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How To Write Names In Japanese - Part 1

This article first appeared in the August issue of Martial Arts Insider Magazine

[Part 1] [Part 2]

While there are several ways to translate names to Japanese, there is only one standard way: A phonetic translation to katakana. Katakana is a syllabary (Japanese is a language of syllables, not letters) that only represent sounds and so the characters themselves have no meaning.

For aesthetic reasons one may choose to use a phonetic translation to hiragana or a translation to kanji - all which can be suitable for informal uses or for artwork. These are not, however, suitable for formal uses such as for bank accounts, legal documents, formal Japanese seals, and so on. If one is concerned whether the translation is correct or not, then katakana should be used.

As an example, phonetic translations to kanji are very popular. Be warned though that translations to kanji are non-standard. Japanese seeing these designs will most likely not know they are a name and will probably not guess the correct pronunciation. The reason is non-Japanese names are simply non translated this way and so there are no rules, no standards. And what is worse, any given kanji can have a multitude of readings. If you expect Japanese to understand your name in kanji, in almost all cases you will be sorely disappointed.

There are four ways to translate names into Japanese:

1. Phonetic Translation - katakana
2. Phonetic Translation - hiragana
3. Phonetic Translation - kanji
4. Literal Translation - kanji

For a phonetic translation, the pronunciation of the name must be known because it is the pronunciation of the name that is being translated not the spelling. For example, the names "Kathy" and "Cathy" are rendered into Japanese in exactly the same way. On the other hand, a name that is spelled the same but has different pronunciations will be rendered in Japanese differently. A good example is the name ''Jan'' which is a common English name, and it is also a common non-English name which is pronounced ''Yan.'' One would use a different phonetic translation depending on whether the name is pronounced J-jan or Y-yan.

There are often some difficulties with a phonetic translation. The most obvious issue is that Japanese does not have all of the sounds that are possible English. The most widely known example is that Japanese not have an ''L'' (ell) sound and will render everything with an L as an R. I would like to give a few other examples. But first we need to discuss romaji.

What is Romaji? Romaji literally means ''roman characters'' and is the way that Japanese words are rendered in English. There are actually two romaji systems and the one most commonly used is called the Hepburn system. As an example, Katherine in romaji is ''kyasarin'' which corresponds to the katakana

To continue with the example of Katherine, the name is sometimes spelt as Katharine and the pronunciation is slightly different. However, Japanese cannot reproduce this subtlety and the two spellings are rendered the same.

Arthur is rendered in romaji as ''a-sa-''. The reason being that there is no ''th'' sound so this becomes ''sa''. There cannot be two consecutive consonants so the ''r'' before the ''t'' is replaced by the elongated vowel symbol. And the final ''r'' cannot be pronounced alone, so it is also replaced with an elongated vowel. The result is Arthur would be in katakana.

As another example, Japanese does not have the ''thy'' ending in Kathy and Timothy. These are replaced with ''shi-''. So Kathy becomes ''kyashi-'' and Timothy become ''timoshi-'' .

As a final example, Brian would be ''buraian'' which may be counter-intuitive. The important point is not how the name is spelled, but how the name is pronounced. Because the ''r'' is after a consonant, it is normally pronounced. The ''B'' alone becomes the syllable ''Bu''. Brian in katakana looks like .

1. Phonetic Translation (Katakana)

As mentioned in the introduction, the proper way to write non-Japanese names in Japanese is to use katakana. After the end of World War II, as a part of a process to simplify the Japanese language, it was established that all non-Japanese words and names were to be rendered using katakana.

Katakana  is a syllabary with each character having no meaning even though each katakana character is a simplified form of a part of a kanji (Chinese) character. Katakana's creation is attributed to the monk scholar Kibi no Makibi (AD 693-755) and was the first syllabary developed. Initially it was used as a pronunciation aid for Buddhist scriptures. Later it was used to write grammatical and inflectional elements. Today katakana is used to write non-Japanese words and technical terms in Japanese,

Along with the basic characters, there are also a few modifiers commonly used with both of the kana.

