My Myouji: My Family’s Untold Story

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Figure 1: My birth certificate issued by
the State of Hawaii in 1959

My family name is “Ebata,” a name I inherited at birth. My birth certificate issued by the State of Hawaii validates this fact, and for much of my life, I naturally assumed that my family name – called a myouji (名字) in Japanese – came from my father’s lineage. But this wasn’t exactly true – the full story of my family name hadn’t been told. The story of how my family name came to be is a part of my family’s history that my Nisei(二世) parents never shared.[1]

The actual story goes back to Niigata Prefecture in Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), before my grandfather Harumatsu Ebata (1885-1962) immigrated in 1907 to the Territory of Hawaii. Back then, he was known as Hori – Harumatsu Hori – from the village of Kinoto.

Fast-forward seven years to the early Taishou Period (1912-1926) in May of 1914 when my grandmother Tetsu Ebata immigrated to Hawaii. She was an only child of my great-grandparents, Teizou and Tsuru Ebata, who immigrated to the new Territory of Hawaii in 1898 from the rural town of Nakajou in Niigata Prefecture. Tetsu’s Japanese passport identified her husband as “Harumatsu Ebata.” It turns out that he was the same Harumatsu from the village of Kinoto – Harumatsu Hori had become Harumatsu Ebata.

As the true story goes, I inherited my family name from my grandmother’s lineage, not my grandfather’s. I had never given this fact much thought before, but this discovery made me want to learn more about my family name, my myouji.

Vince Takemi Ebata
Originally posted on October 4, 2018
Updated on  February 25, 2019

The present-day Japanese word for “family name” is called myouji (名字); it’s what a family chooses to call itself. Unless a family has an aristocratic or samurai background, most Japanese family names in use today, including my own, have a very brief history, dating back only a 150-years to the 1870s as part of the many reforms carried out by the new Meiji government.

The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) was a time of significant change in Japan. No longer an isolated agrarian and feudal country refusing to trade or communicate with the outside world, Japan’s new government leaders thrust their country into the modern, industrial world, striving to compete with the foreigners and rival Western technology and thinking. This new way of thinking caused considerable disruption to the established social and cultural systems in Japan, many going back over a millennium.

As part of several far-reaching social reforms, the new Meiji government replaced Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s 400-year-old decree that banned all commoners from carrying a sword and having a family name. Hideyoshi sought to widen the social gap between commoners and samurai. In its place, in 1871, the Meiji government permitted every Japanese person regardless of social status to take on a family name, and on February 13, 1875, made it mandatory for the first time.

In my family’s case, I can only presume that it was my great-great grandparents who had the responsibility to pick a name, so they chose the name “Ebata,” and used the kanji 江 (e) and 端 (bata) to write our name.

But, when it came time to choosing a family name and the “name kanji,” as I will explain later, I wonder how they came to decide on such an uncommon name? Did they just pluck it out of the air, did their village priest or headman make-up a name for them, or did they go through a well thought out process to come up with one?

To piece together the origin and meaning of my myouji, I had to go beyond the mere facts of my birth certificate and followed the paper-trail to retrace the past of my family. My paper trail investigation unveiled the real story behind the name I inherited. By doing so, I also uncovered a few vital details about my family and gained some new insights that may help me to connect the dots with my ancestral roots in Niigata, Japan.

Broken bloodline

The first important insight pertains to my official birth certificate, which indicates my family name is “Ebata” (Figure 1). Based on this single official document, it was natural to assume that the name on my birth certificate record was enough proof that I inherited the Ebata name from my father’s paternal bloodline. But I learned that this bloodline was broken at least once only two generations ago.

Part of this story revealed that my father’s paternal bloodline was broken and the family name that I inherited veritably comes from my father’s maternal line. That’s right. I inherited my name from my grandmother, instead. This knowledge was quite an eye-opener. The fact is my great-grandparents, Teizou Ebata (禎三江端, 1870-1920?) and Tsuru Ebata (ツル江端, 1874-1949), didn’t have any sons, but had a daughter named Tetsu Ebata (テツ江端, 1892-1949) who remained back in their hometown of Nakajou. In 1914 – the early Taishou period – they arranged a “proxy marriage” between Tetsu and Harumatsu Hori (春松堀). Following the practice of adult adoption, Harumatsu was adopted and took on Tsuru’s family name and, thus, became Harumatsu Ebata (春松江端, 1885-1962) at age 29.[2] In such a case where a daughter’s husband (son-in-law) is adopted by her family as an heir, it’s referred to the custom of mukoyoushi (婿養子). Thus, the family name that was passed on to me from my father comes from my grandmother’s line. As I learned, in Japan one’s family name merely identifies the household to which one belongs, not necessarily the family’s bloodline.

