How To Write Names in Japanese

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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
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
not 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 –
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

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)

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.

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
looks like a double quotation mark) and handakuten

(which looks like the degree symbol – a small circle – in the upper right corner).

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
these modify the regular kana as shown in the chart, and may also modify other

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.

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

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

The problem with katakana, is also its strength: the simple and angular lines
leave little room for modification and hence artistry. This makes katakana
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.

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.

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

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

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]

names to Japanese, in most cases, should be done using the katakana syllabary.
There are several cases though where a translation to kanji may be preferable.
One example given in the first part of this article was for use in a personal

kanji was
adopted from Chinese characters in the fourth century AD with kanji literally
means “Chinese Characters.” While kanji and today’s Chinese writing system have
many similarities, it must be emphasized that the reading is completely
different and the usage are often
quite different. This means that using a Chinese translation for a name would
not be the same as a Japanese translation.

characters originated as a pictographic or ideographic way to represent words.
That is, like Egyptian hieroglyphics Chinese characters started as pictures to
represent words and concepts. Over the years these were abstracted and
simplified, but their origins as pictures remains.

As mentioned in
the first part of this article, there are four ways to translate names into

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

In the first part of this article we
discussed phonetic translations to kana (which refers jointly to katakana and
hiragana). In this second part of the article we will discuss methods for
phonetic and literal translations to kanji.

Phonetic Translation – kanji

A Phonetic translation maintains the
pronunciation of the name but assigns a new meaning to the name. In general,
phonetic translations work best when the name has one to three syllables.

An excellent example is the name Oscar which
has a meaning of “spear of the gods” from Old English. In Japanese Oscar would
be osuka- which can be translated phonetically to kanji as osuka 
meaning “man of fire.”


Phonetic Osuka 雄火 Man of Fire



Note that the vowel elongation symbol (enchou
) does not exist with kanji and so cannot be used when a name is translated
to kanji.

An example of a name that does not work well
as a phonetic translation to kanji is Adriana which has four syllables and in
Romaji is eidorianna. At best this can be translated to five kanji which
is quite long for a name. It is also difficult to find a consistent and
meaningful translation for such a long name.

When a name translates to over three kanji,
one should consider a nickname or an abbreviation. For Adriana the nickname
Adrie would be eidori in Romaji and would be two or three kanji which is more
suitable for a phonetic translation.

As a further example, Timothy would be
which is rather long at three characters, but Tim could be
translated as teimu which for a gardener meaning Garden Dream would work


Phonetic Teimu 庭夢 Garden Dream



Katakana has been modified over the years
specifically to make it easier to transcribe non-Japanese names and words into
Japanese. The result has been that there are standard ways to translate names to
Katakana that cannot be translated to kanji. This is because Katakana has
evolved to represent sounds that are simply not found in the Japanese language.

One example, as previously mentioned, is the
elongated vowel symbol which looks like a horizontal line when writing
horizontally or a vertical line when writing vertically. There is no equivalent
for this in kanji and it simply cannot be represented. This is why one will see
osuka-“ as a Romaji representation for a Katakana translation but
will see osuka for a kanji translation.

Another example is the name Jennifer.
Jennifer is written as jenifa- in Romaji. However, there are no kanji for

and fa.
Notice that je is created by using ji and the small
Likewise fa is created by using fu and the small
a. In kanji these would be represented by not using the small characters but rather
their actual size counterparts. And so when using kanji, je would be

and fa would be fua.


jie fa fua


ジエ ファ フア

So Jennifer in Katakana would be jenifa-
and in kanji would jienifua
ジエニフア. The kanji
version is now five characters. This is very long for a first name (most
Japanese first and names are two characters each).

A solution as mentioned previously might be
to use the nickname Jenny which would be three kanji.



Another solution would be to use a literal
translation which I describe in the next section. There are several origins
suggested for Jennifer with the two most common being “Pure” and “White-Wave”.
Both make excellent translations and preserve the original meaning of the name.

