Ryukyuan names

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Members of the scholar-aristocracies of the Ryûkyû Kingdom typically had several names. In addition to childhood names (warabina, 童名), they would typically have a Chinese-style name (karana, 唐名), and a Ryukyuan name paired with their title, as well as a family lineage name.

To give one example, the scholar-official Nakijin Chôgi (1702-1787) was anji and jitô of Nakijin (this was the territory he administered, or held in fief); combined with his Ryukyuan name Chôgi, he is thus known as Nakijin Chôgi 今帰仁朝義 or Nakijin anji Chôgi 今帰仁按司朝義. However, he was also head of the Gushikawa family 具志川家, a branch of the royal family, and bore the Chinese-style name Shô Senbo 向宣謨. His father, Nakijin Chôki 今帰仁朝季, bore the same title of "anji of Nakijin," the same Chinese-style surname Shô, and the same Ryukyuan family name of Gushikawa, but a different "given name" Chôki, and a different Chinese-style "given name" as well.

Under the Ryûkyû Kingdom

The inscription on a monument near Naminoue Shrine, reading Tei Dô Jana ueekata Rizan kenshô hi (monument), thus showing his multiple names.

Ryukyu-style Names

One of the surname-like referents by which many Ryukyuan figures are known today is by the placename of their fief, or of the area they administered. As in the example given above, anji ("lords") of Nakijin included individuals known as Nakijin Chôgi, Nakijin Chôki, and Nakijin Chôei. The famous figure of Jana ueekata, who died in 1611 rather than submit to Satsuma han authority, serves as a good illustration of this mode as well; though he is by far the most famous figure to hold the title of "ueekata of Jana," this is merely a title, not an individual name, and many would have shared that title over history. This particular figure might be more specifically identified by his Ryukyu-style name Jana Rizan 謝名利山, or by his Chinese-style name Tei Dô (C: Zhèng Dòng) 鄭迵.

These place-based names changed with an individual's appointment or title, and so while we know historical figures by a particular name today, these names would have changed over the course of an individual's career. For example, the Naha scholar-official known on this Wiki as Bai Ien (1813-1881) was the son of Takazato peechin Iki 高里親雲上唯紀 (or Takazato Iki), and so might be referred to as Takazato Ien, as he moved over the course of his career from Takazato chikudun to Takazato chikudun peechin to Takazato peechin; however, in 1858, his fief was changed to the village of Fukuchi (or Fukuji) in Kyan magiri, and as Ien's title changed from Takazato peechin to Fukuji (or Fukuchi) peechin, so would his appellation change to Fukuji Ien. Yet, even as the name Takazato or Fukuji, based on title/post, changed, the core lineage name (yanuna or yaannaa, 家ぬ名) did not. For example, even if Nakijin Chôei were to have been moved to a different fief, such as Takazato, he would have remained head of the Gushikawa family, and could still be referred to as Gushikawa Chôei.

Not all Ryukyuan-style surnames were directly associated with an actual fief, however. In some cases, other names were used. Two examples of this are seen in the titles of the Princes of Tamagawa and Matsuyama, neither of which were the proper names of designated fiefs. These invented place-names are known as nashima 名島.

Most of these names were originally written in hiragana, and when they came to be written more regularly in kanji towards the end of the 16th century, the choice of kanji for a given name remained variable for a time. Thus, Iha (or Ifa) might have been written either 伊波 or 伊覇. This became more settled following the land surveys conducted by Satsuma han in 1610; however, around that same time, beginning in 1625, many family names which seemed too similar to regular Japanese usage of name-characters were ordered changed, resulting in the distinctive names which remain in Okinawa today. To give just a few examples, names employing the characters mae 前, fuku 福, and tomi 富 were changed to mae 真栄, fuku 譜久, and tomi 豊見, as in the names Maehira 真栄平, Maezato 真栄里, Fukuyama 譜久山, and Tomiyama 豊見山. Names became further standardized following the 1689 implementation by the kingdom government of formal family registers known as kafu or keizu, and the 1721 compilation of a list of magiri and village place-names in Xu Baoguang's Zhōngshān chuán xìn lù, which became the standard renderings of the place-names from then on. According to some accounts, it was not at all standard for even aristocrats to regularly employ surnames or adult names until the 1689 keizu policy forced them to, and instead they simply maintained their childhood names throughout their lives.[1]