Same geographical roots

Figure 2: On September 1, 2005, the town of Nakajou (Nakajou-chou) was merged with the village of Kurokawa (Kurokawa-mura) to create the city of Tainai in Niigata Prefecture, which is indicated by the area highlighted in yellow.

A second important insight revealed in Japanese passport documents, US census records and steamship passenger manifests is that both the Ebatas and Horis can trace their roots to the Echigo Plains (see Figure 2), which today corresponds to the area that includes the city of Niigata (新潟市, Niigata-shi) and the neighboring area in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県, Niigata-ken). The prefecture is in the Chuubu region, the central region of the Island of Honshu, facing the Sea of Japan.[3] The prefecture stretches about 150 miles (240 km) along the Sea of Japan coast, from southwest to northeast, with the Echigo coastal plain between the mountains and the sea. Until the Meiji Restoration, the area was known as Echigo Province.

The two families apparently lived close to each other, probably about five miles (8 km) apart – the Ebata family lived in the town of Nakajou (中条町, Nakajou-chou) and the Hori family lived in the neighboring village of Kinoto (乙村, Kinoto-mura), see Figure 2. Both Nakajou and Kinoto are a part of the present-day city of Tainai (胎内市, Tainai-shi), which is about 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Niigata City. It’s the capital and most populous city in Niigata Prefecture with an estimated population of more than 800,000 today.

Given the proximity by which the Ebata and Hori families lived from each other, it’s very likely that both families were acquainted somehow. In fact, there’s evidence suggesting the families were in fact related through marriage. Based on the passenger manifest of the SS Persia which arrived at the Port of Honolulu on August 16, 1907, when Harumatsu Hori and his then-wife, Riye Hori (りエ堀, 1887-1913) first came, it’s documented in the ship’s passenger manifest that they were joining an “Uncle, Hilo Hawaii” who would serve as a sponsor.[4] Well, that uncle turned out to be my great-grandfather, Teizou Ebata. So, based on this single piece of evidence, Harumatsu Hori was possibly a nephew of Teizou and Tsuru Ebata. This is the only evidence (at this time) that can confirm a marriage relationship between the two families.

Ebata-Hori Connection

This second insight (above) suggests another very intriguing possibility. It’s conceivable that my great-grandmother Tsuru’s maiden name (旧名, kyuumei) may have been Hori (堀); she may’ve been formerly Tsuru Hori (ツル堀). She may have been an auntie of Harumatsu Hori; both were born in Kinoto-mura. So, when Teizou and Tsuru arranged a proxy marriage for their only daughter, Tetsu, who was still back in Nakajou, it’s likely there was a prior marriage relationship between the two families with the marriage of Tsuru Hori to Teizou Ebata in 1892. By the Meiji period, about 1-in-5 marriages took place between households already related through adoption or marriage.[5]

So, if this relationship between the Ebata and Hori families turns out to be true, then it clears up a lot of questions regarding the link between the two families, my genealogy, and the circumstances by which my family was able to maintain its continuity through the use of a proxy marriage between Tsuru and Harumatsu and the custom of mukoyoushi.


Turning my attention to the story of my myouji, I began my own investigation into my family’s genealogy and realized the origins and meaning of my family’s name had never been told. I’ve learned much about my family name through my own examination. Of course, there’s still so much more to discover, but I have no doubt that it captures as much of the factual details documented in various sources, such as US census records, ship passenger manifests, passports, etc. I’ve documented as much as I know about it, and with these facts, I tried to describe how my family name came to be. I hope you will follow along with me as I tell my family’s untold story…about my myouji.

Teizou and Tsuru Ebata

My family’s untold story begins with my great-grandparents, Teizou and Tsuru Ebata, who emigrated from Niigata Prefecture, Japan in the midst of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912).[6] On September 25, 1898, with passports in hand, they departed from the Port of Yokohama. At the time, Yokohama was the first harbor city and the most internationalized in Japan, bustling with many western foreigners everywhere in the city.[7] The city prospered with the growth of Japan’s foreign trade and shipping. The following day Teizou and Tsuru boarded the British steamship SS Mogulbound for the Territory of Hawaii.

Teizou was a sannan

Teizou was likely a younger son. One hint is due to his name, which is typically written 禎三 (禎 tei and 三 zou). The character 三, which means “three,” is pronounced zou or san and when used in the context of a boy’s first name it indicates his birth order. In this case, Teizou’s name indicates that he was a “third son.” There are family-oriented terms used to indicate a son’s birth order and hierarchy within a family.[8] Since Teizou was a third-born son, he would be a sannan (三男) within the family hierarchy; the character for san (三) means “three” and nan (男) means “male.” Younger sons like Teizou were expected to leave his family’s household upon marriage, establish their own households or marry into one with no sons as a mukoyoushi. (Incidentally, daughters were also expected to marry-out to other households.) In Teizou’s case, he chose to go overseas as an emigrant laborer, called dekaseginin (出稼ぎ任), to work for three years on a Hawaiian sugar cane plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii. The reforms under the Meiji Restoration, especially the land reforms, had disenfranchised many rural farming families and — with the encouragement of the Meiji government — many second and third-sons sought to earn a living overseas in places like Hawaii and the US mainland.

