Naming names

Talking about new Japanese naming practices

Giancarla Unser-Schutz, Faculty of Psychology, Rissho University [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 3 (Article 9 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2016.


Following dramatic changes in the names being given to children in Japan, two critical new terms—kirakira nēmu [glittery names] and DQN nēmu [stupid/ill-educated names]—have been popularised. Although kirakira nēmu in particular appears to have gained traction as a way of describing unique and difficult to read names, closer examination shows that its usage is in fact inconsistent and is often used to describe a wide variety of names. By analysing how these two terms have developed, it becomes clear that their main consistency is instead how they negatively frame new names. In particular, they are critical of the givers of new names for their lack of consideration for others and for trying to have their children stand out too much. Such criticisms, however, are usually not made from the point of view of the children themselves, and lack a long term vision and understanding of social change. Given certain similarities in how they are constructed, it may be more constructive instead to view the discourse on new names as a part of the larger discourse on youth problems and social change in Japan.

Keywords: naming practices, kirakira nēmu, DQN nēmu, youth problems, family.

‘Stop with the kirakira nēmu!’

I’m begging you please, stop with the kirakira nēmu. When we get patient information calls from emergency teams, we mistake patient IDs if [the name] uses regular kanji with non-commonsensical readings. When we fix the latter two IDs get made, increasing the risk of mistakes. Give names that can be conveyed over the telephone! (Ueta, 2013)

So cried Ueta Ikuya, a Shizuoka pediatrician on Twitter lamenting the increase of kirakira nēmu [glittery names], overly unique names which use unusual kanji or kanji readings. Since its original posting on July 30, 2013, it has accumulated 23,628 retweets and 3,503 likes as of mid-March, 2016, and after its original posting, the tweet was taken up by multiple news outlets, including as part of a television news segment on names on the popular series News Zero a week later on August 7, thus becoming an important frame for talking about recent naming practices. As the tweet implies, Japanese naming practices appear to be changing, with recent names deviating from presumed traditional forms, including plummeting numbers of girls being given names ending in -ko (Kobayashi 2001; Komori 2002; Hashimoto and Itō 2011) and the decline of boys’ names expressing birth order (Honda 2005) as well as nanori-kun, or special ways of reading kanji only for names (Satō 2007). In their stead, recent names appear to be characterised by how they use kanji, with the general consensus that such names are somehow harder to read than previous names, a point not only reflected in the tweet above, but also in recent book titles such as Satō’s (2007) Yominikui namae wa naze fueta ka? [Why have difficult to read names increased?].

As in the pediatrician’s tweet, one of the keywords to have emerged from the discourse on new names is the term kirakira nēmu, which, along with DQN nēmu [ill-educated/stupid names], have become the standard ways of referring to recent, seemingly unreadable names. Both terms have negative implications, and are typical of the discourse on new names: they are problematised and criticised, both for the injurious impact they may have on children, and for the supposed lack of intelligence of parents giving them. However, there are many things that are less clear about this emerging phenomenon, including, to some degree, whether it should even be considered new. As I discuss below, Japanese naming practices show a distinct break between the pre- and post-Meiji periods, meaning that the patterns which new names buck are not the deep-rooted traditions they are often assumed to be; there is also nothing essentially new in choosing names that use kanji in difficult or unusual ways, as such usages can also be found at more than one time in Japanese history.

Although today’s naming practices are often treated as anomalies, these points strongly suggest that there is less of a standard with which to compare today’s names than is often assumed. Rather than focusing on how new names should be evaluated, then, it seems more pertinent to ask not only why such names have become popular, but why they are so poorly received, why they continue to be popular in spite of their poor critical reception, and what this says about contemporary Japanese society. Names clearly attach individuals to each other; as Bodenhorn and vom Bruck (2009, p.3) describe, names insert infants within a social matrix, so that “individual lives thus become entangled—through the name—in the life histories of others.” There is no doubt that any changes to how names are given and selected reflect greater social and cultural changes, but while there unfortunately have been myriad news articles on new names, and several academic articles on the characteristics of new names, aside from Kobayashi (2009), who looked at new names in the context of the desire for uniqueness and changing senses of the public sphere, and Ogihara et al. (2015), who looked at the relationship between the rise of new names and increasing individualistic traits in Japanese society, there has been little research into either the social factors affecting naming practices or the discourse surrounding new names.

This article begins the process of approaching how and why new names have come to be problematised by analysing popular media discourse, arguing specifically that the controversy is in part a result of differing conceptions of new names and an oversimplification of the process of evaluation. As Ainiala (2016, p. 118) suggests, analysing how people talk about names can give insight into their beliefs about and attitudes towards names. After looking at how the terms DQN nēmu and kirakira nēmu are popularly defined, I trace their beginnings using data from Google Trends to confirm when and in what context they first appeared, as well as their use on popular Internet forums. Analysis of key news articles linked to the spread of these two terms shows that, in general, the popular evaluation of new names has been critically limited in focus: because most of the criticism is by individuals like the pediatrician, who are at least one generation older and have (at least as far as they are concerned) neither given nor been given kirakira nēmu or DQN nēmu, but only encountered them, it tends to focus on issues which affect those third party individuals themselves. Given the characteristics of the Japanese writing system, this tends to be how easy a name is to read and remember. As can be observed from the news articles, however, in reality there is a great deal of disagreement as to what defines kirakira nēmu and DQN nēmu.

A key point that comes from these observations is that there is a fundamental gap in the evaluation of new names between individuals not involved in the naming process and those who are. To give context to this, I next analyse a post from the popular online advice forum Hatsugen Komachi centering on how the definition of kirakira nēmu differs between the namees and the general public. As the discussion will make clear, evaluations of names on an individual level—that is, our own feelings about our own names, or our feelings about the names we have given to our own children—are by definition multifaceted, given that people involved directly in the naming process (either by giving or receiving names) are privy to important information such as the name’s origins, all of which lead to nuanced, personalised evaluations. There is also a general lack of historicity in popular evaluations, in (1) the romanticising of past naming trends and (2) a limited understanding of how naming practices will change in the future, which further contribute to the perhaps unnecessarily negative evaluations of recent naming practices. Instead, I argue that one might find similarities with how new names are talked about in popular media with other discourse on youth problems, thus locating the discourse on new naming practices within larger discourses on social change.

