My understanding is that the kanji in Japanese women's first names are most likely to have a 訓読み reading, then a 名乗り reading, and least frequently an 音読み reading. Historically, they were likely to end in 子、but due to feminism this custom is slowly exiting the culture?

Male names, especially first born sons, are very likely to have 音読み readings for their first names, then 名乗り、and then least frequently 訓読み?

And the reason is that 音読み sounds more formal / business-like / scholarly, which has been the tradition role of the man. And 訓読み sounds are used in more informal settings?

Is this history of first names correct? Do people in modern Japan get different feelings of formality from hearing 音読み and 訓読み sounds in daily conversations? Have I been making an incorrect assumption?

new addition:
I looked-up the kanji readings for the first names of the 15 most recent Japanese prime ministers. "on" means "onyomi"; "kun" means "kunyomi"; "na" means "nanori". 5 of the 15 have a "kun" reading for at least 1 kanji in their first name:

晋三 (on + on) しんぞう [advance + three]
佳彦 (na + kun) よしひこ [excellent + boy / lad]
直人 (kun + na) なおと [honest + person]
由紀夫 (on + on + na) ゆきお [reasoned + historic + man]
太郎 (on + on) たろう [grand / wonderful + son]
康夫 (na + na) やすお [peaceful + man]
純一郎 (on + on + on) しゅんいちろう [genuine + single + son]
喜朗 (na + on) よしろう [rejoiceful + cheerful]
恵三 (on + on) けいぞう [blessing + three]
龍太郎 (on + on + on) りゅうたろう [grand dragon + son]
富市 (kun + kun) とみいち [wealthy + market]
護熙 (na + kun) もりひろ [protection + merry]
俊樹 (na + kun) としき [genius + establishment]
喜一 (on + on) きいち [rejoice + one]

It was just an observation about kanji readings that I'm glad I finally cleared-up. I don't think that my interpretation of first name naming conventions is correct. thank you.

  • 子 was not popular among ordinary people except a couple of periods after modernization. The latest boom was around 1960. In a sense, it's just returning to normal. I don't have evidences for other issues.
    – user4092
    Nov 30, 2019 at 14:27
  • user4092: I looked-up the kanji readings for the 15 most recent Japanese Prime Ministers and added that to my post. I couldn't find a good list of female names to sample from. thank you for your help.
    – davewp
    Dec 1, 2019 at 5:32

1 Answer 1


Well, the matter is really complicated. And the simple dichotomy of “on” vs. “kun” does not work.

The Japanese names (let’s concentrate on masculine, feminine are more egregious) used in modern Japan come from several types of formerly existing names, not counting new types that emerged quite recently. I believe your list can exemplify all of those.

1) First, there are the “real names” ([実名]{じつみょう}), given to men of moderately high classes at the elaborate coming-of-age ceremonies, frequently with a donation of a kanji or another from the noble patron. This is the “two kanji read as abstract concepts in Japanese” names: 佳彦, 護熙. They are definitely read in kun, and might imply aristocracy or ambition.

1a) Rarely, these can contain one kanji, this time read in on: there is none in your list, but Katayama Tetsu 哲 is one of those.

2) Then, there were the [仮名]{けみょう}, provisional names, also given at age, but reserved for addresses from higher-ups and friendly reference. This is the type “something+numeral” (or “something+numeral or quality+郎”), 晋三, 太郎, etc. These are, though the “something” prefix can be in kun, by definition created in on readings, and due to their usage imply less formality than the previous series.

2a) This also includes the “fake title” names in -suke and -emon, which proliferated in Edo but now feel antiquated and sometimes mistakenly associated with the deep past. These are normally a dirty mess of kun and on.

3) The type “word+suffix denoting masculinity” (normally -お or similar) comes from the older [字]{あざな}, given at birth and used in childhood. Such names, kept by ordinary people all their lives, are the least pretentious and can have a rural implication or affection. They are supposed to be in kun, as they are the most direct descendant of the oldest, pre-Chinese names. 由紀夫 here, 康夫 are names like this.

3a) The names being an adjective or verb (like 孜 Tsutomu) are the least clear. While this was a popular type of childhood names, they also occurred within true names as well, and they contain the least hint to whatever.

Hence, the most aristocratic and pretentious kind of names and the most everyday and passionate both use kun readings, while on readings are typical for those in between, with many intermediate cases (such as the type on+on, which inherits the Buddhist names and, more generally, scholar pseudonyms). Thus, just by establishing the way of reading, there is not enough data to determine the real implication of name.

  • very interesting. definitely learned something. i totally forgot to also translate the meaning of the kanji, but did notice 龍太郎. Now that's pretty pretentious. It must take forever to write. I mean, hanko is only for the last name. poor guy.
    – davewp
    Dec 4, 2019 at 3:22

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