Before emigrating, Teizou married Tsuru (Hori) in August 1892; he was about 22-years-old and she was 18. A year later, they had a daughter named Tetsu. When they emigrated in October 1898, Tetsu would’ve been about 6-years-old at the time.

Of course, a chounan (長男) or first-born son, wouldn’t have been free to legally emigrate because of Japan’s custom and law (“Outline of the New Criminal Law” in 1870) favoring male primogeniture. The only way a chounan would’ve been able to leave was to either be disowned by his family or he had to give up his family name and all rights to the family as heir. To make matters more difficult, he would’ve also had to have been adopted by a family who were also leaving the country.

Teizou’s true motivation to emigrate

Teizou’s real motivation for emigrating isn’t known, but better economic opportunities of the sugar plantations of Hawaii can’t fully explain his resolve to leave his homeland.

What’s known is that Japan wasn’t a wealthy country at the time and living in the countryside during this time must have been especially difficult on many commoners, especially farming families in rural villages, who were suffering from the drastic socioeconomic changes with the new Meiji government. Japan was in a chaotic state due to the rapid transition from a feudal, agrarian society to a modernizing, heavy industrializing nation to close the enormous gap and be on par with the other western industrialist powers. Japan’s miraculous transition to a modern, industrialized economy was a painful and costly one. 

Between 1871 and 1873, a land-tenant system and tax laws were enacted as the basis for Japan’s modernization reform. Private land ownership was legalized for the first time, deeds were issued, and land taxes (地租改正, chisokaisei) were assessed at fair market value and required payment in cash instead of in-kind with rice as in pre-Meiji days. The national land tax system allowed the government to stabilize the national budget and build up the strength of the nation, but it placed a heavy burden on the rural population, and it came at a severe cost to farmers. As a result, these reforms created large-scale unemployment, bankruptcies and severe poverty differences between cities and the countryside. This resulted in most farming families not being able to pay their taxes and were compelled to sell their property to liquidate their debts. The situation was exacerbated by famine and poor harvests and pushed the poor and displaced Japanese into civil disorder, which contributed to many Japanese to go abroad in hopes of making money, remitting the money to families back home, and then return home in three-years.

The Meiji government actively promoted overseas emigration, especially after the 1880s, encouraged by the remittances made by earlier immigrants to families back in Japan. The government “pushed” for overseas emigration as a part of its national economic development plans and to alleviate its socioeconomic problems caused by the changes. In addition, overseas emigration also facilitated industrialization and commerce. In fact, large overseas emigration contributed to the development of Japan’s maritime industry.

Meanwhile, the demand for cheap labor overseas enabled mass emigration. Teizou had heard stories that quick fortunes being made in Hawaii, and so did many other Japanese who left their hometowns for places like Hawaii, the US mainland, Australia, South America, Canada, Manchuria, etc., to improve their standard of living. They did it by accumulating wealth as dekaseginin, emigrant laborers who still considered Japan their home, and later by establishing themselves in stable settlements as permanent residents.

Another motivation for emigrating may have been to avoid the “blood tax” (血液税金, ketsu-eki zeikin) which meant military conscription into the Japanese military.[9] Farmers were outraged because the government was taking their able-bodied sons off the land to serve mandatory active service in the army. Emigration was a way to get exempt from being conscripted into the Japanese military.[10] The Conscription Law, established on January 10, 1873, made military service compulsory for men in their 20s, regardless of class. But the law did exempt male heads of households or heirs. Whether or not it was one of the factors in Teizou decision to emigrate is not known, but I’m glad he was able to avoid conscription because he would have surely not survived if he had been.

Dekaseginin to eijuu dochaku

Like so many immigrants, Teizou and Tsuru came to Hawaii as dekaseginin, emigrant laborers who still considered Japan their home. They thought their time in Hawaii would only be a temporary necessity, a way for them to work on the Hawaiian sugarcane plantation to make money and send it back home to improve their struggling family’s standard of living. After three years of work, which was a typical contract, they intended to return home to Japan at the end of their labor contract. They would return home to Japan and perhaps purchase a few acres of farmland or pay off their family’s debts. But the meager wages the plantations paid was the most likely reason their plans were altered. It was almost impossible to return home with enough money within a three-year contract.