Talking about names

Asked what a typical Japanese name is, one might be tempted to say Hanako for girls or Tarō for boys, the names commonly used as Jane and John Doe in name-unknown situations. Indeed, in an informal survey where students were asked to fill in representative Japanese names in two sentences featuring a very stereotypically male and female activity, 24 out of 42 responses gave Hanako as a typical Japanese woman’s name, and 22 out of 41 gave Tarō for men. However, one might be surprised to learn that neither of these names are commonly given today, nor even are the suffixes -ko and -rō: while -ko names peaked at close to 90% of girls names in some communities in the late 1920s (Komori 2002), no more than one -ko name per year has appeared in the top-10 listings from Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance (2016) since 1985, and -rō names do not appear to have taken up more than 10% of all men’s names since the 1920s (Komori 2002).

Data from Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance from the year 1912 to 2015 in fact show that names have changed dramatically in more ways than one. In general, the early- to mid-20th century was a period of great standardisation in the forms of names seen. As I show in Unser-Schutz (2016b), the turnover rate—i.e., the percentage of names newly found in the top-10 rankings compared to the previous year—for popular names was extremely low in the mid part of the 20th century, particularly for women’s names which fell to zero more than once, showing that there was little variation from year to year. However, since the 1980s the turnover rate has risen, coming to its highest historical rates in 1996 for women (64%) and 2011 for men (82%). In addition to a drop-off in the use of suffixes noted above, there was also a distinct change in structural characteristics like the number of characters used in names, such as a movement away from one character long names to two character long names for men.

As a result of these changes, recent names appear to be quite different from those of the past, both in how they are structured, and in how they use kanji. More specifically, new names have been said to alter and/or mix native-Japanese kun and Sino-Japanese on readings; use kanji with readings they are not normally associated with, or on occasion are not used for any obvious phonetic role at all; do not use tomeji, i.e., name-specific suffixes such as –ko and –mi in girls’ names, or use a greater variety of kanji to express them when they do such as the diversification of forms of -to in boys names, now written with any of ‘斗’, ‘人’, ‘翔’, or ‘叶’, amongst others (Satō 2007; Tokuda 2004).

As a result of these trends, new names are often said to be difficult to read, because they do not use kanji in predictable, previously-established ways. A typical example might be the name ‘蒼天’ Sora, one of the names found in community newsletters in the project described in Unser-Schutz (2011). The established on and kun readings for ‘蒼’ [blue] are and ao(i), respectively, and the on and kun readings for ‘天’ [heavens/sky] are ten and ama, respectively. Clearly, knowledge of these readings alone will not get one to the desired reading of Sora, since no combination of their established readings will lead to it. Some individuals might find a hint in ‘蒼’, as shortening it leads to the correct first half of the name (so). However, there is no clear way of reaching ra without making some semantic interpolation: because sora means ‘sky’—which would normally be written with a different kanji, ‘空’—individuals encountering the name may be able to make a semantic connection between the word sora and the meanings of the two kanji. Thus, to arrive at the desired reading one must move back and forth between readings and semantic associations, shuffling and altering them together until they arrive at the correct form, as in Fig. 1: Aoama, Sōten, So. . . Sora? In this sense, ‘蒼天’ Sora is not impossible to read, but one’s powers of association would have to be closely aligned to the giver of the name in order to do so. Individuals encountering such names may also lack confidence that they have correctly read it, leaving the impression that they are especially difficult to read. In at least some communities, names like this, mixing on and kun and/or using altered or non-established kanji readings, can make up more than 50% of the names given to children in recent years (Unser-Schutz 2011), suggesting that some degree of difficulty of reading is common in many recent names.

Figure 1. The path to reading the name ‘蒼天’ Sora

Unser-Schutz, Figure 1

The difficulty surrounding these kinds of new names has been a point of concern, both for those encountering them and for children with such names. On the one hand, as Satō (2007, p. 183) argues “[these kinds of new names] do not fully function…” socially because they present a burden to those who must remember and read them. On the other hand, there is also a sense that such difficult names will have a negative impact on children themselves, as expressed in the title of Makino’s (2012) Kodomo no namae ga abunai [Children’s names are dangerous], and many popular news articles such as Nakata (2013), which worries about children being potentially bullied for their names. It is no wonder the pediatrician’s tweet drew as much attention as it did, given that it clearly packages both of these concerns in just 140 characters: first, by calling to the effort it takes for medics and doctors to read the names and create files for them; and second, by stressing the possible dangers for children themselves when their names are mistaken.

The wide-spread concern about recent names is particularly apparent in the two new terms mentioned above which were coined to describe them: DQN nēmu and kirakira nēmu. Crucially, both terms are highly critical of new names, and contribute to the negative framing of new naming practices. DQN, read dokyun, originally began as slang on the Internet chat board 2chan, and generally refers to someone lacking in education or common sense (Hatena Keywords 2015). The term DQN nēmu appears to have been spread outside of 2chan partially by the Website, which collects so-called DQN nēmu from 2chan and puts them up for vote by users, with 26,209 names registered as of March 16, 2016. The site makes clear how negatively the term is used by the categories it offers, featuring such caustic titles as ‘Tonchi ga kikisugi’ [A little too funny], ‘Kyōyō tte daiji da ne’ [Education’s important, isn’t it?] and ‘Ero-kaiwaso’ [Sexy-and-sad]. As is clear, “(a) DQN nēmu is a term used by those who feel a sense of discomfort or hate for unusual names, and so has a nuance akin to ‘what do you think names are!’ or ‘stop with the crazy names!’” (Makino 2012, pp.20–21), demonstrating its prejudicial nature.

