In modern times, there are 4 ways to write/say family names in Japanese:
- 氏 (shi)
- 姓 (sei)
- 名字 (myouji)
- 苗字 (myouji)
But why are there so many and what are the differences? In order to get the answer, you simply have to learn its history.
Actually, I wrote a very brief history of this in an earlier “names” article: The History Of How “Cow Poop” Became A Real-Life Japanese Family Name. But, considering that many Tofugu readers are very studious, I thought you might want to learn more of the details. Even to me, someone from Japan, the history was quite surprising. It’s a long history, so I hope that this won’t quench all of your daily thirst to learn.
Japanese Family Names In Ancient Times – Uji
In ancient times, perhaps around the Yayoi Period (300BC-300AD), Japan had a system of clans (氏族/shizoku). Each clan was made up of people that were related to each other by blood, marriage, or a common ancestor. At that time, people used their clan names as a family name, which was called 氏 (uji). This stemmed from occupations or natural features of their region.
In this clan system, the head of the clan was called 氏の上 (Ujinokami) and he lead the main constituents of the clan called the 氏人 (Ujibito). The Ujibito ruled over a subordinate class called the 部民 (Benotami) or the 奴婢 (Nuhi).
There has been a lot of research effort put forth in finding Japan’s oldest family name and there are various opinions as to which one it is. However, definitive proof of a specific name and when it started being used is yet to be uncovered.
So, we move on.
Yamato Kingdom and Ujikabane system
During the Kofun period (AD 250 to 538), powerful clan leaders and their families (called 豪族/gouzoku) started to emerge. Small kingdoms, each ruled by a different clan, were established. One of the most powerful, the Yamato, ended up developing a union between each state following many years of warfare.
As Yamato’s sphere of influence expanded, more clans pledged themselves to the Yamato. This resulted in more people working for the Imperial Court. Since there were so many people doing imperial things hanging around, we see the increasing need for the Yamato king to distinguish the status of each clan. Not all clans were created equal, you see. Some clans, for example, supported the Yamato from early on, while others jumped on the bandwagon later. To show the difference between the clans, they created a system known as the 氏姓制度 (Ujikabane-seido/ Shisei-seido).
Under this system, the Yamato Kingdom would choose a clan name (氏/uji) for each clan, as well as a 姓 (kabane), which is understood to be an inherited aristocratic title attached to an uji name. These were given to nobles living in the capital and to the most powerful clans subordinate to the Yamato rule. Thus, the 氏姓 (Uji-kabane/Shi-sei), which combines the uji and the kabane, became the means to classify different groups in the Yamato kingdom.
As a side note, the emperor was the one who designated the Uji-Kabane for each clan, so the Emperor’s family did not require one. The Imperial family in Japan didn’t have a family name back then, and it is a custom that remains even today.
Examples Of Ancient Uji-Kabane
The three most common 姓 (kabane) were
- 臣 (Omi)
- 連 (Muraji)
- 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko)
(Just to give you an idea of how this would work, if I were given the kabane “Omi”, I would then be known as Mami Suzuki-Omi.)
臣 (omi) and 連 (muraji) were the titles given to those of the highest status. Both were reserved for the most powerful clans, but there existed a fundamental difference between omi and muraji. Omi was given to the long time supporters of the Yamato clan, such as the 葛城 (Katsuragi), 春日 (Kasuga), 蘇我 (Soga), 巨勢 (Kose), 紀 (Ki), 平群 (Heguri), 波多 (Hata), 阿部 (Abe) and 穂積 (Hozumi) clans. Muraji, on the other hand, were given to the clans associated with particular occupations, such as the 大伴 (Ootomo), 物部 (Mononobe), 中臣 (Nakatomi), 土師 (Haji), 弓削 (Yuge) and the 尾張 (Owari). The most powerful clans with 臣 (Omi) were called 大臣 (Oomi). The same holds true for muraji as well. 連 (Muraji) would become 大連 (Oomuraji), but only for the top in their class.
The step below 連 (Muraji) was 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko), and this kabane was given to clans that were 司 (Tsukasa), aka the administration in governmental offices. Families such as 秦 (Hata), 東漢 (Yamatonoaya), 西文 (Kawachinofumi), 服部 (Hattori), 矢集 (Yazume), 犬養 (Inukai), 舂米 (Tsukishine), or 倭文 (Shitori) are included in this list. Of these clans, the first three were 帰化氏族 (Kika-shizoku), which means clans from other countries that had been naturalized as Japanese citizens.
Some of the above 氏 (uji) are not used anymore, but some do remain as family names today. Did you recognize any? However, it is still possible to encounter someone with one that is no longer used because somebody in their family at some point decided to change their name to one of those ancient uji names. So be aware that just because they have that name doesn’t mean that they share the long family roots of that ancient family.
Transition In The Uji-Kabane System
As some of you may have already realized, there was a major defect in this system. Just think about for a moment. What if a lot more people started working for the Imperial Court and each person worked at a different position? They would need assign some marker of identification not just to each clan, but to each individual, right? In order to solve the problem, Shotoku Taishi established 冠位十二階 (Kani-Juuni-Kai), which means the twelve level cap and rank system, in 604 AD. Despite having already given a kabane to each clan, titles in the new system were given to individuals depending on their political position within the Imperial Court.
