The majority of Japanese people have one surname and one given name with no middle name, except for the Japanese imperial family, whose members bear no surname. The family name - myōji (苗字 or 名字), uji (氏) or sei (姓) - precedes the given name, called the "name" - (名前 namae) or "lower name" (下の名前 shita no namae). The given name may be referred to as the "lower name" because, in vertically written Japanese, the given name appears under the family name.
Historically, myōji, uji and sei had different meanings. Sei was originally the matrilineal surname. Later it became granted only by the emperor. There were relatively few sei, and most of the medieval noble clans trace their lineage either directly to these sei or to the courtiers of these sei. Uji was first used to designate patrilineal descent, but later merged with myōji around the same time sei lost its matrilineal significance. Myōji was, simply, what a family chooses to call itself, as opposed to the sei granted by the emperor. While it was passed on patrilineally, one had a certain degree of freedom in changing one's myōji. See also Kabane.
Multiple Japanese characters have the same pronunciations, so several Japanese names have multiple meanings. A particular kanji itself can have multiple meanings and pronunciations. In some names, Japanese characters phonetically "spell" a name and have no intended meaning behind them. Many Japanese personal names use puns.
Some few names can serve either as surnames or as given names (for example Mayumi 真弓, Kaneko 金子, Masuko 益子, or Arata 新). In addition, to those familiar with Japanese names, which name is the surname and which is the given name is usually apparent, no matter which order the names are presented in. This thus makes it unlikely that the two names will be confused, for example when writing in (say) English using the order family name, given name. However, due to the variety of pronunciations and differences in languages, some common surnames and given names may coincide when Romanized: e.g., Shoji (昌司, 昭次, or 正二?) (given name) and Shoji (庄司, 庄子, 東海林, or 小路?) (surname).
Japanese names have distinct differences from Chinese names through the selection of characters in a name and pronunciation. A Japanese person can distinguish a Japanese name from a Chinese name by looking at it. Akie Tomozawa, author of "Japan's Hidden Bilinguals: The Languages of 'War Orphans' and Their Families After Repatriation From China," said that this was equivalent to how "Europeans can easily tell that the name 'Smith' is English and 'Schmidt' is German or 'Victor' is English or French and 'Vittorio' is Italian".
Read more about this topic: Japanese Name
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