In comparison, while the term kirakira nēmu is often used similarly to DQN nēmu, it differs in some important ways. Kirakira nēmu, or ‘glittery names’, comes from the desire to shine out brightly (kirakira kagayaku) with a unique name, and as Makino (2012) points out, it can be used by parents themselves in a positive way. However, kirakira nēmu is used far more ambiguously by others. The popular baby naming Website, Akachan Meimei Jiten [The Baby Naming Dictionary], which allows visitors to vote on names registered on the site, offers an illuminating example of the ambiguous status of kirakira nēmu. The site organises names into different types, such as ‘popular names’ and ‘celebrity names’, as well as ‘kirakira nēmu’. At first the ‘kirakira nēmu’ category seems to be no different from the other types, with no particular explanation or changes in design, giving it the appearance of being used in an equally warm and positive way as the others.

However, it becomes immediately clear that this is not the case when one looks at the apparent standards for ranking kirakira nēmu: while visitors are able to rank names from ‘Suteki!’ [Great!], ‘Nakanaka!’ [Pretty good!], ‘Māmā’ [Not bad!], ‘Uun…’ [Umm…], and ‘Me ga ten…!’ [I’m stunned…!], the highest ranking kirakira nēmu as of March 16, 2016, were all ones rated very poorly (Table 1). The Website’s real attitude towards kirakira nēmu is revealed in an even more subtle way, however: the link for the kirakira nēmu page is actually listed as ‘~/itai.php’. Given that itai [painful] can be used to mean something that is painfully pathetic, one gets the impression that this easily overlooked marker is something of an inside joke that only the Webmasters themselves would notice. In a theme that will become more obvious below, we can also already see some of the inconsistency in how the term is used: some of the names on the list have clearly been rated poorly for reasons other than that they are difficult to read, such as their being homophonic with words with negative meanings (1, 6) or the names of fictional characters (3, 5, 8).

Table 1: Kirakira nēmu rankings on Akachan Meimei Jiten (2016)
Ranking Kanji Reading Negative rating Possible reason
1 四駄霊 Yodare 90.73% Altered readings; homophone: drool
2 笑福 Efu 59.63% Non-established readings
3 新一 Konan 76.00% Non-established readings; fictional character
4 煮物 Nimono 92.86% Common noun: food
5 光宙 Pikachū 89.29% Altered readings; fictional character
6 亜菜瑠 Anaru 84.48% Homophone: anal sex, anus
7 精子 Seiko 85.00% Homographic: sperm
8 美風姫 Miffī 82.50% Non-established readings; fictional character
9 義三郎則府 Gizaburō 77.50% Non-established readings
10 宝冠 Tiara 65.85% Non-established readings; common noun: accessory

We can thus see that while kirakira nēmu is somewhat tamer than DQN nēmu, it can also be used sarcastically, and neither of the two can be considered truly positive or neutral. While Makino (2012) proposes the name chinki nēmu ‘unusual names’ as a more neutral alternative, it, too, takes for granted that the names being criticised are in fact ‘unusual’; and, as will become clear below, it has not received very much traction as a viable alternative. In order to take a critical stance towards the discourse surrounding new names and avoid some of the negative connotations of these terms, in this article the ambiguous term ‘new names’ is purposefully used to refer to these types of names which use kanji in unusual ways. Note that many of the names in Table 1 would not fit this definition of new names, given that the uses of the kanji themselves are not particularly unusual, and in fact may be presumed fairly easy to read: for example, No. 6 and No. 7 use regular readings, but they are probably both negatively ranked because they are homophonic and homographic, respectively, with sexual terms.

The beginnings of a trend

Given that naming practices can be considered a form of fashion, and thus are sensitive to change (Lieberson 2000), it is not easy to finger a single time or factor for their advent. However, increases in topical newspaper articles and research may be one marker of rising public consciousness, and a useful marker for assessing change. Kobayashi (2009) argues that the magazine Tamago Kurabu [Egg Club] has been an extremely influential force in recent changes in naming patterns, by acting as a database of unusual names from which parents could choose, thus fulfilling a need partially created in the mid-1980s through consumer culture that presented baby names as personal advertisement. This would potentially place the trend’s beginning sometime around 1993 at the earliest, the magazine having begun publication in October of that year. Newspaper articles complaining about unusual names may also be found around this time, such as the one from 1999 reported in Makino (2012). In addition, research focusing on unusual names began to pop up in the early 2000s, starting with Satō (2002), in a preliminary report on kanji in names before his 2007 book. Two years later, Tokuda (2004), who later collaborated on research on the motivations and satisfaction surrounding unique names (Tokuda et al. 2013) and people’s experiences of having their name misread (Okosi et al. 2013) presented an analysis of the way kanji are used in new names.

Although this would date changes in naming patterns to the middle 1990s at the latest, it took much longer for the phenomenon to be commonly recognised enough to receive its own special term. Using Google Trends, which tracks standardised search volumes for keywords over time, one finds that the terms DQN nēmu and kirakira nēmu do not appear to gain much traction until 2007 at the earliest, suggesting a time lag of 10 to 15 years between their coinage and the beginnings of the trends. As one can see from Fig. 2, DQN nēmu first appears to gain attention in March, 2007, and kirakira nēmu in September, 2010; while kirakira nēmu has its first peak in November, 2009, it does not enter into a fully-fledged upwards trend until later. In addition, while DQN nēmu was the first term to appear, kirakira nēmu soon overcame it in June, 2012; indeed, Google’s forecasts suggest that kirakira nēmu will continue to gain support, while DQN nēmu’s decline will continue. On the other hand, Makino’s alternative chinki nēmu appears not to have spread, having an average index of 0 compared to DQN nēmu’s 13 and kirakira nēmu’s 15.

