Private Names, Double Identity and Name Inheritance

When we read or write historical fiction or even historical fantasy, we often forget that names did not always work the same way they do now. In Edo period (1603-1867) #Japan, identity was much more fluid and people frequently changed their names for a variety of reasons. Through looking at naming conventions from that time, we can also learn more about Edo society as a whole, particularly about social hierarchy and group membership.

The warrior class

The warrior class arguably had the most complex names and naming conventions in Edo society. Male children were given yōmyō (youth names) at birth and these were used as their first names until they came of age in their early teens. Various clans had different traditions regarding yōmyō, such as assigning the same name to every heir of the clan. Tokugawa Ieyasu's yōmyō Takechiyo and Oda Nobunaga's yōmyō Kippōshi were both typical names for children.

A samurai's so-called imina (taboo name) was what we would consider his first name today. Again, different clans had their own customs about which imina their members were given. It was common to have a tsūji, a character that was passed along from one generation to the next and part of every imina within the family. This is why most Tokugawa shoguns' names begin with 'ie'.

The imina, however, was not the name people used for each other, at east not directly or while the person in question was still alive. Instead, people adopted tsūshō names for public use. This is one major reason why historians don't know the real names of many relatively important figures from that period, especially women.

In the Sengoku period (1467-1615), it was considered rude to address someone by their imina so everyone was addressed by their title, such as Lord of Mikawa, Court Minister etc. If you were close to the person in question, however, you could address him by his yōmyō. This begs the question of why people even had imina when they were never used in daily life for which I haven't found an answer yet.

Another interesting custom, however, made direct use of the imina: henki chōdai or granting the use of a character from one's own name to another samurai. This could be as a reward after a successful battle or, more commonly, at the coming of age ceremony for a young samurai. Either way, it was considered a special honor for the recipient.

As for last names, samurai actually had two of them: one ujina and one myōji. Ujina signify membership of certain uji or clans from before the 7th century. At that point, Japanese society was restructured upon a Chinese model based on households or ie and the importance of uji waned. There were quite a few uji but most samurai clans would claim to descend from one of the four most prominent: Fujiwara, Minamoto, Taira or Tachibana.

Myōji, on the other hand, had geographical origins. Originally they were fairly fluid as clans moved around a lot but by the 13th century clans had established their local base of power and myōji had largely become fixed. Even when samurai started using myōji, they still retained their ujina but it was now called honsei (original name). You might wonder why some Edo period historical figures like Minamoto no Yoritomo have a 'no' between their surname and given name while others like Oda Nobunaga don't. This is because a 'no' is only used with the ujina but not with the myōji.


It has been debated whether Japanese commoners in the Edo period even had surnames. In the late 17th century, the bakufu government ruled that only samurai had the privilege to use a surname and to wear two swords. This meant that commoners could no longer use their surnames in official capacities and their surnames disappeared from official documents which led some people to believe that they had none. Some historical fiction even mistakenly states that commoners had no names at all.

Of course, people still needed to be identified in official documents. Instead of their surnames, commoners were simply identified by their occupation and location, i.e. which city or village they lived in. For villages, the samurai office, province or district might be noted as well. City folks might be identified by their shop, its name and type and where it was located.

However, surnames did not disappear entirely and there were exceptions to the rule. Local samurai or the bakufu could reward commoners with permission to use their surname for outstanding deeds. Some such as the merchant, astronomer and cartographer Inō Tadataka were even awarded the privilege of wearing two swords when in official capacity.

There is also evidence that commoners used different surnames for different types of work which often led to weird cases of double identity. For example, in 1796 a peasant by the name of Shirobei was discovered running an officially sanctioned temple under the name of Murakami Shikibu. It was ruled that he should submit his yearly farm tax under his peasant name, Shirobei, while being recorded as Murakami Shikibu for all other work he did in his village.

Name changing and group membership

As we have seen with samurai surnames, “personal names are labels that identify individuals as members of groups rather than unchanging symbols of personal identity.” This is reflected in the practice of name changing that was fairly common for both men and women in the Edo period and often related to family membership and inheritance.

For example, many lineages had a family head name that was inherited with the position. This practice developed because two people in the same lineage could not share the same name at the same time, leading to names being passed on between generations. It could be a long process and the name was often inherited at the end of it (when the older person retired from activity) rather than at the official point of inheritance. Famous kabuki lineages such as the Nakamura or Ichikawa families still practice this system of name inheritance, with Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII being the 13th person to bear this highly prestigious name.

Far from being set in stone, name changing allowed leeway for individual choice when it came to questions of inheritance. If there were several sons, birth order was of relatively low importance and this is in part due to the practice of name changing. Sons favored as heirs could simply take certain high continuity names that signified their being in line for family headship. On the other hand, adult sons could also adopt names that differed from the lineage when they disagreed with or refused strategies of their family.

Inheritance is often portrayed as rigid with little room for individual choice but name significance and name changing shows that it was more flexible and also more complex than it seems at first glance. Some villages even preferred female relatives over outsiders or adopted sons to keep the leadership in the family.

For a historical period known for its strict feudal class system, Edo society was surprisingly fluid when it came to naming customs and personal identity. It makes me wonder what other aspects of Japanese or world #history would come as a surprise. And what about naming customs from other cultures? Let me know if anything comes to mind, I'm always curious to learn more!


Why did Japanese historical figures change their names so often Did Japanese peasants around 1600 have given or surnames Nagata, M. (1999): Balancing Family Strategies with Individual Choice: Name Changing in Early Modern Japan. Japan Review, (11), 145-166.