Fast-forward 16-years to the spring of 1914. The years had passed by quickly since Teizou and Tsuru immigrated to Hawaii, and the reality of returning home to Japan faded long ago.[11] When they left Japan, Teizouand Tsuru intended to return to Japan after the completion of their 3-year contract.[12] They even left behind their only child back in Japan; Tetsu would’ve been only about 6-years-old at the time of her parent’s emigration. The reality was that most Japanese ended up settling in Hawaii permanently – eijuu dochaku (永住土着) had settled in. They had gotten used to the Hawaiian lifestyle and had chosen to “settle down on the soil.” By this time, Teizou would’ve been 44-years-old, and Tsuru 40, and they had resigned themselves to making the sugar mill town of Paauilo on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island their new home. So now, it was time they sent for Tetsu, who was at the marriageable age of 22. 

As it turned out, Teizou and Tsuru settled in Paauilo, but they had no sons to carry-on the Ebata family line. 

While the immigration of Japanese women during the picture bride period (1908-1920) changed the composition of the plantation camps, there was still a large community of single male laborers. In 1910, men outnumbered adult women 2-to-1 in the Territory and in some communities, the sex ratio was skewed even higher, so the only option left for Teizou and Tsuru was to arrange a proxy marriage for Tetsu. They chose their nephew, Harumatsu Hori, who was 29-years-old at the time and worked at the Hamakua Mill Company; he emigrated 7-years earlier in 1907. Harumatsu was previously married, but it’s believed that his wife, Riye, and his youngest daughter, Harue, were thought to have died in 1913, and he sent his eldest daughter, Yai, back to Japan.

Harumatsu Hori

Based on US census records and the passenger manifest of the SS Persia, it’s believed Harumatsu Hori (春松堀) was a jinan (二男) or second-born son. At age 22, he emigrated from Niigata Prefecture to the Territory of Hawaiian August 6, 1907, and worked for the same sugar mill company as his uncle, Teizou Ebata.[13]

According to the SS Persia’spassenger manifest, Harumatsu indicated he was sponsored by his Uncle Teizou who emigrated nine-years earlier in 1898 from the town of Nakajou.

The story goes that Harumatsu wrote letters to his Uncle Teizou about seeking work on the Hawaiian sugar plantation. Upon arrival at the Port of Honolulu, Harumatsu didn’t have the required $50 US (¥100 JPN) “show-money” to enter the territory; he arrived with only $23 US (¥45 JPN). To get around this requirement, he told the Honolulu immigration officer that his uncle was his sponsor and presented a written labor contract of employment as a farm laborer for the Hamakua Mill Company.

Interestingly, Harumatsu had already been married for two years before his emigration to Hawaii; he arrived with his then-wife, Riye Hori (りエ堀); she was 20-years-old. A year after arriving in Paauilo, Harumatsu and Riye settled into their plantation life where they had two daughters – Yai Hori (埜衣堀) was born in 1908 and Harui Hori (春依堀) in 1910. 

About this time, things get a bit vague as far as determining what happened next to Riye and the children. The four-year period between 1910 and 1914 remains quite a mystery, but it was a definite turning point in Harumatsu’s life. We already know that he remarried in 1914 to Tetsu Ebata and was accepted as a mukoyoushiby the Ebata family. Furthermore, Riye, and the two daughters, Yai and Harui, no longer appeared in the 1920 US census, while Harumatsu appeared as Harumatsu Ebata, married and head of household of the Ebata family.

It’s pure speculation, but Riye and one of her daughters, possibly Harui, may have passed away in 1913 from an undetermined cause. The reason is that there are two unknown gravestones on the Ebata gravesite in Paauilo that no one among the Niseigeneration in the family can account for. One of the headstones indicates the person died at age 26, which matches with Riye’s age at her death in 1913. The other gravestone states the person died at age 3. Harui was the younger of the two daughters who may have passed away; she would’ve been 3-years-old in 1913. If this is true, then what happened to the other daughter, Yai Hori? Since she no longer appears in the 1920 US census, it’s more than likely that Harumatsu was ill-prepared to raise his daughter by himself so he may have sent her back to his family’s hometown of Kinoto. The only evidence of this occurring is dependent on the memory of one of my uncles, my Uncle Kenneth (Takashi) Ebata, who recalled Harumatsu sending money back to Japan. He didn’t know why but it may have been to remit money to his daughter, Yai.

In 1924, according to the passenger list of the passenger-cargo ship SS Siberia Maru, Harumatsu Ebata traveled back to Japan on March 30th; he was 38-years-old at the time. It’s not known why he went back to Japan, but records show that his destination was the village of Kinoto in Niigata to see his father, Gisaburo Hori.[14] It could be that Harumatsu went back because his father was dying or had past-away and to visit his daughter.

Harumatsu is believed to have stayed in Kinoto for two months before having to return to Hawaii; he turned 39-years-old while still in Japan on April 13. According to his return passport (#226870), he returned to Hawaii aboard the Japanese passenger liner SS Korea Maruon June 12 and arrived 9 days later at the Port of Honolulu on June 21, 1924. It would’ve been the last time he would ever see his family and his daughter who would’ve been at least 16-years-old.

