There are several one-character surnames: [林]{はやし}  [森]{もり}  [堤]{つつみ}

Most surnames have two-characters: [鈴木]{すずき} [山田]{やまだ} [藤井]{ふじい} [酒井]{さかい} [松村]{まつむら}

A few surnames have three-characters: [佐々木]{ささき} [長谷川]{はせがわ} [五十住]{いそずみ} [中小路]{なかこうじ}

It may be an incorrect assumption, but save for 佐々木 and 長谷川 it seems like people with 3-character names tend to be the most likely to have a pre-Meiji era name (have been upper class prior to that era).

Is there any reason behind the number of characters in a surname being longer for the upper class? Is it just coincidence?

  • There are also four and five-character surnames as well. For example, 小比類巻 (kohiruimaki), 左衛門三郎 (saemonzaburou), 勘解由小路 (kadenokouji) etc. – Dono Mar 29 '13 at 8:24
  • Are those older names as well? Especially 左衛門三郎 seems odd as it has a personal name attached at the end. – jmac Mar 29 '13 at 8:54
  • I do not know the origin of these, but there are living people with these surnames. – Dono Mar 29 '13 at 9:49
  • 「~~[小路]{こうじ}」って[苗字]{みょうじ}は、もともとお[公家]{くげ}さんだって聞いたことがありますけど。。(それ以外のことは知りません) – user1016 Mar 29 '13 at 13:00

I think you are thinking of some distinctive names used by nobles and bishops. Some (many?) of them have distinctive suffix like 〜[小路]{こうじ}, 〜[坊]{(の)ぼう}, 〜[寺]{じ}, and so on, and because of these suffixes, the names tend to get longer for them.

Note that there's a plenty of two-character surnames, such as [徳川]{とくがわ}, [藤原]{ふじわら}, [近衛]{このえ}, etc. that are used by nobles, and peasants also sometimes use a prefix/suffix such as [大]{おお}/[小]{こ}〜 (such as [大曽根]{おおそね}, [小日向]{こひゅうが/こひなだ}), so I don't think one could say the upper class had a longer surname.

The following section added after a comment by jmac

As I wrote, I just don't agree with your premise that the upper class had a longer surname. After all, when we say everyone got their 名字 in 明治 era, it's not like a whole bunch of new names were suddenly invented out of thin air. The majority of the names were pre-existing names.

Take a look at this for example, and you see a long list of two character names that are nobles and samurais. Same for war lords in the Edo period. I think it'd be hard to claim that they have a higher average character count in their surnames than people today.

By the way, 長谷川 goes back a long time, and so does 佐々木. And you might be also intereted in playing with http://myoji-yurai.net/ or http://home.r01.itscom.net/morioka/myoji/best200.html that gives you some information about the origins of those names --- can't vouch for their accuracies, though.

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  • Of course there are some which have suffixes, but what about names like 五十住, and other odd three-character names which don't seem to be related to a specific suffix? And why are so few 明治 era names two characters? Why are 長谷川 and 佐々木 relatively unique in that sense? Would appreciate if someone could help out answering those riddles -- I'm sure there's some reasoning for it somewhere... – jmac Mar 31 '13 at 23:43
  • An example of a single-character upper-class name is 楠{くすのき} – a20 Mar 22 '17 at 13:41

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