Another difficulty with a phonetic
translation to kanji can be the fact that there may be a poor selection of kanji
that have the right sound. That is, one or more kanji may exist with the right
sound, but the meanings are less than acceptable. Two examples that are common
in non-Japanese names, but have very few options are the single syllables he
in Helen and ra as in Randy. With he the solution is to substitute

which sounds similar and offers some kanji with appropriate meanings.

As a further example, Petra is a beautiful
sounding and very feminine name. With a little background in Greek, however one
knows that the name means rock which is iwa
in Japanese. A phonetic
translation would be petora and could be translated to mean
Gentle Tiger
or Smooth Silk


The example Petra brings up a
final interesting point on phonetic translations. There are no kanji that by
itself reads pe. In fact of the five or so kanji that start with a “p”, only one is a
native word. In this example we have use “hei” which is often used in names and
is read pei at the end of the name when written after an ‘n’ or the sokuon,
the small tsu. Two common examples of these names are Kanpei
寛平 and Ippei

While many times it is possible to create a
suitable phonetic translation, there are cases when one must either stretch the
rules or use an alternative method of translation such as a literal translation
to kanji.

Literal Translation – kanji

Literal translations maintain the meaning of
the name but assigns a new pronunciation. A literal translation to kanji may be
selected when the meaning of the name is important or when a phonetic
translation simply cannot work.

As an example, the name Liberty is

in Romaji which is
in Katakana. A phonetic translation to kanji can be done which would
be three characters. However, the original meaning of the name would be lost. In
cases where the meaning of the name is important, the meaning can be preserved
by using a literal translation. Here Liberty would be translated as
preserving the
meaning which is read as jiyuu.



Other examples of names that may be more
suitably translated to Japanese using a literal translation are as follows:

Literal Translations to kanji

Amber kohaku 琥珀
Fawn kojika 小鹿
Forrest shinrin 森林
Hunter kariudo 狩人
Ruby kougyoku 紅玉
Star Hoshi

Another example of when one might select a
literal translation may be for artistic reasons. The name Joy is a short and
beautiful name. This can be rendered phonetically as
上位 which
is read joui
and means
superior. Or it can be rendered literally as a
meaning Joy and
is pronounced yorokobi.


From the example one can see a visual
similarity between Joy in English and in kanji.

There are several cases where literal
translations cannot be done. The most common case is when a name’s meaning is
not known. The meaning of several ancient names have been lost and for these
there is no recourse. In the beginning of this article I used Adriana as an
example. Adriana means “From Adria” which is a place name and without a meaning
the name cannot be suitably translated.

Another case when names cannot be translated
is when the word or concept is either too foreign to Japanese or may not be
appropriate. Calvin for some reason means Bald which some may not consider
worthy of preserving in a name translation.  Another example is Brody which
means Ditch.

As examples of names that are foreign are
Lyndon (from the Linden tree) and Ashley (from the Ash tree) which may be
specialized names,  but no common names in Japanese.

For a literal translation to Japanese one
must first determine the appropriate meaning for the name. This is a study in
and of itself and there are several excellent books and on-line resources. Once
one has the meaning then a good Japanese dictionary is a must. The better the
dictionary the more likely the meaning will be unambiguous and in common usage.


To translate a name to Japanese all that is
needed is the Kana charts, a kanji dictionary, or a Japanese dictionary. With
these tools a suitable translation can be found. However, if you do the
translation yourself it is always a good idea to get feedback from a native

As an example of what can go wrong, two
cases come to mind. One person wanted Casanova translated as Lover. Using a
literal translation from a dictionary, the version of lover that this person
selected was aijin which means lover as in a mistress. Certainly, this was
not the intended meaning.

In a second example the person wanted a name
that meant heaven translated literally. To do this they had selected an archaic
reading of a modern kanji. And as this ancient meaning is no longer taught,
Japanese who read the translation read it as “to dry out”.

Always verify information and always
get a second opinion.

[Part 1]
[Part 2]