It’s odd how middle names are so common across the world, and yet, many people never use their middle name—or even share it publicly. Why do we even have them? Well, today we’re looking at a country that doesn’t have them: Japan.
Japanese people generally do not have middle names. On official Japanese paperwork, there are only spaces for family name and given name—no middle name. However, some Japanese people do adopt middle names or initials due to their career, religion, or life outside of Japan.
Below, I’ll explain the reasons why Japanese people generally don’t have middle names—along with exceptions, where Japanese people actually do have middle names! And I’ll end with 6 interesting facts about Japanese names overall.
Why Japanese Don’t Have Middle Names
If you come from a country where everyone has a middle name, it can be easy to take them for granted. But even in the U.S. and Europe, middle names were not always common.
There have been many places and times in history where most people had only two names.
And there have been classes of people that only had one name. This has been common among slaves in various places, for example.
There have also been cases throughout history of politicians and royalty having many names—dozens of names for the same person, actually. (I’ll cover some of Japan’s history with that below.)
It’s really just in the last two centuries that today’s practice of middle names has been standardized in the West. So it’s no surprise that things might be different on the other side of the world.
As it happens, it’s not only Japan that lacks middle names today. China and Korea also lack middle names.
In Japan, birth certificates (koseki) and other official papers do not even have a space for a middle name. They only have spots for the family name and given name.
In fact, if you do want a middle name in Japan, you generally have to make it part of your first name. And spaces and hyphens aren’t allowed in Japanese first names. So it’ll be crammed together—like “Johnpaul,” for example.
I’ll share more on how the Japanese legal system handles “middle names” below. But first, let’s look at exceptions where Japanese people actually do have middle names.
Middle Names in Japan: Exceptions
In the rare cases that Japanese people do have middle names, it typically falls into one of the following exceptions:
- Publication – Japanese academics or intellectuals may adopt a middle initial to take proper credit for their work. If there’s already an author named “Haruto Suzuki,” you could add an initial to distinguish yourself—e.g., “Haruto T. Suzuki.”
- Christian names – Christianity is not very common in Japan. But devout Japanese Christians may take a baptismal name. This is typically added onto the end of their first name and is not an official, legal part of their name, however.
- Non-Japanese parents – If a child in Japan has a non-Japanese parent (or two), their legal name may be subject another country’s birth certificate paperwork, rather than Japan’s. In that case, a middle name is often given.
- Moving abroad – If a Japanese family moves to another country with middle names, their children will often be given middle names according to the new country. Individuals moving abroad may even adopt a middle name for practical purposes in their new country, depending on circumstances.
Now let’s look at how the Japanese legal system even handles these cases of middle names in Japan.
How to Get a Middle Name in Japan
Let’s say you’re having a child in Japan and you want to give her a middle name. How could you legally do it?
First, you could just have the middle name added to the end of her first name. This is like the “Johnpaul” example I mentioned above.
Unfortunately, there are no spaces or hyphens allowed in Japanese names. But it is allowed to have a long, compound legal first name like that.
Here’s a second option, if the child will be a citizen of multiple countries: Just register the middle name legally in the other country, but exclude it from her Japanese name.
That mixed approach can occasionally cause problems with international paperwork—but apparently many people do it this way, and it’s all usually fine.
I’ve heard that if your name is indeed shown differently on another passport, you can then get that name added in brackets on your Japanese passport. So that may be a smooth approach to take.
A third possible option, in some cases: Get a legal alias in Japan that includes the middle name. Legal aliases are used for various purposes in Japan, although they remain separate from your legal name.
The History of Middle Names in Japan
Today there is no legal “middle name” in Japan. But in the past, there have actually been periods where certain people—noble classes, samurai, etc—had many names.
These could include names based on family, clan, position, seniority, territory, and more. Names could also change throughout an individual’s life.
So you could have a certain name in childhood, and then a different one in adulthood. This is actually part of the purpose of middle names in other cultures, as well.
At the same time, the common folk of Japan would typically only have a given name—no family name, or any other extra names.
After the Meiji revolution in 1868, naming practices in Japan were standardized to just two names: Family name and given name.
6 More Facts About Names in Japan
I think we’ve covered Japanese middle names. But before you go, here are six more fun facts about Japanese names as a whole:
- In Japan, the surname (family name) comes first, with the given name second.
- When written in English, Japanese names are typically flipped into the Western order, with the given name first. (But this convention may be recently changing!)
- Western names are typically written in the Western order in Japan. They’re not flipped into the Japanese order.
- If you’re a foreigner in Japan, your name would typically be written using the katakana script.
- In Japan, first names are used less than in the West. Even among familiar acquaintances, Japanese people sometimes refer to each other by [last name] + “san.” (“San” is similar to “Mr.” or “Ms.”)
- Japanese nicknames often include the suffix “chan” (which is like a more cute version of “san”), particularly for girls. It could be the full first name + “chan,” or just part of the first name + “chan.”
If you want to dig into more details about Japanese names, check out my other post on the topic: “Why Do Japanese Say Last Name First?“