Figure 2. Changes in search numbers for kirakira nēmu, DQN nēmu and chinki nēmu over time, adapted from Google Trends (2016)

Unser-Schutz, Figure 2

It is also around this time that one begins to see these two terms used as keywords in posts on popular forums. Upon searching for all posts and comments mentioning DQN nēmu and kirakira nēmu on Yahoo! Chiebukuro, the Japanese equivalent of Yahoo! Answers, where posters can ask for help and knowledge about specific questions, and Hatsugen Komachi, an online advice bulletin board primarily aimed at women, the earliest post mentioning DQN nēmu found was from May, 2007, on Yahoo! Chiebukuro (Table 2). The earliest mention of kirakira nēmu was in January, 2008, also on Yahoo! Chiebukuro. This corroborates with the Google Trends results, strongly suggesting that (1) DQN nēmu was coined earlier, and (2) 2007 to 2008 was the general time-frame for the beginning of their spread. It is also interesting to note the differences between Yahoo! Chiebukuro and Hatsugen Komachi. For both terms, there are more instances of their usage on Yahoo! Chiebukuro, which is by far the bigger Website. However, where the two terms seem to show up with comparable frequency on Yahoo! Chiebukuro, kirakira nēmu is clearly the more popular term on Hatsugen Komachi. Given that the term DQN nēmu is an out-spurt of a very specific Internet slang word, and that it appears that kirakira nēmu is becoming the dominate term—it is, for example, the preferred term used to talk about the phenomenon in news articles—it may be that we are seeing differences in user groups.

Table 2: Number of posts on Yahoo! Chiebukuro and Hatsugen Komachi on DQN nēmu and kirakira nēmu (includes all posts and comments)
Post details DQN nēmu Kirakira nēmu
Yahoo! Chiebukuro Hatsugen Komachi Yahoo! Chiebukuro Hatsugen Komachi
Number 8,421 76 8,189 143
Newest 2016/3/16 2015/3/15 2016/3/16 2016/2/23
Oldest 2007/5/2 2009/5/11 2008/1/21 2008/8/12

Talking about new names

One of the interesting points of Google Trends is that it also lists news headlines that appeared near peaks in search keywords; looking at those headlines can give an idea of the context the keywords were being used, and thus is an extremely useful data source. While there were no news items corresponding with DQN nēmu, seven articles appeared near trend peaks for kirakira nēmu (Table 3), the first of which—a short news item from Real Live (2012) taking up the singer Utada Hikaru’s tweet about difficult names being kawaisō [sad/pathetic]—appears to correspond with the beginning of the surge of search interest in kirakira nēmu. Interestingly, a news item covering the pediatrician’s tweet from the beginning falls at peak D, which appears to correspond with a sharp rise in interest in kirakira nēmu. Like the first news item, the other articles generally framed the changing naming practices within a negative or critical light, and are thus telling of the way that new names have been approached.

Table 3: Articles linked to kirakira nēmu on Google Trends. ‘Original’ refers to the sources for articles which formed peaks after being picked up by relinking sites.
Date Source Title Peak
June, 2012 My Navi News
(original: Real Live News)
Utada Hikaru [says] they’re ‘sad’, but [aren’t there] many kirakira nēmu in the celebrity world? A
November, 2012 My Navi News
(original: Yahoo's Trend News)
The too-difficult kirakira nēmu test ‘春夏冬’, ‘日桜’, ‘月下美人’—can you read them? B
February, 2013 My Navi News
(original:, Inc.)
‘I hate my kirakira nēmu.’ What are the conditions for ‘name changes’ by children? C
August, 2013 Yomiuri Shimbun ‘Stop with the kirakira nēmu’…a pediatrician tweets D
December, 2013 Sports Nippon The best kirakira nēmu of 2013 is ‘泡姫’ E
January, 2014 J-Cast News Suffering at theorizing mixed blessing ‘kirakira nēmu’ ‘亞堕夢’ Adamu and ‘優万旗’ Yanta F
August, 2014 Yomiuri Shimbun My name is a kirakira nēmu G

Take, for example, Yagisawa (2012), which corresponds with peak B and article No.2. The article combines examples of difficult names from in quiz form with follow-up commentary on the names themselves. At first glance, its major goal appears to be to entertain readers, treating difficult names as a form of trivia: can you read these names? However, closer examination shows the commentary to be of a more acerbic nature. In regards to the names ‘苺’ [strawberry], ‘杏’ [apricot], and ‘陽子’ [sun child]—normally likely read ichigo, an and Yōko, respectively, but in this context being read Hana, Anje and Pippi—Yagisawa comments as follows:

The you-can’t-read-them-as-is series. Even after looking at the answers Hana, Anje and Pippi, I froze in front of the computer, unable to figure out why [they were read that way]. When I was in elementary school, there were homework assignments where you had to ask your parents the origin of your name, but how is that now? [It’s] like you want to ask, but don’t want to ask.

Normally, one would expect that a child’s learning about his or her name would be a positive event, where the child would learn about how much his or her parents had been thinking about them even before they were born, thus acting as an opportunity to deepen their bonds. However, Yagisawa’s hesitation and ambivalence suggests that this may no longer be the case for children. By ending the final sentence above in a fragment, interpretation is left to the readers, who are likely to come to the conclusion that it may be an opportunity to instead doubt one’s parents: why on earth did they choose this name?

The following commentary on the name ‘海月’ also supports this, writing that “(w)ithin that group [I] wondered about ‘海月’. Normally you would read it kurage [jelly fish] but …[sp]. It makes you take your hat off to the parents’ imagination.” Here again, hesitation and ambiguity play a major role, this time in the use of ellipsis (…); in addition, the exaggerated admiring expressed through datsubō ‘taking off one’s hat’ gives it a distinctly sarcastic impression. This is further supported by her additional commentary on the name ‘海月’, which is evidently used to write several phonetically different names: “[I] think they won’t be lacking in things to talk about at self-introductions and drinking parties, but it must be difficult to explain it, too.” While the reader senses some sympathy for the plight of those with difficult names, by writing it off as material for jokes, the author also devalues the feelings of those involved, which one would normally think of as deserving respect.