In any case, whatever happened to Riye and his daughters, it freed Harumatsu to marry Tetsu in a proxy marriage arranged by Teizou and Tsuru.

Ebata-Hori Relationship

The facts lend to the possibility that there was a marriage relationship between the Ebata and Hori families. According to the inscription on my great-grandmother’s gravestone, Tsuru and my grandfather Harumatsu Hori was born in the same village, both came from the village of Kinoto.[15]

It’s possible that Tsuru’s maiden name was Hori. She would’ve been 11-years older than Harumatsu, so assuming the story of Harumatsu claiming to have written letters to his Uncle Teizou about working on the Hawaiian plantation and serving as his sponsor is true, then it’s possible that Tsuru could’ve been an aunt of Harumatsu.

Thus, a proxy marriage between Harumatsu Hori and Tetsu Ebata occurred. Teizou needed an heir and he had a daughter of marriageable age and Harumatsu Hori was someone they already knew from Kinoto and was readily available.


During the Meiji period, rural commoners began to adopt the upper class and samurai custom of “arranged marriages” or omiaikekkon(お見合い結婚). Marriages weren’t a question of love. The selection of a prospective bride and groom and the wedding preparations were often left to a “go-between” (matchmaker), called a nakoudo (仲人), who negotiated between the parents and children of both families. Arranged marriages steadily spread during the Meiji period and replaced “love marriages,” called renaikekkon(恋愛結婚), that rural commoners had once enjoyed. Marriages between people of different regions and social classes were more acceptable, and the demand for the services of a nakoudoincreased accordingly.

During the spring of 1914, two-years into the Taishou period (1912-1926), Tsuru’s Japanese passport revealed she traveled back to Nakajou, so it’s assumed based on the timing of her travel that she went back to arrange or attend the proxy marriage between her daughter, Tetsu, who was still in Japan, and her nephew, Harumatsu Hori, who was in Hawaii. Obviously, a trip back to Japan solely for the purpose of the marriage cost a lot of money, so I wonder if there was another reason she went.

Tetsu and Harumatsu may have already known each other, as I had alluded to previously. She would’ve been a teenager of 14-years-old when Harumatsu emigrated in 1907. That being said, it’s not known if any pictures or background information was exchanged as in the case of “picture bride” marriages, which was another form of proxy marriage popular during the immigration period between 1908-1920. In Japan at the time, proxy marriages were recognized and widely practiced by Japanese immigrants who decided to establish permanent residency in the US.

The groom wasn’t required to be present at the wedding ceremony to get a marriage certificate in Japan. Tetsu would’ve worn her best kimono, and the wedding ceremony between the Ebata and Hori families probably took place in Nakajou without Harumatsu being present. Both families had to notify their local government office of Harumatsu Hori’s adoption and register Harumatsu Ebata in the Ebata family registry as a valid adoption-marriage under the Meiji civil code. Once the marriage became official, Tetsu was eligible for travel documents to Hawaii or the mainland US. But such arranged marriages weren’t considered a valid form of marriage in the US. The couple didn’t qualify for an American marriage license. Such marriages were deemed to be un-Christian and “an uncivilized Oriental practice equivalent to coerced relations, bondage, or prostitution, and perfect evidence of Japanese savagery.”[16] This practice was short-lived. The Japanese government stopped issuing passports to brides of arranged marriages on March 1, 1920, because it needed to maintain its position as a world power after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and its positive relationship with the US.


Tsuru traveled back to Nakajou most likely to arrange the proxy marriage between Tetsu and Harumatsu Hori.[17] The date she went back to her hometown and how long she stayed isn’t known but based on her Japanese passport (#64296), she left Japan to return to Hawaii on May 13, 1914, and arrived in Honolulu 10-days later on May 23rd. The proxy marriage had to have taken place before Tsuru returned to Hawaii on May 13thbecause two weeks later on May 29, Tetsu was able to secure her passport to join her family as well as her new husband in Hawaii. She left the Port of Yokohama bound for the Hawaiian Islands on May 30, 1914, already the wife of Harumatsu Ebata.

It was also at that time that Harumatsu was adopted as a mukoyoushi, referring to the traditional practice of adopting a son-in-law as heir. He was taken into the Ebata household by Teizou even though he wasn’t physically present at the wedding ceremony and took on the Ebata name. Tsuru simply had to report the marriage and adoption to the local government office and have it entered in the Ebata family’s koseki(family registry); it was considered socially acceptable and legal in Japan. Harumatsu succeeded as head of the family and inherited all the Ebata family’s obligations and responsibilities as if he were a chounanor biological first-son. As a result, Harumatsu’s children inherited the Ebata family name, and the children thought of as members of the Ebata household.

