books in order to compile a list of the 30 rarest Japanese family names.
Let’s take a look at the rankings:
30. Ikari / 五十里
Meaning: 50 villages
While the meaning might not be so dramatic, when written with different kanji characters, ikari can also mean “anger” or “anchor.” According to Myoji Yurai Net’s study, approximately 1,300 people across Japan bear this surname.
29. Shio / 塩
To clarify, this isn’t a name that etymologically traces back to the word “salt,” but one that’s written and pronounced exactly like shio, the Japanese word for table salt.
28. Shikichi / 敷地
Meaning: building site
27. Tsukumo / 九十九
99 what? Why not 100? We have so many questions.
26. Ichibangase / 一番ケ瀬
Meaning: first rapids, first shoals
25. Myoga / 茗荷
Meaning: Japanese ginger
Myoga is the first of a handful of agriculture-based names on the list, highlighting how much of Japan’s populace was involved in farming prior to the end of the feudal era.
24. Kai / 買
Meaning: shell, shellfish
23. Jinja / 神社
Meaning: Shinto shrine
In olden times, Shinto shrines were often the center of culture and activity in their respective communities, and thus a part of the personal identity of those who lived nearby. But while many Japanese surnames contain the kanji 神, meaning “god” or “divine,” the rather on-the-nose Jinja is far less common, being the family name of only about 330 people.
22. Akasofu / 赤祖父
Meaning: red grandfather
While many Japanese names are reflections of the natural environment, ones that reference people are much rarer, much less one with a specific color.
21. Kon / 根
“Hey, wait a second,” anime fans are saying. “What about esteemed Perfect Blue, Paprika, and Tokyo Godfathers director Satoshi Kon?” Actually, the late director’s surname was written with the kanji 今, meaning “now,” and while that’s also a somewhat unusual family name, it’s not as rare as this plant-based one.
20. Hirawa / 平和
Meaning: plain of harmony
19. Botan / 牡丹
References to trees are common in Japanese names. Matsuda means “field of pines,” for example, while Sugimoto is “original cedar.” Flowers are less common, though, especially when the name matches up exactly with the name of the blossom.
18. Taue / 田植
Meaning: rice planting
17. Keana / 毛穴
Meaning: (skin) pores
16. Mizoroge / 御菩薩池
Meaning: honored Bodhisattva pond
15. Senju / 先生
While senju is a pretty old-school term to use for an educational instructor, the kanji characters 先生 are the exact same ones used to write sensei, the standard way of addressing schoolteachers and doctors in Japanese.
14. Suisha / 水車
Meaning: water wheel, mill
13. Kyoto / 京都
Meaning: Kyoto, Japan’s former capital city
Surnames that are also place names aren’t entirely uncommon in Japan. In many cases, though, they’re coincidences born out of a reference to the natural landscape serving as inspiration for the name of a family and location. Chiba (“thousand leaves”) and Matsumoto (“original pine”) are often-heard family names, but they’re also a prefecture and city, respectively.
On the other hand, Kyoto means “capital city,” making this a case of a family name being derived from the name of an already established place.
12. Momo / 百百
Meaning: Hundred hundred
Momo is also the Japanese word for “peach,” but in the case of the fruit, the kanji 桃 is used instead. Making things even odder is that Japanese already has a word for a hundred hundreds, man, which means “ten thousand.”
11. Wamuro / 和室
Meaning: harmonious room
While the original intent was likely an auspicious allusion to a peaceful home and family, 和室 can also be read as washitsu, a Japanese-style room with tatami reed flooring.
10. Tokei / 時計
Meaning: watch, clock
9. Nosaku / 農作
Meaning: agricultural products
8. Kajiyashiki / 鍛冶屋敷
Meaning: blacksmith’s mansion
7. Gogatsu / 五月
Meaning: May (the month)
Only about 30 people in Japan have this family name. Unfortunately, no data is availabe on how many of them are women with the given name Satsuki, which can also mean “May” and be written with the same 五月 kanji.
6. Hime / 姫
5. Higasa / 日傘
4. Iekami / 家神
Meaning: home god
3. Dango / 団子
We’ve seen a couple of foodstuffs on the list so far. This name, though (which like all of the top three is only held by about 10 people in Japan), is the first dessert.
2. Hinode / 日ノ出
1. Mikan / 蜜柑
Meaning: Japanese mandarin orange
Finally, we wrap up with one last edible, and it’s a fitting one, as the small, sweet mikan makes for a healthy yet sweet snack after a meal.
Who knew linguistics could make us so hungry?