THU-HUONG HA OF THE JAPAN TIMES WRITES – Japanese social media loves to hate on kira-kira names. These unusual or unpronounceable names, so called for their flashiness, like 心人 (Haato, Heart), or 今鹿, (Naushika), as in the heroine of Ghibli film “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” are fun to dunk on. But these aren’t just good social media fodder; according to one researcher, uncommon given names are becoming more popular across Japan.
Yuji Ogihara, a cultural psychologist at Tokyo University of Science, has been studying naming patterns in Japan since 2015. In a paper published last year in Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, he and Atsuki Ito of Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies looked at a total of 58,485 baby names published in newsletters from 10 municipalities across Japan. Using data from 1979 to 2018, the team found that the rate of names that appeared only once in their municipality increased over the 40-year period.
Following other studies that look at culture change, explains Ogihara, the researchers were looking for changes of at least 0.10% a year. In Moriyoshi, Akita Prefecture, the number of uncommon names rose by an average of 0.37% annually from 1979 to 2004, while in Kota, Aichi Prefecture, they rose about 0.10% per year over 25 years.
This was consistent with Ogihara’s previous research. In a 2015 study, instead of looking at unique baby names, Ogihara looked at the most common ones. He found that over about 10 years, the rates of the 10 most popular name pronunciations decreased, which he says implies a rise in unique ones.
The researchers looked at two countrywide datasets: one from Benesse Corporation, which collected about 40,000 baby names annually from its customers from 2005 to 2013, and one from Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance, which collected about 8,000 annually over roughly the same period. These companies publish lists of the most popular baby name rankings, and from each Ogihara looked at the top 10.
He saw similar changes in the two datasets: The rate of parents giving their babies the most common combinations of kanji — that is, two or more written characters together — remained largely unchanged. But when it came to pronunciation, even controlling for gross domestic product per capita and birth rate, there was a “sufficiently large” decrease in the most common names (though the study notes that in the Meiji Yasuda dataset, the change wasn’t present in female baby names).
People choose names for all kinds of personal reasons, so they make for a difficult area of study. And unlike in the United States or China, where baby names are systematically collected in a database by the federal government, names in Japan have to be collected manually, and only when they’re provided at the local government level or compiled by private companies, for example. As such, Ogihara and his team were limited to the years they could find consistent data.
What exactly makes a name unique or uncommon? Unusual spellings, for one, like in the case of a name that first appeared in the U.S. in 2018: Camreigh, a new spelling of the existing Camry. The same year saw the new names Riverleigh, Lakeleigh and Kayzleigh.
But in Japan, what constitutes an unusual name is less straightforward, so it makes for a rich area of exploration and debate. Parents might pick single kanji that are rare, or they might combine two relatively common kanji that don’t usually appear together. Instead of giving a baby the name 悠真 (Yuuma), for example, parents could choose 悠眞, swapping out 真 for the older style of writing the same kanji.
But there aren’t that many options for unusual written names since the federal government maintains a list of approximately 3,000 characters that parents are required to pick from. (This is not unique to Japan; Hungary and Denmark, among other countries, also keep preapproved lists.)
As a result, the ripest potential for unique names lies in the pronunciation, which the government doesn’t restrict.
The popular given name 大翔 is commonly pronounced “Hiroto,” but it has at least 18 other pronunciations, including “Yamato” and “Taiga.” In his research, Ogihara also came across at least one 大翔 whose reading was “Tsubasa” and one “Sora” — neither of which are based on the readings of the kanji. So while those parents chose a common written name, they got rather creative with how to say it, likely causing furrowed eyebrows at school and in future business card exchanges.
This next-level creativity can also be seen in one baby highlighted in the study named 月. This kanji for moon is normally read as “tsuki” or “getsu,” and it has a number of other nonstandard readings, like “oto,” “su,” “zuki” and “mori.” One reading it does not have, however, is “runa,” which drew the researchers’ attention.
Somewhere in Japan is a baby named Runa — that is, “luna,” or another Latin-derived name for the moon.
Ogihara also gives the example of a baby with the first name 光. This kanji means light or illumination and can be pronounced “hikari” or “kō,” or less commonly, “akira,” “teru,” “hiko” or “mitsu.” This baby, however, goes by Raito — “light.”
There’s another category of unique names in which one character is left out of the pronunciation all together. On paper, it enhances the meaning of the name, but it’s dropped from the spoken version. A baby named 大空, meaning “expansive sky,” is simply called “Sora” after the second kanji. One named 心結, which might mean something like “heart connection,” is called “Kokoro,” which leaves the second character unspoken.
To a non-native Japanese speaker, these creative naming choices might seem like in-the-weeds linguistic jokes. But they actually get at a larger feature of the language, one which presents a genuine stress point for its speakers.
When Chinese characters were integrated into the Japanese language in the fifth century, it created a second system of Chinese pronunciations alongside existing ones. Just looking at a kanji doesn’t tell a person anything about how it ought to be pronounced; there are rules, but just as many exceptions. Japanese speakers rely on a mix of instinct, experience and context to guess how things should be read, but when it comes to proper nouns, brute force and memorization are often needed.
That’s why being confronted with the name of a stranger can cause a minor panic. Indeed, even for native Japanese speakers, reading names can be a politeness stress test.
“We may be the only country in the world where it’s really difficult to correctly read (names),” Ogihara says. “But in our society, it’s basically impolite to read names incorrectly. So we get kind of upset.”
This trend toward unique names shows that Japan is becoming more individualistic as a society, according to Ogihara. That might sound like a leap, but his work is not the first of its kind.
In a 2011 paper, psychologists Michael E.W. Varnum and Shinobu Kitayama showed that in “frontier states” of the U.S. — states that were settled later in the country’s history — babies tended to be less likely to be given popular names even after controlling for income, population density and the percentages of ethnic minorities in each state. They found similar results when they studied regions in Canada and when they compared nine European countries to countries settled by European immigrants. Varnum and his team also used an influential cross-cultural scale called the Hofstede Individualism Score, which was developed in the 1980s by Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede to measure how much people in a society are expected to look after just themselves and their families. Unique baby names, it turned out, correlated positively with countries that scored as highly individualistic.
One particularly interesting similarity between the work of Varnum and Ogihara is that, generally speaking, babies assigned as male seem to be more likely to receive popular names than females. At first glance, this seems to buck the gendered stereotype of boys being more bold and individualistic, and girls tending toward more socially cohesive behavior. But echoing the studies that came before, Ogihara says that it may be the very fact that females are more likely to face pressure to conform that parents wish for their girls to stand out more and thus slightly tend toward giving them unique names.
“Parents are trying to make their girls more independent and more unique compared to boys,” Ogihara speculates.
In fact, research shows that names may be getting more unique in general, with similar results shown in China, the U.S., Germany and France. Ogihara says it might be a general tendency across societies and expects that if there were reliable data going back further through Japanese history, the phenomenon wouldn’t be limited just to recent years.
This makes sense. The world is getting more global and interconnected. As people are exposed to other cultures through news, pop culture and social media, they’re exposed to more languages. Migration and movement, too, create more diversity and linguistic mixing. And given that baby naming is a rather complex, even creative process, it would be hard to pinpoint just one reason names seem to be getting more unique.
Names are an elusive part of identity. Most of us are given them without having a say in the matter and are stuck with them without a chance to interrogate the reasoning. Perhaps that’s why we find ourselves so eager to mine for meaning, in hopes they’ll hold more clues to who we are.
This superb report originally appeared in the Japan Times, the outstanding, influential and independent daily newspaper from Tokyo.