Since the new system didn’t end the Uji-kabane system, the introduction of it just further complicated matters because now they had more titles to deal with. After the Taika Reformation in 646 AD, Japan united as a nation under the Ritsuryo codes, and soon afterward the Imperial Edict “甲子の宣” (Katsushi no Sen) was issued. This edict reduced the 12 ranks down to just 3, which were 大氏 (Oouji), 小氏 (Kouji), and 伴造 (Tomonomiytatsuko). The purpose of those ranks was to clarify which clan (Uji) belonged to which rank. It was a combination of the new and old systems. It additionally decreed a ban on having multiple uji. For example, there was a person whose uji was 蘇我石川 (Soga+Ishikawa), so at this time they were forced to decide to become either 蘇我 (Soga) or 石川(Ishikawa). It may have simplified the system a little bit, but complications still persisted.
The Royals And Nobles Raise Their Heads
In the meantime, the Jinshin Revolt broke out in 672 AD following the death of Emperor Tenji who had originally designated his brother Prince Oama as his successor, only to later have second thoughts in favor of his son Prince Otomo. In the process of the violence caused by fractional rivalries, Otomo killed himself less than one year after acquiring reign. His uncle Oama then succeeded the throne as Emperor Tenmu.
Tenmu wanted to set the nobles apart from the powerful local clans, as well as organize the Uji-Kabane system, so in 684 AD he reformed the Uji-Kabane system into a system of eight 姓 (Kabane) called 八色の姓 (Yakusa-no-Kabane). At the time, he added 4 new 姓 (Kabane) , which were 真人 (Mahito) for the royals and 朝臣 (Ason/Asomi), 宿禰 (Sukune), and 忌寸 (Imiki) for the nobles. He then kept only three of the originals: 臣 (Omi), 連 (Muraji), and 稲置 (Inagi) for the local clans. As you can see, the powerful臣 (Omi) and 連 (Muraji) of the time were kicked off of their pedestal, so to speak. They found themselves demoted under this new system of royals and nobles. In 701 AD, it was even decided that those first four Kabane were to be granted certain privileges under the Taiho Code and the power of the clans became even weaker.
What About Family Names Of Common People?
While the system regarding those of higher status was being restructured, so too was the system for the common people of Yamato Kingdom. These people were known as the 部民 (Bemin). A family registration system called the 庚午年籍 (Kougonenjaku) was introduced in 670 AD followed by another family registration system called the 庚寅年籍 (Kouinnenjaku) in 690 AD. Everyone was successfully registered and clan names and ancestral titles were given to the people. In other words, the Uji-Kabane system had expanded to the general public and uji and kabane became a way to reveal one’s social standing in the hierarchy of the state.
However, it was later realized by examining the existing registration book in 702 AD, there were still many people without Uji-Kabane. The Nara period started in 710 AD, and it took 47 years for the government to finally decide to never register people without given them an Uji-Kabane. But by 757 AD all citizens were officially registered with an Uji-Kabane of their own. Hooray! Sadly, this joy was short-lived. As the clans began to devolve into individual households, family lineage and status became more important than the social status of the clan as a whole. This caused the Uji-Kabane system to gradually fade from use.
Collapse Of The Uji-Kabane System
In the 9th Century, during the Heian period, 藤原朝臣 (Fujiwara-Ason) became the strongest clan under the regency. Furthermore, some emperors started giving Uji-Kabane to family members who were leaving the Imperial family. For example, Emperor Kanmu (737-806 AD) gave them the name 平朝臣 (Taira-Ason) to some family and the Emperor Seiwa gave his family members the name 源朝臣 (Minamoto-Ason). For these reasons, the Uji-Kabane system under the Ritsuryo code started to fall apart as a system of appointing particular names to individuals with certain skills emerged. Kabane became decidedly useless, and the family registry system under the Ritsuryo Code began to fade as well.
In the 10th century, some powerful local clans even became vassals of the influential nobles and changed their names. By doing so, they brought dishonor to the original clan names and ancestral titles. This act became quite commonplace and was called 冒名仮蔭 (Boumei-kain), which means “misrepresentation of one’s clan name and ancestral title”. On top of that, specific family lineages became fixed due to their type of business or trade. This brought about the movement towards changing uji after marriage and what one’s newly acquired name would be dependent on the new family’s business. (Before then, a person’s Uji was passed on to blood relatives and marriage didn’t change that.)
At that point, the variety of clan names in Japan began to dwindle and certain names became much more common, such as 源 (Minamoto), 平 (Taira), 藤原 (Fujiwara), 橘 (Tachibana), 紀 (Ki), 菅原 (Sugawara), 大江 (Ooe), 中原 (Nakahara), 坂上 (Sakanoue), 賀茂 (Kamo), 小野 (Ono), 惟宗 (Koremune), 清原 (Kiyohara), and so on. Because of that, there was an incredible upsurge in the number of families that shared the same name, especially the powerful 藤原 Fujiwara family. This occurred so often for such a time that they soon needed yet ANOTHER NAME to distinguish one family from the next. Hence, the nobles continued using uji names and Samurai families started using new names called 名字 (Azana/Myouji). As for the kabane, it continued on merely, perhaps, because it existed before. In regards to its actual function, well, it was barely upheld as a public naming system until its demise in the beginning of the Meiji Period when the government created a law called 姓尸不称令 (seishifushourei).
Fortunately for you, the fascinating history of Japanese family names is incredibly long and continues passed this point, but unfortunately it will have to wait until the next article. Just so you know, the above names may seem to be very old, but most of those in the last paragraph are still used in Japan today, so familiarizing yourself with them might be useful. Anyways, you are all so studious that I’m sure that you will come back next week to learn more about the history of Japanese family names. Until next time! Mata ne!