Names were still sometimes forced to change, however, when someone of higher rank held a similar name, or used similar characters in their name. For example, the Ryukyuan Crown Prince came to be known as the Prince of Nakagusuku (Nakagusuku ôji, 中城王子) beginning in the 18th century or so, much as the heir apparent to the British throne is regularly titled the Prince of Wales. Once this custom was put into place, the character Naka 中 came to be reserved exclusively for royal use, and so those with names incorporating that character had to change it to either Naka 仲, as in Nakada 仲田 or Nakasone 仲宗根, or to Naka 名嘉 as in the surname Nakachi 名嘉地. Another famous example is the case of Ginowan ueekata Chôhô who had to change his title name to Giwan in 1875, when one of the royal princes was named Prince of Ginowan.

Following the abolition of the kingdom in the 1870s, many of these title/fief-based names became set in the official records as proper family names (surnames). For example, Fukuji peechin Bai Ien, discussed above, had only held the title of Fukuji peechin for a single generation, and came from a long line of officials associated with Takazato (not Fukuji) as their nominal fief; yet, despite this, and despite tracing the fact that they traced their lineage through the Chinese-style name Bai (貝, C: Bèi), Fukuji peechin Bai Ien's family were formally entered into the modern Japanese koseki system of family registers as the Fukuji family.

As for the given-name portion of the Ryukyuan name (also known as nanori), is clear from these examples, it was common among the scholar-aristocracy to maintain the same first character across the generations. This character was known as the nanori gashira. Members of the Gushikawa family mentioned above included Nakijin Chôki 今帰仁朝季, Nakijin Chôgi 今帰仁朝義, Nakijin Chôei 今帰仁朝英, and Nakijin Chôfu 今帰仁朝敷, all sharing the character 朝 (chô). The forefathers and sons of Bai Ien, including Bai Iki, Bai Izen, and Bai Igen all shared the character 唯 (i).

Women's names among the scholar-aristocracy seem to have been repeated among a small group of options. Through eight generations of the Bai family of Naha, every daughter was named either Umitu 思戸, Majirû 真鶴, Magami 真亀, Makadû 真嘉戸, Makamadû 真蒲戸, Môshii 真牛, or Magushii 真呉勢, with only a very few exceptions (and even then, they had very similar names, such as Umitama 思玉 and Kamadû 蒲戸). Boys' childhood names functioned similarly; Sakamaki gives a list of 53 of the most common childhood names, which were used until a boy had his coming-of-age ceremony at age 15, and was granted (nanori) an adult name. Names employing umi 思, ma 真, and kani or gani 金 can be identified as aristocratic names. Childhood names also frequently had -gwaa (小) appended to the end, as a diminutive, as in the examples of Kamigwaa 亀小 and Chirûgwaa 鶴小.

Chinese-style Names

The scholar-aristocracy of the Ryûkyû Kingdom was divided into four groups of lineages: those of the capital city of Shuri, the port town of Naha, the port town of Tomari, and the Confucian center of Kumemura. Within each of these towns, there were only a handful of prominent lineages, as defined by Chinese-style surnames. A Chinese-style "given name" (nanori) would be attached to the Chinese-style surname, different from one's Ryukyuan-style given name. For example, Nakijin Chôei, mentioned above, went by the Chinese-style name Shô Hôki 向邦輝, and should not be called Shô Chôei or Nakijin Kokki, mixing up the two.[2]

Generally, the Chinese-style name was only used in communications with Chinese offices or individuals, or other similar contexts, and not in interactions with fellow Ryukyuans. However, the people of Kumemura were an exception to this, using their Chinese-style names more regularly.[3]