The entry of Japanese brides to the US through proxy marriages drew the attention of the Bureau of Immigration as early as 1903. By this time, the Bureau of Immigration and the Department of Labor had become the centralized, powerful agency of controlling immigration in the US, replacing local immigration stations and immigration officials that exerted a great deal of discretion in immigration matters. The centralized bureau in Washington, DC ruled regarding the validity of proxy marriages and the status of the brides. Local immigration stations were to carefully examine the documents of the brides as well as the husbands that appeared at the station and to obligate them to remarry with a proper Christian ceremony before gaining entry and to take a photograph of the bride, which the immigration service placed in its files. Mass wedding ceremonies were held at the harbor dock or in nearby hotels after the bride or groom’s arrival.

Upon Tetsu’s arrival at the Port of Honolulu on June 8, 1914, local US immigration officials didn’t recognize her Japanese marriage certificate as legal, so they conducted a legal Christian marriage ceremony and, this time, with Harumatsu present. She would’ve worn a traditional kimono and tied her hair up to signify her married status. A couple of days later on June 10, a marriage ceremony was officiated by a Christian minister, his name was the Reverend Gennosuke Motokawa from the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church and witness by K. Miura and M. Yamashiro. Harumatsu and Tetsu said their vows in English, and then she was admitted entry on the same day.[18]

Consequently, the family name that my Nisei parents and their descendants inherited is the result of the practice of mukoyoushi. One of the most important things I learned from this practice is that in Japan one’s family name merely identifies the household to which one belongs, not necessarily the family’s bloodline.


The Japanese write their family names in kanji, which are characters of Chinese origins but with Japanese pronunciation. Kanji names have deep roots that can provide clues of what life may have been like in ancient times in Japan, and it’s vital to tracing my lineage just by reading them.[19]

In the summer of 1975, before the start of my junior year in high school, I was a naïve 15-year-old visiting Japan for the first time. In fact, not only was it my first time going abroad, it was my first time traveling outside of Hawaii. I hadn’t even been to the mainland.

While in Tokyo, I was told by several nihonjin (日本人) or native Japanese that my last name, Ebata, is uncommon. They had difficulty trying to figure out how to write my name in kanji. I had no idea why? At the time, I didn’t understand what those people meant by “uncommon”? I took it to mean my family name was “strange.” But what was so strange about it, I wondered? Maybe it really wasn’t a “Japanese” name, I thought.

Back then as a naïve teenager, I didn’t know the origin and meaning of my family name and had no idea how to write it in Japanese. Of course, I hadn’t given much thought about the importance of my family name, and so I was quite embarrassed and naïve about any of this when I visited Japan back in 1975; it only reflected my Americanized upbringing. More than four decades later, I’ve realized its importance and how it connects me to my family’s ancestors in Japan and to my identity as a Japanese American – and  there’s so much more for me to learn! 

What I’ve learned since then about my family name is that the character 江is rarely used in Japanese last names. It has to do with the fact that the number of authorized name kanji used for family names is limited, only 863 different characters.[20] The character 江 is pronounced like the hiragana character え (sounds like the “e” in “bed”) and means “inlet” or “bay.” Interestingly, Edo (江戸), the old name for Tokyo, uses the same character 江; it means “bay entrance.” Edo originally was a small, obscure fishing village in 1457 before it grew into the largest city in the world with a population of over a million people by 1721.

Even the name kanji 堀 isn’t widely used even though it’s been around for a long time since before the Edo period. It’s pronounced ほり (hori) and means “ditch,” “moat” or “canal.”

Diversity and number of Japanese family names

To put everything into perspective, consider the fact that Japan has so many family names and it’s incredibly varied.[21] The ten most common Japanese family names cover only about 10% of the entire Japanese population.[22] Interestingly, for a country that’s considered to have a relatively homogenous population of over 126 million people, there’s an extreme diversity of myouji– something like one myouji per 1,000 people.

The striking fact about Japanese family names is their sheer number. There’s no precise count, but the consensus is that there are well over 100,000 names in use today.

Here’s another noteworthy fact to consider. Of all the great historical clan names in Japanese history up to the Meiji period – Fujiwara, Minamoto, Taira, Hojo, Ashikaga, Toyotomi, and Tokugawa – only the Fujiwara name is widespread today. The Fujiwara name is ranked 47th among the top 100 family names.[23] Scarcely represented in the current population are the rest of those clan names. 

Of the top five family names in Japan today – Satou, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka, and Watanabe – only Tanaka has ancient roots. This diversity is in stark contrast to Japan’s neighbors, China and South Korea, which reflect different histories.

In Japan, family names also took a different convention than Chinese family names. It wasn’t until the 1870s, during the Meiji Restoration, when the Japanese government required all citizens to take a last name. These names often consisted of two characters.

