I was doing the car registration renewal process a few days back when the Emirati guy behind the counter at Tasjeel chit chatted me while he holds my car registration card, “So you are Japanese? You have a Japanese family name and nationality but you look Filipino!” If I attempt to count this kind of query every time someone gets hold of my personal documents like passport, driver’s license, etc, the count would be the same as the number of hair strands I have. It’s a question I get all the time since I changed my nationality more than a decade ago.
“Oh so you are married to a Japanese that’s why you have his family name!”
Uhm, actually no. But more often than not, I just say yes and move on.
Today, I am going to share something about Japanese family names and how I got mine because – today is the anniversary since I became a Japanese citizen. I just realized that when I saw the above photo on a travel website. So here goes,
Japanese family names, in most cases are derived from nature. The family names usually consists of two kanjis (Japanese characters), a combination between the “geographic feature” group and the “adjective” group.
Here are 30 most common geographic feature used in surnames, plants and villages included:
As for adjectives, the most common are probably these ones (note that the 2 first are not adjectives, but act as such as they do not mean anything by themselves) :
The order can be both, geographic feature/nature first then adjective next or adjective first then followed by geographic feature/nature. For example, there’s Murakami (mura (village) + kami (above)) and then there’s Uemura (Ue (above) + mura (village)), both using the same two kanji’s though the other kanji is read differently when it comes first.
HOW I GOT MY CURRENT FAMILY NAME
I’ve been living in Japan for 6 years when I decided to apply for naturalization. Applying for naturalization (citizenship) requires applicants to choose a Japanese name according to their wish. Basically, I could choose a Japanese first name and family name, ANYTHING that I like. I was in a relationship with my then boyfriend now husband for three years that time and we brainstormed what name I should use – honestly, it was kind of weird to rename myself. What if someone calls me by my Japanese name, how many times would they have to shout, for me to recognize it is actually my name they are calling out?
We learned that for the first name, we can use a foreign name to be written in katakana (katakana is most often used for transcription of words from foreign languages). I decided to retain my original name Grace as not to complicate my life too much but then what family name would I use? Or create for myself? I had only a week to decide.
Since we were contemplating on getting married anyway and I actually liked his family name, I asked him if I could use it. And he said yes.
The first kanji is FUJI, which is this.
Fuji means the wisteria plant in Japanese. Isn’t it lovely? I even like the word. WISTERIA.
(You might associate the word “fuji” from Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest peak and most popular mountain. However, the Japanese character or kanji for fuji in Mt. Fuji and fuji in my name is different, though their reading is the same in English. The Japanese language is complicated like that.)
Years before I met my husband, I’ve read a feature of the oldest wisteria plant Japan in the pages of an old National Geographic from the school library when I was in high school. I thought it was BEAUTIFUL and wished I could see it with my own eyes. Whenever I’m asked what’s my favorite flower, I’d say wisteria and people back home look at me with blank stares.
I’ve never seen a wisteria plant till my first spring in Japan in 1997. I chanced upon an old wisteria tree in a park near my school!
The next kanji in the family name I chose is MAKI, which means to wind, to turn or wraparound. The visual description of FUJIMAKI would be wisteria flowers wound up in a wreath of sorts.
So that’s the story of how my current family name came to be – although my husband and I have the same family name, I did not get this from him through marriage. I was already a Fujimaki before we got married and in Japan, one is able to retain her maiden name even after marriage so we’re technically two separate entities of Fujimaki’s.
(That even if we did not end up together, I would still bear the name “Grace Fujimaki”.)
It’s been 1o years since the last time I saw a beautiful wisteria. I miss it but every time I see or write my family name, I can’t help but have this vision of walking through a canopy of wisteria flowers over my head on a beautiful day in spring.