Royal family: Members of the royal family bore one of two surnames. The surname Shô 尚 (C: Shàng) was used largely only by those of particularly close relation to the royal house, while the surname Shô 向 (same pronunciation, different character) was used by those of collateral houses beginning in 1683, in order to distinguish them from those closer to the line of succession. Some examples of the former include the kings Shô Shin 尚真, Shô Nei 尚寧, and Shô Tai 尚泰, the Crown Princes Shô Kô 尚宏 and Shô Ten 尚典, and royal prince Shô Shôi 尚韶威, third son of King Shô Shin. Despite being only a distant relation to the royal house, the prominent official Urasoe Chôki seems to have also used the royal character 尚 in his Chinese-style name, Shô Genro 尚元魯. Some examples of the latter surname include Nakijin Chôei mentioned above, also known as Shô Hôki 向邦輝; the prominent royal advisor Shô Shôken 向象賢 also known as Haneji Chôshû; and Yakabi Chôki, also known as Shô Zenmo 向全謨.

Kumemura: By the beginning of the 17th century, only six lineages remained prominent within the scholar-aristocracy of Kumemura. However, a great many of the most prominent figures in the kingdom's history over the 17th-19th centuries would come from these six lineages: the Sai (蔡), Tei (鄭), Tei (程), Rin (林), Kin (金), and Ryô (梁) families. Other families which were active in Kumemura in the medieval period included the Chin (陳), Kô (紅), Kô (高), Ri (李), Ô (王), Shin (沈), Den (田), Gen (阮), Yô (葉), Sô (宗), Mô (毛), Gi (魏), Ba (馬), Son (孫), Sen (銭), Han (範), Go (呉), Kô (黄), Sô (曾), Yô (楊), and Kaku (郭).[4]

Naha: The scholar-aristocracy of Naha included families such as the Bai 貝, mentioned above.

House Names

Meanwhile, particularly in rural villages, the dividing of families into collateral houses as younger sons married out and formed households of their own led to the development of a system known as yaa n naa, or "house names." While the households (and the residences themselves) of the royalty and aristocracy of the anji and above were known as udun (御殿), and those of middle- and lower-ranking aristocrats as dunchi (殿内), the lowest ranks of aristocrats, along with commoners, simply called their households yaa (家).[5] Udun and dunchi households were typically named after the territory that family held in fief, or the territory they administered, resulting in names such as Uchima udun and Miyara-dunchi.

Ryukyuan society was basically patri-local. The eldest son inherited the main household, or muutuyaa, while younger sons married out and formed branch houses, known as wakariyaa.[6] Despite creating new households, however, people very often remained within the same village, and continued to maintain close ties to their broader lineage. This broader lineage might be known as a "clan" (氏, J: uji), or munchuu (門中, lit. "all within the same gate"). Thus, it became quite standard for numerous households within the same village to bear the same surname and associate themselves alongside one another with the same lineage. For example, at a given time in the village of Kanegusuku, there was a main house (muutuyaa) known as Kuchinda, and three branch houses (wakariyaa) known as Tuku Kuchinda, Iri Kuchinda, and Mii Kuchinda, all of whom shared the surname Ufugushiku (J: Ôshiro), despite Kuchinda (or Kochinda) being a place elsewhere on the island. As seen in these examples, branch households often included location words, describing the location of the household within the village, such as iri (west), wii (upper), mee (front), and naka (middle), as well as other descriptive terms such as mii (new), jinan (second son), and (gate).

Another larger lineage in the same village was known as the Nnagu-bara, in which hara or bara means "lineage." It contained 65 households, with complex relationships amongst them. Just one of these houses, which was not the singular main Nnagu household, claimed descent (also) from the Uchima lineage, and called itself Ufuiri (J: Ônishi, "Great West"). The Ufuiri household had at least five branch houses, several of which had their own branches, which in turn had their own branches. Some of these families bore house names such as Front Great West (Mee ufu iri), Second Son Great West (Jinan ufu iri), and Fukuji Gate (Fukuji jô), with branches of the latter bearing names such as Upper Fukuji Gate (Wii Fukuji jô), Front Fukuji Gate (Mee Fukuji jô), and Tuku Gate (Tuku jô), yielding in turn New Tuku Gate (Mii Tuku jô) and Fourth Son of Tuku Gate (Yunan Tuku jô).