Compared to Japanese family names, Chinese and Korean names are traditionally short; most are one character. Korea and Vietnam adopted Chinese family names early on in their histories, which is why most Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese family names are one character – for example, Wáng, Li or Zhāng for Chinese; Lee, Kim or Park for South Korean; and Nguyễn, Trần or Lê for Vietnamese.

The family name, Lee, is the most common name in the world and is used in China, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It’s pronounced “Li” in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while in the Korean peninsula, it’s “Yi” in South Korea and “Ri” in North Korea.

Chinese family names are the most ancient in the world and trace back some 3,000 years and were often reflective of an entire clan. Meanwhile, modern Japanese family names only date back to the 19th-century, following the Meiji period, and were chosen at-will, while in Europe the very concept of family names was unfamiliar before the 11th-century. 

In China, as a primary rule, neither men or women change their family names. In rural areas of China, both men and women in a village can all have the same family names, while the wives all have different names because Chinese women don’t change their family names after marriage. Despite China’s 1.2 billion population, it has only a few thousand family names. The most common name is Li with 7% or 95 million Chinese, followed by Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Zhao, Huang, Zhou, and Wu.[24] These ten names alone cover 38% of the Chinese population or about 530 million Chinese today.

South Korea, meanwhile, has less than 300 family names. The most common family names – Kim, Lee, and Park – cover more than half the South Koreans in a country of 75 million people. According to South Korea’s National Statistical Office, the top Korean surnames after those first three are Choi, Jeong, Kang, Yoon, Jang, and Shin.[25]

In Vietnam, fourteen family names account for 90% of the Vietnamese people. The dominant family names are Nguyễn, Trần, and Lê. Due to the frequency of these family names, persons are often referred to by their family name, along with their middle name(s) and given name. The “family name first” order follows the system of Chinese names and is common throughout China.[26] But, it’s different from Chinese, Korean, and Japanese names in the usage of “middle names,” as they are less frequent in China and Korea and not used in Japan.

When compared to Chinese and Koreans, who must keep their ancestors’ family names, Japanese families don’t have any aversion to abandoning their birth family’s identity whenever it suits them, and even create new ones, which is why Japan has so many myouji. New Japanese names seem to be conceived practically every day, especially when you consider that more foreigners are coming in and obtaining Japanese citizenship, then securing kanji for their names.


For Japanese families, marriage-adoption has historically played a critical role, especially in provisioning an heir when there are no sons in the family. As it turns out, marriage-adoption was also crucial for my family on a couple of occasions.

As I learned, Japanese families don’t have any problem with changing their family name as they pleased,even though it means discontinuing the family’s bloodline. In fact, they do it frequently, which suggests that the Japanese have a very complex and much more fluid kinship (or blood relationship) system based on family lineage than their Asian counterparts.

I’m reminded of a great story even though it has nothing to do with marriage-adoption. But I bring it up because it highlights how fluid the Japanese kinship system can be.

A friend once told me that his family name changed a long time ago because one of his ancestors, who belonged to the samurai-class, was responsible for many deaths. Based on traditional Japanese beliefs, humans have a spirit or soul called reikon (霊魂). When someone passes away, the reikon is said to leave the body and enters a state of limbo, where it waits for the proper funeral and post-funeral rites to be performed, so that it may join its ancestors. If the ceremonies are done correctly, the reikonis believed to be a protector of the living family and to return yearly in August during the Obon(お盆) season to receive thanks.

On the other hand, when a person dies suddenly or violently, such as murder, suicide or in warfare, and the proper death rituals not performed, or if they are bothered by powerful emotions such as revenge, love, jealousy, hatred or sorrow, the reikon is thought to transform into the Western equivalent of “ghosts” called yuurei (幽霊).[27] It consists of the character yu (幽), meaning “faint” or “dim” and rei(霊), meaning “soul” or “spirit.” Yuurei can bridge the gap between the spirit world and the physical world and, thus, allowing the yuurei to come back.

A type of yuurei is called onryou (怨霊) or vengeful ghosts. In traditional beliefs and literature in Japan, onryoucan cause harm in the world of the living, bringing damage or killing enemies, or causing natural disasters to exact revenge to redress the wrongs it received while alive then takes their spirits from their dying bodies.

Accordingly, my friend’s ancestor believed that by changing his family name the “dead spirits” of the people who he was responsible for killing wouldn’t be able to find him when they called out his name. 

A great story isn’t it!


I didn’t fully understand the long history, complexity, and richness of the Japanese kinship system, and my perspective of Japan as a patriarchal society was in large part shaped from the Meiji era, the period in Japan’s history that my great-grandparents and grandparents were born. 

