Name of Person in premodern Japan

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Name of Person in premodern Japan.

general explanation

In premodern Japan, high class male person has a name consists of 4 parts. Clan name, Family name, Calling name, and True name. After 1868 reformation, all class of person should have 2 part name (family name and personal name).


Matsudaira Katamori 松平容保 had following parts of name:

  • Clan name: Minamoto no Ason 源朝臣
  • Family name: Matsudaira 松平
  • Calling name: Higo-no-Kami 肥後守
  • True name: Katamori 容保

Clan name

Uji or 姓 Kabane means clan name. In accurately, Uji is the clan name, Kabane is rank of clan, but these words Uji and Kabane were often confused. In ancient time, Clan name was used to determine the kinship, but from the medieval age, they can be many generations distant, so the family name was started to use instead, clan name was rarely used usually, very few exception was in the official letter of appointment by the Emperor. In other words, person who would be given official appointment by the Emperor, must be a member of any Clan.
Tokugawa Ieyasu claimed member of Minamoto clan, but there is no reliable proof showing he is the descendant of Minamoto clan. He has got (probably bought) fake genealogical tree, it was necessary to be given official title from the Emperor.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi has created new clan Toyotomi clan in 1586. He was grown as a local peasant, no clan for such class. He has served to Oda Nobunaga, as his master was member of Taira clan, first he claimed Taira clan. After his master's death (1582), he became the adopted son of Viceroy Konoe Sakihisa, claiming Fujiwara clan. Finally he has created his own clan, since the members of these traditional clans did not want to accept him as a member of their clan.

Rank of clans

From the high ancient time (beyond the historical age), there were several ranks of clan (姓 Kabane), such as 臣 Omi, 連 Muraji etc. In 684, 8 ranks were created and given:

  1. 真人 Mahito
  2. 朝臣 Ason
  3. 宿禰 Sukune
  4. 忌寸 Imiki
  5. 道師 Michinoshi
  6. Omi
  7. Muraji
  8. 稲置 Inagi

however, 朝臣 Ason was widely used as a rank of clan, other ranks were rarely used.

Notable clans

  • Fujiwara clan 藤原朝臣 Fujiwara no Ason. Descendants of Fujiwara no Kamatari (died 671), main body of Imperial court nobles including 5 Regent-Viceroy families, and many Samurai / Daimyos.
  • Minamoto clan 源朝臣 Minamoto no Ason. Descendants of Imperial House, there were some branches called by direct ancestor Emperpr.
    • Saga-branch Minamoto clan 嵯峨源氏 Saga Genji. Descendants of Emperor Saga.
    • Seiwa-branch Minamoto clan 清和源氏 Seiwa Genji. Descendants of Emperor Seiwa. Famous as Samurai families, includes Kamakura / Ashikaga / Tokugawa Shoguns.
    • Murakami-branch Minamoto clan 村上源氏 Murakami Genji. Descendants of Emperor Murakami. Primary contender against Fujiwara clan in Imperial court.
  • Taira clan 平朝臣 Taira no Ason. Descendants of Imperial House. There were some branches, but Kanmu-branch is much famous.
    • Kanmu-branch Taira clan 桓武平氏 Kanmu Heishi. Descednants of Emperor Kanmu. Created Samurai family, lead martial government in 12th century.

Imperial House

No clan name (or family name) for the Japanese Emperor, and member of Japanese Imperial House. Currently the tradition still persists. When one was given clan name, it means he/she is no longer a member of the Imperial House (like Minamoto clan or Taira clan).

Family name

名字/苗字 Myoji family name represents more close relationship than clan name. Even within same clan, after many generations, there were cases they had little relationship. To determine the group of relations, family name was started to use about 12th century. Usually the family name was named after living mansion, or owning territory. At first, family name can be changed by generations (it was not strange case that grandfather, father, and son used different family name), but later the historical family name was used even though the territory/mansion was no longer owned by.
Konoe Motozane inherited the mansion from his father Fujiwara no Tadamichi, which was called Konoe Mansion 近衛殿 Konoe Dono since it was placed at Konoe-town in Kyoto. So the owner himself was also called "Lord Konoe" 近衛殿 Konoe Dono. The descendant took the family name Konoe.
The top ancestor of Matsudaira 松平 family, Matsudaira Chikauji was said the owner of Matsudaira village, Kamo County in Mikawa province in 15th century.
The Mouri 毛利 family was named after Mouri manner in Sagami province they were the owner of the manner in 13th century. Even after losing their ownership of Mouri manner, and moving to Yoshida manner in Aki province (800 kilometer west of Mouri manner), they continued to use family name Mouri.

Calling name

仮名 Kemyo or 名乗り Nanori calling name was used as a personal name for daily use. Named in various way:

  • 官途名 Kando-na Official title. Official title which can be appointed by the emperor court, was used as calling name. It may be appointed officially or self claiming title. Matsudaira Katamori 松平容保 was usually called Matsudaira Higo-no-kami 松平肥後守, "Higo-no-kami" means "Governor of Higo Province" and which was officially appointed by the Emperor court (according to suggestion by Shogunate). Oda Nobunaga was, at first, called Oda Kazusa-no-suke 織田上総介, "Kazusa-no-suke" means "Acting Governor of Kazusa Province", however the title was self-claimed one, never appointed by the Emperor court officially. Later Oda Nobunaga was appointed to "Danjo-no-chu" 弾正忠 (Vice Chief, Prosecutor) officially, so his calling name was changed as Oda Danjo-no-chu 織田弾正忠. Like this case, calling name can be changed during the life.
  • 百官名 Hyakkan mei Pseudo official title. Official title-like name (usually part of official title) was widely used as a calling name. Chikara-no-kami 主税頭 (Chief, Tax agency) was an official title, Chikara 主税 was a one of popular calling name. Another example, Saemon-no-suke 左衛門佐 (Vice commander, Gate Defense of the Left), for Saemon 左衛門.
  • 排行 Haiko Sequence. Sequence in the same generation of the family was a popular naming rule. Taro 太郎 means "First man" for example.

The calling name can be a combination of above, like 太郎左衛門 Taro-Zaemon.

True name

Imina true name is a personal name which was for limited official use, for example in official letter from/to the Emperor. It was regarded that calling true name means ruling his spirit. So the word Imina means "name which was avoided to be called".
Usually true name was consisted with 2 (rarely 1) Kanji characters, with Japanese pronounce.
通字 Tsuuji (common character) is commonly used Kanji character through the generations in the family. For example, 家 Ie for Tokugawa family, 義 Yoshi for Ashikaga family, etc.
偏諱 Henki or Kata-Imina (single character) is one of 2 Kanji characters in true name. It was honorable treatment that master's single character was given. For example:

  • Master of Kanazawa domain Maeda Tsunanori 前田綱紀 was given single character 綱 Tsuna from Shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna 徳川家綱.
  • Master of Hagi domain Mouri Yoshichika 毛利慶親 was given single character 慶 Yoshi from Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi 徳川家慶. He changed his true name as Takachika 敬親 after his domain's rebel against Tokugawa Shogunate.