Kanji learning is a scary activity for those learning Japanese. Not only are there 20,000+ characters (2,136 being the literacy requirement) but each one has multiple meanings and pronunciations. I know, right!
The size of it all, and the sheer cultural dissimilarity, is massively intimidating. But it is endlessly fascinating for those interested in language, vocabulary or writing. In trying to find out what my name would be in Japanese kanji I’ve unearthed some interesting cultural norms about naming, and the process of it. So first, here’s a layman’s explanation of kanji and how we arrived at my kanji name.
If you’re not interested in a very basic explanation of matching kanji to names because you already know Japanese or aren’t particularly interested in etymology and finding out how a pictorial alphabet works, then skip on down to the latter half of the article.
Each kanji character is a pictorial representation of a meaning or idea. Above is an easy one. It means tree or wood, and you can easily train yourself to recognise it as such because it kinda looks like a tree.
But, it can also be pronounced in two ways; the Chinese reading and the Japanese reading.
Why a Chinese reading? Because that’s where kanji originally comes from and without getting too far into it, there are particular grammatical rules where you use one or the other. So, on to my name!
Denica Shute. An unfamiliar name even in Western, or even British, culture. Coincidentally, it’s very compatible with the Japanese vocabulary. First, we have to take my name and match it to the Japanese phonetic alphabet, as each Japanese written character is composed of a minimum of two letters when written in English (there are exceptions). So, this happens:
D – e – n – i – c – a S – h – u – t – e
De- ni – ka Shu – u – to
As you can see, they don’t have a ‘ca’ combination, so those letters are swapped out with characters they do have a combination for. The ‘u’ also becomes elongated for a natural Japanese pronunciation.
As expected, there are other ways to match my name to the Japanese phonetics but this is what I was recommended to do when I first arrived in Japan, so this is what I’ve stuck with.
Next, we find the kanji. So, remember when I said each kanji has multiple readings? Well, now we need to browse through kanji looking for ones that have ‘de’ as a reading and choose one we like the meaning of. And so on for the rest of the combinations.
=====Here ends the layman’s explanation.=====
Throughout this process I’ve been helped by the Japanese Language Department at my school. When I asked them for my name in Japanese they got very, VERY excited, and went to town arguing over different meanings and which kanji suited me best.
It seems when you name your child in Japan you choose flattering meanings, a sign of what you want your child to be or an omen for success. Similar to what some cultures do in the west. Most girls are named after flowers, romantic notions such as tomorrow fragrance or night rain, or variations of ‘child’; warm child, flower child, literary child etc. In order of being mentioned these names are Sakura, Yuri, Asuka, Amaga, Atsuko, Hanako, and Bunko. I’ve seen all of these names in class.
Whereas boys’ names tend to be tied to power, leadership or a number representing where they stand amongst their siblings; great glory, great wisdom, prosperous one, eighth son, fifth son (Daiki, Daichi, Kazuhiro, Hachiro, Gorou). Again, I’ve seen all of these names in class, but I’ve only seen Gorou once.
It’s seems there are also assoications with using very uncommon kanji in names. Doing so can be interepreted as very intellectual or very snobby. Creating new names, such as the recent and popular ‘Taiga’ (literaly meaning tiger), is also looked down upon as slightly unclassy.
Queue the teachers I’ve been working with for two years having fun assigning traits of my personality to kanji. At risk of being potentially self-glamorising, and utterly clueless, I took a step back. A few days later, the teachers came to an agreement.
De – ni – ka
Explaining the kanji to me, the sensei said that my first name kanji would mean impart/transmit, similar/resemble, and flower/blossom and so it would be interpreted as ‘being similar to, and resembling, a flower whilst also being a giver of flowers’. So, to wax poetic, which is the whole point, my first name means Giver of Blossoms. I feel like there may be a more accurate way to phrase it, but it hasn’t hit me yet.
Shu – u – to
As for my family name, the translation is a little more literal. It means Scarlet, Sky/Roof/House, and Capital, and an interpretation of this would most fittingly be ‘Scarlet Sky Capital’. Perhaps, a more poetic version would be Capital of Scarlett Skies.
So, let me introduce myself, I’m the Giver of Blossoms from the Capital of Scarlett Skies.
If you want to find out your own name in kanji but don’t have any Japanese friends to help you out you can use this website. Conveniently enough, if you don’t like the meanings you can keep on clicking until you find some meanings that you do like. Enjoy!