The sound changes shown in the first chart below use dakuten (which looks like a double quotation mark) and handakuten (which looks like the degree symbol - a small circle - in the upper right corner).

There are several modifiers that are small vowels a, e, i, o and u; along with ya, yu, yo and tsu that are collectively called shouji or small characters.

The ya, yu, and yo have their own name, youon and these modify the regular kana as shown in the chart, and may also modify other kana.

The small tsu also has its own name which is sokuon and it occurs before kana beginning with k, s, t or p, and acts to double or emphasize the consonant. For example, the name ''Duke'' is written as ''dukku'' in romaji and is in katakana. The small tsu serves to place emphasis on the ''k'' sound rather than ''duku'' , which would not place an emphasis on either syllable. Notice also, in this example the use of a ''youon'' which is the small ''yu'' which modifies the ''d'' sound, to make it a ''du'' sound.

There are a lot of rules, but once you practice with a few names the translation becomes second nature.

Katakana has many combinations that do not exist within hiragana and kanji. It has the broadest rules as it has been modified to more accurately render non-Japanese words into Japanese. One example of this is the enchou fugou   which extends the vowel sound. This corresponds to the dash written in romaji. An example of the enchou fugou is the last character in the name Kelly, written in the sample below. Note that the orientation changes depending on whether the name is being written horizontally (1) and (2), or vertically (3) and (4).

Kelly written in katakana (1) and (2) horizontally from left to right (3) and (4) vertically from top to bottom. Notice how the enchou fugou changes orientation depending on whether one is writing horizontally or vertically.

The problem with katakana, is also its strength: the simple and angular lines leave little room for modification and hence artistry. This makes katakana easy to write, but the simple and angular lines leave very little room for variation and it makes nearly useless the rich tradition of Japanese calligraphy.

Dictating the use of katakana for all cases, however, can present problems. One common issue is that ''Seal Script'' (tensho) should be used for seals. This script is complex and curving which makes it more difficult to forge. Because of this property, Seal Script has been used to design seals for thousands of years.

The problem is that the Seal Script predates the creation of katakana by several thousand years, and is only defined for use with kanji. This contradiction means that one rule is going to have to be broken. And once we begin breaking rules, the best we can do is look to precedence on how to proceed. This is where things get interesting.

To avoid confusion in what I have just stated, I would like to clarify one point about seals. In Japan there are two types of seals. One is called inkan, this is used for everyday purposes. The other is called tenkoku (lit. ''Tensho Carving'') and is used for legal purposes. If my name were Yamada, I could go down the street to a stationary store and buy a pre-made inkan for Yamada. Of course, all of the other Yamada's in the area could do the same. This seal, this inkan, could be used for all daily purposes as the Japanese equivalent of a signature. However, for legal purposes, such as for opening a bank account, this seal could not be used. One would need to have a unique and complex seal that is registered with the government and for this purpose the tenkoku seal must be used

To illustrate this point I compare the styles below. These are different seals for ''Sairei'' which is my professional name in Japan. Figure (1)  is a Seal Script design which would be common design for a tenkoku seal. Figure (2)  is a regular font that would be suitable for an inkan seal, while figure (3)  is how the seal would look using katakana.

2. Phonetic Translation (Hiragana)

Hiragana is attributed to the Buddhist priest Kuukai (AD 774-835) and was famously adopted by the poetesses of the Heian period (794-1185) who did not wish to use the masculine looking katakana. Hiragana is a flowing, soft syllabary that is used today in Japanese for grammatical elements, inflectional endings, and for words for which no kanji exists.

Since hiragana is more feminine than katakana, one may prefer to use hiragana to write one's name.

In an example, Kathy was shown in katakana. One may, however, prefer to use the hiragana version as opposed to the katakana version .