Prior to the 18th century or so, commoners had no surnames or clan names, and frequently were known only by simple names, typically ending in a lengthened vowel. Some common examples include Tarû (樽), Ushii (牛), and Kamii (亀). Over the course of the 18th-19th centuries, however, many commoners both in the cities and in rural areas began to appropriate house names of local elites as their own surnames. Initially, interestingly, they typically rendered their given name first, and the house name last, only reversing it to the standard Japanese form when required to by law, beginning in 1880.

Modern Era

Family registers (koseki) of the Japanese type were compiled for the people of Okinawa prefecture in concert with censuses taken in 1880; at that time, many family names became fixed in new forms, as the multiple names and aristocratic titles of the past were abolished. In addition, as the Okinawan language became suppressed by the Meiji government, Japanese-style readings of names became standard. To give some examples, Ufugushiku 大城, Nachijin 今帰仁, and Miyagusuku or Miyagushiku 宮城 became Ôshiro, Nakijin, and Miyagi or Miyashiro. This transformation was even more pronounced for many who moved from Okinawa to mainland Japan, or emigrated overseas. Some of these names changed to a more Japanized form while the placenames themselves remained somewhat unchanged - examples of this can be seen in the many names which end in "-hara" while the place they derive from remains "-baru," such as in the name Yonahara 与那原, while the town continues to be called Yonabaru.

In the Taishô era (1912-1925), there was considerable pressure from both Okinawan and Japanese leaders for Okinawan names to be assimilated into more standard Japanese forms, both in pronunciation and in the characters used to write them. Some names changed in the 1620s under the Shimazu were changed back to their previous forms; for example, certain families by the name of Tokuyama changed from 渡久山 back to 徳山, which they had used prior to the 1620s. Other names, such as Nakandari 仲村渠 and Nakankari 仲村柄, were changed to the related but far more "standard" (to Japanese conceptions) Nakamura 中村. The name Gushimiyagusuku 𤘩宮城, similarly, used a character (𤘩) not found at all in mainland Japanese use, and in the cases of many families, this was changed simply to Miyagi or Miyashiro 宮城.


  • Naha shizoku no isshô 那覇士族の一生 (Naha: Naha City Museum of History, 2010).
  • Shunzo Sakamaki, "On Early Ryukyuan Names," in Sakamaki (ed.), Ryukyuan Names (Honolulu: East-West Center, 1964), 11-19.
  • Higa Shunchô, "On Okinawan Surnames," in Sakamaki (ed.), 31-38.
  • William Lebra, "The Yaa n Naa (House Name) System in the Ryukyu Islands," in Sakamaki (ed.), 51-60.
  1. Sakamaki, 13.
  2. This Wiki may be committing that error for members of the Bai family. I am hoping to find fuller information on these families/individuals so as to rectify this problem; however, in the meantime, I lack sufficient information on the various names of these individuals to be able to represent them properly.
  3. Ono Masako, Tomita Chinatsu, Kanna Keiko, Taguchi Megumi, "Shiryô shôkai Kishi Akimasa bunko Satsuyû kikô," Shiryôhenshûshitsu kiyô 31 (2006), 239.
  4. Sakamaki, 15.
  5. These divisions may have been fairly strict in terms of official designations, but commoners, looking "upwards," so to speak, would have termed even the lowest of aristocratic households as dunchi.
  6. These two terms, muutuyaa and wakariyaa are closely related to the Japanese concepts of honke (main house) and bunke (branch house), and would be written with the same kanji: 本家 and 分家.

See Also

  • Shunzo Sakamaki (ed.), Ryukyuan Names (Honolulu: East-West Center, 1964), contains lengthy lists of Okinawan names by characters and several alternative pronunciations, including indications of from when or where a given pronunciation derives.