Following the prediction that many people with difficult to read names will want to change them, Kawazoe’s (2013) article offers legal advice on how to go through the process. As opposed to Yagisawa’s article, which presented the new names from a distanced and at times coldly amused position, Kawazoe’s is typified primarily by how it appeals to outside authorities to support its claims, and is apparently written with the point of view of individuals so named in mind, thus giving off an initial appearance of supporting the interests of people with hard to read names. For example, Kawazoe writes about the motivations behind changing one’s names as follows.

These names popularly called kirakira nēmu: the parents probably gave it to them with the wish that ‘they become richly unique humans,’ but from the child’s point of view, they probably also think ‘it’s a bit embarrassing.’ According to research conducted by Life Net Health Insurance, there are some survey results of human resource recruiters who have said that ‘old names are more advantageous than kirakira nēmu’ in job searches, such that there are even cases when kirakira nēmu can act as a handicap.

Thus, Kawazoe frames the issue in both individual and social ways, first by suggesting that kirakira nēmu may go against personal senses—their being ‘embarrassing’—and to losses of face in such situations as interviews. In addition, the author advertises his reliability to readers by borrowing the knowledge of an ‘authority’ (Life Net Health Insurance and its surveys), thus presenting his arguments as trustworthy—even though, as observant readers will note, the survey is otherwise unnamed and unlinked, thus leaving off all possibility of following up on it. In this way, he sets it up to seem perfectly natural to perceive such new names as a ‘handicap’ that needs to be fixed, to borrow Kawazoe’s words. In continuing, “(i)t is probably unfortunate for those parents who gave them the names with their love (aijō), but since it is the children themselves who use the names, you can maybe say it is unpreventable (shikata ga nai),” Kawazoe displays some sympathy with parents, but ultimately dismisses it, thus encouraging readers to evaluate names as he does, while presenting the desire to change one’s name as an extremely natural thing under the circumstances—whichever they may be, given that he has failed to say what makes a name a kirakira nēmu in any clear terms

The basis for evaluating new names

In this way, one can clearly see how the consciousness towards new names by nature problematises them while framing them in such a negative light as to encourage others also to desire names presumed more normal. Of course, one might claim that the problem is not all new names, but only those that are truly hard to read—unique names are no problem as long as they are easier to read, it might go. However, such claims in and of themselves suggest that there are clear definitions of ‘normal’ and ‘non-normal’ kirakira nēmu and DQN nēmu, which is clearly not the case. As previously noted, for example, the negative ratings behind the highest ranked kirakira nēmu on Akachan Meimei Jiten did not necessarily have to do with their being difficult to read, but rather because of the associations they have with other things.

Even if one ignores such perhaps technical differences, however, the idea of a traditional Japanese name is also problematic. As noted earlier, there was a distinct break in naming traditions before and after the Meiji period, in large part due to 1872 laws limiting individuals to one legal name and restricting naming changes. As a result, many of the trends felt to be most standard for Japanese names are not very old at all. The most outstanding example is that of the ending -ko for women. As observed earlier, -ko names are often presumed to be some of the most typically Japanese women’s names: indeed, aside from Hanako, 36 of the 42 responses gave -ko names as a representative Japanese women’s name. Yet, although the importance of -ko names is often taken as a given, they were actually limited in use to the nobility prior to the Edo period (Komori 2002). Instead, women’s names in the Edo period were typically characterised by being two-syllables in length, often accompanied by the honourific prefix o- in everyday life (Tsunoda 2006). -Ko names did reach extreme levels of popularity in the early 20th century—but as Komori (2002) shows, even this trend was much shorter lived than might normally be presumed: after -ko names reached their peak popularity in the 1920s, girls’ name ending in -mi or of a certain number of mora became popular instead; and girls’ names using kanji only for their phonetic aspects could already be commonly observed in the 1960s, a fact of which people appeared to be conscious (Emmanji 2005). Note, too, that the use of kanji itself was actually a new trend, as it was also not common prior to the Meiji period (Jugaku 1990).

Similar points could also be made about boys’ names. The laws against changing names went against previous customs, particularly amongst upper class men, to change names at important life events and to avoid usage of their imina [taboo names], (initially) resulting in a chaotic state where many different types of names—including yōmyō [childhood names] and imina—were registered as people’s one and only name (Yanagita 2014). Although 4-mora names using nanori-kun such as ‘義経’ Yoshitsune or ‘頼朝’ Yoritomo may seem to be exemplars of typical Japanese names, they were strongly associated with the imina of the upper classes in the Edo period and earlier, meaning that, like -ko, they were not used by most people. Importantly, imina would not even have been used very much in everyday life by those who did have them, since they were viewed as having a special power. Thus, they not only did not spread across all social classes, but were not used in everyday life until after the Meiji Restoration, when they began to be formally registered as men’s only names, contributing to the state of chaos Yanagita describes. Yet they, too, subsequently lost out in popularity over time as is clear from the decrease in two-character names in the mid-20th century in favour of one-character names (see Komori 2002 and Unser-Schutz 2016b on name lengths; see Plutschow 1995 for a detailed analysis of pre-Meiji period naming practices). What these cases make clear is that the current trends have very little to do with the decline of certain particular forms such as -ko, in the sense that these were not necessarily that deep rooted. Instead, the development of these kinds of new names is better thought of as a reaction to and continuation of a larger chain of events.

The who of who evaluates names

As has become clear, there are often large gaps between individuals’ experiential knowledge of naming practices and trends and reality; insofar as this regards the evaluation of new names, one can say that an important issue here is who is doing those evaluations. While the evaluation of new names as difficult primarily focuses on the ability of others to read the names, this is only one aspect of how names should or could be evaluated. As was hinted at in the discussion of the quiz article above, one can generally assume that parents have multiple reasons for giving a particular name; and, while there is a general trend in recent years in Japan no longer to perceive parents’ as being “naturally good” (Goodman 2002, p.150), it would seem far more natural to start with the assumption that most parents do not give them in order to hurt the child, but rather for what they perceive to be their betterment, regardless of the actual or potential consequences.

