Japanese people tend to have one given name, one surname and no middle name. Like names from other Asian cultures Japanese names are presented as surname followed by given name. This current format has existed since the 1870s. Prior to modern times, in feudal Japan, names reflected a person's social status and affiliations.
Japanese names are usually written in Kanji which is a writing system consisting of characters of Chinese origin with Japanese pronunciations. Each Kanji character represents a whole word or idea. Most names have two Kanji characters, some have one and some three. Since most Kanji symbols have a variety of pronunciations, it is difficult to determine the pronunciation of a name from Kanji alone. For this reason Hiragana or Katakana may be used as each character in these systems represent a syllable.
Determining how to spell a Japanese name once knowing the pronunciation is difficult for the same reason. Any number of Kanji characters (with different meanings) may produce the same name. For this reason, Japanese names often have multiple meanings specified when transliterated to English.
Sources of Japanese names include nature, well-wishes for the baby such as happiness, success or wisdom, a pleasing sound, popular Kanji characters such as yuu (gentle) or mi (beauty) for girls or ta (great) for boys, or to honor a family member, historical figure or celebrity. Some parents also look to fortune tellers to determine a name for their baby.
Common name suffixes include -ko for girls and -shi or -o for boys. Corresponding nicknames or hypocoristics may be formed by adding the suffix -chan to any name.
Although Japanese often proves difficult for non-native speakers, it is fun to learn to read the easier symbols. For example, the three kanji 田(ta: rice field) 中(naka: middle) and 村(mura: village) form a number of simple surnames including Tanaka, Nakamura, Murata and Tamura.