Hiragana does not have the same flexibility as katakana. For example, the enchou fugou character mentioned above is not used with hiragana. One must either extend the sound by adding another syllable, or one must simply omit the extended sound. Adding another syllable is often not a practical solution as each syllable must be enunciated, and this is often not what is desired. One exception to this is the ''u'' character used to extend the vowels ''o'' and ''u''.

From time to time one will see an obsolete method for extending vowels in hiragana which often adds the character ''fu'' to denote elongation. An example would be that in katakana would be written as in hiragana. This style should not be used. An example of the confusion that could result would be the name Ralph which would be .

In general, names that used the enchou fugou character in katakana would omit this in hiragana. This is demonstrated in the sample below which shows how Kelly would be written in hiragana..

Kelly written in hiragana (5) and (6) horizontally from left to right (7) and (8) vertically from top to bottom. (9) uses a cursive style. Notice the enchou fugou is not used in hiragana.


As with katakana, hiragana allows for sound changes called ''dakuten'' (which looks like a double quotation mark) and ''handakuten'' (which looks like degree symbol - a small circle in the upper right corner).

Hiragana also uses the small characters or shouji a, e, i, o and u; along with ya, yu, yo, and tsu.


The final sections will only be touched upon briefly in this article, as they are in themselves a large and fascinating topic. So, to complete the overview on the kanji, please continue.

3. Phonetic Translation (Kanji)

Kanji (Chinese Characters) have both a meaning and a pronunciation. When a word or name is translated into kanji using the pronunciation, this is called a phonetic translation. There is a long tradition of translating names in this manner, as it preserves the original sound as much as is possible with Japanese.

Kelly written as a phonetic translation into kanji. (10) is written keiri and means Respect and Reason (11) means Respect and Useful. These would be suitable masculine translations.

4. Literal Translation (Kanji)

The literal translation solves many of the issues of the phonetic translation. With the literal translation the meaning of the name is preserved. Often times names are selected for their meaning and not the way the name sounds. This method respects that choice.

Kelly written as a phonetic translation into kanji. (12) means Smart and Clever and (13) means Clever and Useful. These might be suitable feminine feminine translations.

In the beginning of the article, it was mentioned that Jan can be pronounced using ''J'' or ''Y''. Regardless of the pronunciation, the meaning of the name is the same. Therefore, a literal translation for either spelling of this name would be based on the meaning: ''God is Gracious.'' 

There are several possibilities for the meaning of Kelly. I have used the meaning from the Gaelic ceallach, meaning ''war.'' The translation then becomes Warrior, or senshi in Japanese and examples of this are given below.

(14) and (15) are literal Translation of Kelly meaning Warrior which is read senshi


As Japanese is a language of syllables, it is not easy to translate letters. The translation must be done based on the pronunciation, as in the chart below. The odd thing is that a single letter such as ''W'' takes five syllables to pronounce, and would be written [phonetically] in romaji as: daburyu-.

As an example, IBM's legal name in Japan is partly written as

As you can see, there are many factors to consider when choosing a style. For artwork, I prefer to use a literal translation as it preserves the meaning of the name - I find that art has everything to do with meaning. However, the method that is best for you, is the method that you prefer.

In part 2 of this series, I will discuss in detail the methods for translating names to kanji.

[Part 1] [Part 2]


Suggested Resources:


Takase Studios - Names in Japanese is great for phonetic translations to katakana and literal translations to kanji.

Jeffrey's Japanese<->English Dictionary Server is a good on-line Japanese/English and kanji dictionary.

Jim Breen’s WWWJNAMES Server is great for translating names from romaji to katakana.


The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary

by John H. Haig, Andrew N. Nelson

An excellent reference book for looking up kanji by radicals or pronunciation.



Kanji & Kana : A Handbook of the Japanese Writing System
by Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn

An excellent book for the study of Joyo kanji.



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