The infamous Akuma case from 1994 is a good example of this. Parents in a Tokyo city had registered their baby with the name ‘悪魔’ Akuma [devil], which their local city office accepted. Afterwards, however, the city tried to reject the name post facto as they felt it would have a negative impact on the child. This led to a court case, with the parents claiming that they were giving the name for what they personally perceived to be a positive reason: they wanted their child to be strong like a devil, which eventually led them to the compromise of Aku (for a detailed analysis of the Akuma case, see Itoda 2003). Although the court ultimately decided that the parents were misusing their parental rights in giving a name that might potentially be detrimental, the reason given is neither as outrageous nor as unprecedented as might be supposed. As Ōtō (2012) describes, the earliest personal names found in family registers from the early 8th century often included the words for natural inanimate objects (e.g., rocks), animals and plant names, many of which would seem strange today. However, they reflected then-common animist beliefs about the natural world, specifically in that it was thought that one would have the same spirit or personality as one’s name. Thus, including kuma [bear] in one’s son’s name would impart upon him the same strong characteristics of a bear. Similar naming patterns continued on in yōmyō, which were given to boys before they took their imina upon coming of age. Likewise, there were also traditions of using words like kuso [feces] in names, so that evil spirits would not want to approach the child. While such practices may seem strange, the common folk belief that names have an important influence—and perhaps even a special power—still runs strong.

Clearly, focusing on how third party individuals may assess names is very limiting. In particular, the strong focus on readability within recent criticism has created blinders against other pertinent details. Knowledge about a particular name and why it was given is necessary for really assessing its impact; however, most people are not privy to such information. As a result, one can expect gaps in the ways that names are evaluated based upon how much information they have about the name, which is another way of saying, what their relationship to the name is. Continuing with the thread above, one can see that the individuals with the most information are clearly those who have given the name, which in many cases are the parents themselves: in a project reviewing 253 messages from parents in one community newsletter about why they chose their children’s names, 158 did not specifically mention any person, but amongst those that did, the largest single group was parents (parents: 49, father: 29; mother: 11). In comparison, grandparents were mentioned in only three letters (Unser-Schutz 2015a).

As the givers of names, parents are usually privileged with knowledge not just about why the name was given, but also how it was selected, and what processes they went through in selecting it. Indeed, “in a critical sense… names belong as much, if not more, to the givers of names as to those that bear them” (Benson 2009, p.180). In comparison, it cannot be taken as a given that children know about these things. However, talking about one’s child’s name together can be an opportunity to strengthen and deepen bonds between children and parents. Even if parents do not freely provide such opportunities or children are not interested in knowing about their names, there are many instances such as the homework assignments described above by Yagisawa where children are compelled to ask about it. This suggests that many people do in fact come to learn about their names at some point; and indeed, in the informal survey mentioned above, only three out of 38 students did not know about the origin of their name.

On the other hand, individuals not directly involved in the naming process will obviously have very little knowledge about why a certain name was given, unless they have the opportunity or interest to make a point of inquiring about it. As a result, the evaluation by many third parties is simpler in nature, as well as more focused on how they themselves feel about the name. Given that being able to read and/or pronounce the name is one of the few places where such third parties are likely to feel personal gain or frustration—having to do more or less work to read the name, and concern over how the other person will feel if they do so incorrectly—one can see how readability can come to be a particularly important point in evaluation. However, because it is less multifaceted than the evaluation of parents and children, one can also easily predict that this will result in differences in how names are publicly evaluated. While difficult-to-read names are clearly not well received publicly, Tokuda et al. (2013)’s research suggests that this does not seem to have an effect on parents’ own evaluations of names. In their survey of 508 mothers with children in kindergarten and nursery schools, Tokuda et al. found that 24% said their child’s name had been misread before; on the other hand, 90% said they were satisfied with the name they had given. Even if the 10% who were dissatisfied were in those 24% who said that their child’s name has been misread, one can clearly see that being misread is in and of itself not a defining point for satisfaction.

One must make the caveat, of course, that this tells us very little about what children feel when their names are misread, and parents are deeply vested in thinking that the name they have chosen is good—not to mention that they are likely influenced to do so by the mere exposure and other ex-post-facto effects: as Berezkina (2016, p. 133) found for toponyms, just being used to a particular name can give people a positive attitude towards it. Even so, one can clearly see how these gaps in knowledge and involvement in the naming process can lead to differing evaluations. A telling example can be found in the post “Kirakira nēmu to iwanaide!” [Don’t call my name kirakira!] on Hatsugen Komachi. As mentioned earlier, Hatsugen Komachi is an online advice bulletin board; aimed primarily for women, it is a part of the Yomiuri Newspaper and has proven popular enough to have a series of books rehashing interesting topics.

In the post in question, the poster, Kotone (2014), describes herself as a 30-something year old mother of one, whose name uses a somewhat unusual kanji with a somewhat unusual reading. (Note that although posters must choose a user name to participate in Hatsugen Komachi, it is safe to assume that they are generally pseudonyms.) With the advent of the term kirakira nēmu, she has found that people tell her that her name was a kirakira nēmu; furthermore, her daughter, whose name includes one kanji from her own name, also receives such comments frequently. Contrary to popular belief about how individuals will perceive their own, difficult names, however, Kotone feels pride in her name; as she writes, “it’s a name that we received from a shrine, and whose meaning I really like.” From her point of view, it is a perfectly reasonable name, whose kanji reading is the same as a historical person everyone knows, and she herself reports no problems with it at interviews or other delicate situations—contrary to some people’s beliefs otherwise (e.g., Makino 2012). Although she admits that her name is difficult to read, her post seeks confirmation that it is unfair negatively to evaluate her parents based upon her name: “Don’t you think it’s rude to decide that it’s a kirakira nēmu just because you can’t read it a bit? ‘That name’s a pity’ ‘your parents lack commonsense’—I don’t need your concern.”

