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I've read lots of mangas and seen many animes, and it seems a Japanese person can have virtually any kind of name (the meaning of a name can be something completely ridiculous). Is it true in real life, or is this only for the purpose of amusement, and it doesn't actually occur in reality?

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Could you share some examples, or your specific concern? Otherwise this question is far too vague. –  user3169 Apr 4 '13 at 22:05
    
Possibly related: japanese.stackexchange.com/q/5313/78 –  istrasci Apr 4 '13 at 22:10
    
Surnames? Given names? Aliases (通称名)? Spellings? Family registers (戸籍謄本)? Residential registers (住民票)? There are laws and regulations for all of these, but the question is too vague to even begin trying to answer. Also, relevance to Japanese language is questionable. –  Dono Apr 5 '13 at 0:15
    
Also related, though not the best of my questions: japanese.stackexchange.com/q/6134/91 –  Andrew Grimm Apr 5 '13 at 23:45
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3 Answers

Another point that I'd like to add here is that the readings of the kanji can also be totally arbitrary. The only real requirement is that the kanji come from the list. A recent example of this phenomenon is the name るな written as 月. For those who don't see the connection, るな comes from "luna," the Latin for "moon," and of course 月 means "moon."

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It is a little more complicated than this. A Japanese citizens name is recorded on their 戸籍 (family register). The 戸籍 only records a name, not how it should be read. This name cannot be changed without permission from a court. The reading of that name, on the other hand, is defined on a 住民票. There are little to no restrictions on this reading, and one may change it at will at their local 区役所; it takes less than 15 minutes of time. In the above case, they could even give the name 月 the reading むうん or ムーン if so desired. –  Dono Apr 8 '13 at 2:59
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@Dono That is interesting, I wasn't aware that readings could be changed so easily. But just to be sure you weren't correcting anything in my answer, right? –  ssb Apr 8 '13 at 4:45
    
I have nothing to correct in your answer. –  Dono Apr 8 '13 at 6:18
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A given name can be in theory virtually anything --- a decade ago or so, there was a family who gave his son the name 悪魔 (devil) and that became a news. When you register a newborn to the local government, apparently they cannot really refuse a name just because it's stupid --- so despite various people recommending against it, the child did get his name in the end.

On the other hand, in practice, parents give their children reasonable names. What they consider reasonable names do change over the time, but an essential component of it is a positive meaning, so it's very, very unlikely that you find a real person whose name means something completely ridiculous.

Characters that appear in games, animations, and/or some novels sometimes get names that you will not find in real life. This is a common technique to create a world that's intentionally away from the reality --- if you are reading a fantasy book, you do not want to see the kind of names you see in your everyday life!

EDIT:

Dono was right and I was wrong. The parents and the city settled and the kid did not get that name. The other thing I incorrectly understood was that kanjis used in names must come from 常用漢字 plus alpha (known as 人名用漢字). So it's far from "virtually anything."

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Details on 悪魔ちゃん: ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . In the end, he was not able to register this name and settled with 亜駆 (Aku). Of course 亜駆 is meant to be expanded to 亜区馬 (Akuma). –  Dono Apr 5 '13 at 9:05
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He should have gone with 亜熊 or something. –  istrasci Apr 5 '13 at 14:13
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Although the number of Japanese names (and the possible combinations) is practically limitless, there is an imposed limit on the way they can be written. As far as kanji are concerned, only the Jinmeiyō kanji and the Jōyō kanji can be used in names in Japan. As of now, that's a total of roughly 3000 characters that can be used. Hiragana and katakana can be used, as well, of course.

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