For centuries, only the aristocratic and samurai classes in Japan had surnames. The common people were known just by their given names. This began to change in the mid-19th century, as Japan emerged from centuries of isolation and began engaging with the world.
In 1868, the new Meiji government passed a law requiring all commoners to adopt surnames. This was part of broader reforms aimed at modernizing Japan and aligning its society and culture with the West.
Suddenly, millions of peasants, merchants, and townspeople needed surnames. Many looked to their surroundings for inspiration. Some took names connected to locations, like Yamada (“mountain field”), Tanaka (“middle of the rice field”) or Nagano (“long field”). Occupations also inspired last names like Kajiyama (“blacksmith mountain”) or Kawanishi (“river”).
Others simply made up new names. This explains the diversity of Japanese surnames today. While some names like Sato and Suzuki are very common, Japan has over 100,000 different surnames. Even siblings sometimes adopted different last names.
This surname revolution mirrored the massive social upheaval underway in Japan. As the country urbanized and industrialized, traditional social structures broke down. Many people moved far from their ancestral homes. Choosing new last names allowed formerly nameless commoners to assert their new identities.
The Meiji government’s surname edict has left a lasting impact on Japan. But it was just one of many sweeping changes in the late 19th century, as Japan reshaped its society, culture and place in the world. The diversity of modern Japanese names reflects this tumultuous transformation.