From her point of view, Kotone has been told the origin and process behind giving her that name, and having been satisfied with those explanations, is herself satisfied with her name. Naturally, because she understands why her parents gave her this name, she also has no qualms in sharing part of it with her own daughter—and indeed, sees it as a source of bonding and family ties. However, third parties not privileged with such information will only evaluate names on the limited information that they do have—that being in many cases, whether or not the name is easy to read—thus resulting in a gap between personal evaluation by the individual and social evaluation by the group. Put differently, individuals have greater access to a multiplicity of information about why their name was given to them, whereas third parties only have comparatively superficial information available for evaluation. This tendency can also be seen in the replies to the original poster, where the majority strongly evaluate the readability of the name: “Sorry, you say simply that it’s just that it can’t be read, but I think that’s enough of a reason to be called ‘kirakira.’ Unreadable names…. They’re too self-satisfied.” “Prediction. It’s unfortunate you can’t predict how society will react. It’s a parent’s responsibility to work within the limits of readability.” “I don’t think you and your parents lack common sense, but I do think you lack consideration; couldn’t you have given a name that is a little bit easier to understand?”

Calling Kotone’s name a kirakira nēmu also shows that its introduction as a concept has led to a reanalysis of names. If it is correct to assume that these new types of problematised names especially began to appear in the mid-1990s, then someone in her mid-30s writing in 2014 is too old to have been born in the midst of that trend. Although Japanese writing is comparatively opaque (e.g., the phonetic reading of words is often not clear), as Kadoya (2010, p.54) notes, proper nouns, including personal names, are the most difficult elements to read in Japanese writing. This brings into doubt whether or not new names are really characterised by being more difficult to read than names were in the past, or whether that is simply a characteristic of Japanese names in general.

There is much reason to believe that the latter is the case. Historically, using unusual kanji readings for names was popular amongst some intellectuals—if not at the current levels—in the Meiji period, such as the names of Mori Ōgai’s children ,‘杏奴’ Annu and ‘於菟’ Oto. Earlier yet in the later Edo period, the use of unusual readings for kanji in imina was popular within the court aristocracy, a practice called kōke yomi “aristocratic readings” which picked up on practices first seen in the Muromachi period; as Tsunoda (2006, p.305) comments, these unusual readings often made it confusing for individuals to know how to read each other’s names.

Interestingly, the reanalysis of old names as kirakira nēmu in and of itself seems to have become a popular task, as seen in a post to Twitter from Hirayama Asako (2015) showing a Yomiuri Newspaper article from 1937 entitled “Shōwa chimmei-bo/Showa unusual names book” on a girl with the name ‘千九百三十’. Although normally read senkyūhyakusanjū [1930], the year the girl was born, it is being made to be read Chigusa, a far more common name. Since first having been posted on September 10, 2015, this has already been retweeted 9,191 times, bookmarked 4,714 times, and rehashed and linked on multiple Websites. In this sense, we can also observe that the scope of names covered by kirakira nēmu appears to be expanding.

The when of evaluating new names

As has become clear from the analysis above, there is a gap between how namers/namees and third parties evaluate names. This is also related to the problem of when new names should be evaluated. At present, new names in the media and popular talk are primarily being evaluated by adults, such as the tweeting politician or the advice doling lawyer. However, with the exception of individuals like Kotone, whose names have been retroactively determined to be kirakira, those who themselves have been given such names—e.g., children—are not yet the primary participants in the public discourse on new names. If the trend began in the mid-1990s, this suggests that even the oldest individuals with such names would now only be in their late teens to early 20s; furthermore, if the trend really began to accelerate several years later, then the majority of individuals representative of these trends are still very young. Although part of the criticism concerning new names is that they will not function socially (Satō 2007) or that children with such names will be bullied (Nakata 2013), how can these claims be properly assessed without touching upon the experiences of individuals with those names, as the present discourse is constructed?

While such criticisms of new names often pivot on the idea that children with new names will stand out negatively, they assume that new names will actually stand out in the first place. If, however, the trend of giving new names is as wide-spread as it appears to be, then one might instead assume that names often considered traditional may actually stand out more—which, under the same logic, would lead to names ending in -ko or 4-mora nanori-kun names being perceived negatively. Until we are able to see how the trend will play out in the long term, it will be impossible fully to understand how children will perceive their names, and to assess the scale and social impact of these changes. Current evaluations of new names should not be assumed accurately to reflect how new names will be perceived in the future, but rather are reflective of current concerns towards social changes.

It is actually very difficult to evaluate at the time of naming how much any given name reflects larger trends within the child’s cohorts. Behind the idea that the name one is selecting is unique lies the conceits that one’s own experiences, values and desires are also unique, but these are clearly also shaped by society, meaning that we unconsciously share far more in common with other members of society than we might otherwise assume. Lieberson (2000) offers a particularly interesting, semi-personal example of how individuals’ preferences towards fashion in names apparently unconsciously concentrated in the name Rebecca. As Lieberson writes, he and his wife chose Rebecca for their daughter without any knowledge of or sense that the name was particularly popular. However, when they began to meet other children of his daughter’s age, he found that Rebecca was actually quite common. His interest piqued, Lieberson’s research showed him that up until then Rebecca had actually been in decline, but that several trends—the popularity of Old Testament names, the revival of girls’ names ending in -a, the appearance of positive characters named Rebecca in the media, and the thinning of its impression of being Jewish—colluded to raise the name Rebecca in popularity. On an individual level, none of these factors might seem influential, nor be a reason that parents themselves would offer for their choices; however, combined, they appear to have led to the revitalisation of the name Rebecca. Similarly, parents selecting names in Japan—and those observing other children’s names as third-party persons—are unlikely to be currently aware of all of the factors that motivated them towards evaluating a name in a particular way.

In this way, the evaluation of new names lacks historicity in two key ways. On the one hand, unusual names have existed since before the term kirakira nēmu was even coined, and freedom in creating names could be said to be characteristic of Japanese, especially in comparison with languages such as English (Honda 2005). That is to say, we often have little consciousness of past trends when assessing current trends. In addition, being volatile by nature, not only is it still difficult to assess how trends will proceed, but individuals also fundamentally lack sufficiently comprehensive information on the status of naming trends to grasp accurately how such changes will continue and be understood when today’s children become adults themselves. Put simply, people in general do not have enough information at present to predict children’s future perceptions of their own names based upon our current evaluations.

Conclusions: New names as a youth problem?

We see thus that part of the problem with the discourse of new names is that all of the evaluating is done in an historic vacuum by third-person parties, largely detached from those who are subject to such names. It may in fact be possible to evaluate names positively if we change how we approach them: certainly, new names point to a high level of creativity in language practices, for example. By focusing on only the potentially negative aspects of names, however, popular discourse seems to set them up as a new type of youth problem, demonstrating the ever-growing and ever-feared gap between generations. As Toivonen and Imoto (2011) have shown, since the 1970s in particular the life styles and values of young people have been problematised in popular media, from otaku, enjo-kōsai, hikikomori, and parasite singles, to child abuse; less talked about in popular media, however, is how these youth problems reflect changes in Japanese society, and a large percentage of them are actually related to issues of the delayed or incomplete inheritance of historically, culturally-approved social roles. While such discourse about youth problems can be found anywhere, factors impeding the socialisation of young people in Japan may particularly give off a sense of crisis: as Goodman (2011, p.164) has noted, with the country’s low numbers of natural resources, young people are a particularly important resource in Japan, for which their socialisation is vital.

Importantly, by focusing on the burden of third-party others who encounter difficulties reading new names, the critical discourse helps reproduce orthodox values by pressuring new parents to be considerate of others and not cause their children to stand out. On a superficial level, new names may not seem to have very much to do with life styles and values. However, as observed above, their selection is often motivated by social values, and the danger perceived in new names has similarities with other youth problems in that way. The criticism of new names also reframes other discourses of criticism and social change, such as the problematisation of (young people’s) Japanese and the perceived lowering of Japanese language skills and literacy, especially in relationship with the Internet (Gottlieb 2011); changes within Japanese families and home life (Ronald and Alexy 2011); and the deterioration of the public sphere and the rise of individualism (Yamada 2009).

One can also observe some of the contradictory forces of neoliberal social reform and neoconservative moral values in the tension behind recent naming practices. As Takeda (2011) describes, “[neoliberal] structural reform encourages more individuals, in particular women, to be autonomous and enterprising actors in the deregulated labour market as competent workers and consumers. This potentially increases the range of freedom that individuals enjoy in the neoliberalised life space, while intensifying the sense of insecurity because naturally, not everyone can be a responsible and competent actor, and thus, there is always the chance to become the ‘excluded’ of advanced capitalist consumer society” (47). Re-examining naming practices in this light, one can see how the freedom and stress of individuality apparent in new names may be a natural outcome of larger structural changes: importantly, the laws surrounding names have become more relaxed over time, with an increasingly larger set of kanji being made available for use in names (see Emmanji 2005 and Yasuoka 2011 for detailed analyses on the laws surrounding names and kanji). At the same time, the intense criticism towards new names is a reflection of the anxiety felt about the changes they represent.

Finally, there are also parallels with other youth problems in how the terms to refer to new names have been coined. Just as terms such as hikikomori, nīto and futōkō can all be used to describe the same or similar phenomenon, there is often inconsistency in how youth problems are named and described. Toivonen and Imoto (2011, p.21) argue that the further disintegration into more detailed terms can be used to create hierarchies within those phenomena subject to other trends, such as how nīto are below furītā, furītā below seishain, etc. These terms can then function symbolically to distinguish new groups, and hold different meanings by such groups, so that they create multivocality and allow for the recognition of problems that were until then inexpressible. This could also be seen for kirakira nēmu and DQN nēmu, where DQN nēmu are lower on the hierarchy than kirakira nēmu. In addition, an older term, chimmei, also exists from before the kirakira nēmu/DNQ nēmu boom—but its use has generally been more neutral than either of them, and continues to be so (Unser-Schutz 2016a).

The emergence of the terms kirakira nēmu and DQN nēmu has also led to a new range of vocabulary to refer to other types of names, with nēmu being especially productive. Take, for example, the new term shiwashiwa nēmu ‘wrinkly names’, which was specifically introduced in an editorial as a kind of antonym for nostalgic, more orthodox names, and which has caused its own flurry of heated criticism for being rude (R25 2015). There have also been hints at terms like mīra nēmu ‘mummy names’ to refer to old-fashioned names (IMASUGU News 2015). Thus, there seems to be a similar kind of diversification of the vocabulary used to talk about the phenomenon of unusual names, demonstrating how the emergence of the terms kirakira nēmu and DQN nēmu has altered the ways that people perceive and talk about names. It is not clear how many of these new terms will really take root, and whether their definitions will stabilise or continue to diversify over time. However, they are clearly issues worth coming back to. While naming practices may seem at first just a matter of taste—as in the title of Lieberson (2000)—they are in fact related to and affected by innumerable factors. Major changes like those seen in recent Japanese naming practices strongly suggest that some sort of change has also occurred in those factors. Continuing to follow how Japanese naming practices and the discourse on kirakira nēmu develop will undoubtedly offer new insights into how greater Japanese society is changing and reacting to those changes.


This paper is partially based on a conference paper presented at the International Association for Japan Studies (Unser-Schutz 2015b), which was expanded upon in the Japanese-language Unser-Schutz (2015c). This research was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 70632595.


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About the Author

Giancarla Unser-Schutz conducts research on how Japanese naming practices are changing, with a focus on the orthographic characteristics of new names; the veracity of public discourse on their difficulty; and the motivations behind naming choices. Her publications may be found at

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