As recently as the Meiji period, the Japanese family unit was something more than just a domestic group; it was an economic one as well. When the Meiji government decided to set its future course toward modernization and industrialization, the Japanese ie (家) or stem family household system under the Meiji Civil Code was a step backward and modeled after the upper classes of the Edo period. The government instituted very rigid family controls, something that’s associated more with corporations rather than families.

As I have learned, inheritance and succession within the ie aren’t necessarily linked together merely by bloodline or direct lineal descent. Instead, genealogy connects ancestors and offspring, which doesn’t mean relationships just based on blood inheritance and succession, but on the maintenance and continuance of the family unit or household even employing adoption when a male heir couldn’t be produced, or in the case that the biological hereditary heir was found to be incompetent. 

The Meiji Code stipulated choushi souzoku (長子相続) – choushi(長子) means “eldest child or son” and souzoku(相続) means “succession” or “inheritance”) or male primogeniture, which meant that the right of succession belonged to the chounan, and the patriarchal samurai class model, which suggested that men held absolute authority over the family, was the model for modern Japan. By law, this meant that the chounan held the right of succession to inherit the entire family estate to the exclusion of younger siblings. Each generation had adult sons and daughters, with a preference for inheritance by the chounan and when he married, the couple traditionally settled into his household.

Younger sons, such as jinan or sannan, on the other hand, were expected to seek their fortunes, establish their own households, or marry a woman whose family lacked a male heir. With that said, younger sons were more likely to change their family name than the chounan because younger sons couldn’t legally inherit their family’s estate. Furthermore, it was more likely that younger sons would choose to emigrate from Japan. Daughters were also expected to marry out of the family because under the Meiji Code of 1898, women were forbidden from being registered as head of the family household. They couldn’t legally inherit, own or control property; they couldn’t even choose their own spouses and had to adopt their husband’s family name.[28] In fact, the Japanese household system stifled any development of individualism, individual rights and women’s rights. Importance was placed on the household instead of on the individual family members. The bottom line was that all family members were expected to contribute to the perpetuation and enrichment of the family unit, which held the highest duty of the family members.

It became mandatory to register all families and individuals in an official family registry called the koseki(戸籍). It helped to assure the continuance of the family name based on the male heir system due to the extensive record keeping by family members. Japanese society has been using the koseki for centuries to treat a family household as a functional and legitimate unit, rather than identifying individuals.[29]

Each family, especially in the farming household, had to conform to the traditional family household system. The typical household or ie was an extended or multigenerational household – paternal grandparents, their son, his wife, their children, and any unmarried siblings – under the legal authority and responsibility of a family’s family patriarch. The eldest sons by law were successors; he was the central figure of the house who had absolute power for the well-being of all family members in the household, which reflected the institutional demands of the family.

But very few rural farm families were organized along the lines of extended families because they weren’t rich enough to sustain such a complex system. For many families, even the three-generational household was more a dream than reality. Life expectancy was so short until recently that few lived long enough to see grandchildren; fewer also experienced more than one grandparent until well after World War II when life expectancy reached 80-years-old.

The right of succession in the Japanese family didn’t just mean inheritance of the entire family’s property and land. It didn’t only mean the obligation of the eldest son living with his parents under the same roof.[30] It meant more than taking care of them in old age and the obligation of ancestral worship rites. Succession meant katokusouzoku (家督相続) or patriarchal succession of family headship. A chounan would inherit the role of family headship, and katokusouzoku aspires to achieve the importance of the “continuation of the family before the individual.” Continuity of the household was of utmost importance, and other arrangements, such as adoption would be made if no sons had been born.

The patriarch, responsible for family continuation, had to decide in advance who is the son to succeed him in the event of his death. Whoever succeeded him was crucial because the wrong decision could ruin everyone in the family. He usually selects the eldest son as his successor. When the eldest son isn’t available or unable to assume this position, one of the younger sons may do so. The elderly parents may choose to live with one of their married daughters, usually when they have no available son. It implies a sex/age hierarchy regarding residing with the parents, descending from oldest son to youngest son, and oldest daughter to youngest daughter. Thus, it can be expected that eldest sons and eldest daughters without brothers are more likely to live with their parents than other children.

When he has no offspring at all, the patriarch often adopts both a son as his successor and a daughter as the successor’s wife. In marriage-adoptions, it doesn’t matter whether the son and the daughter concerned had a blood relationship with the patriarch or with his wife.

The property was also considered part of the household, not the individual, and a woman “married into” the house of her husband. Even younger sons often needed their elder brother’s permission to marry because a younger brother’s wife would be entering the elder brother’s house, and any children of that marriage would be members of the elder brother’s household. Also, he was responsible for the support of his maternal line (bokei 母系) – his mother’s side of the family – and directed the labor of family members in the management of the household. Thus, the ie system emphasized the direct male line of descent and one’s function in the household rather than marriage and emotional ties to the family. 


The Japanese kinship system is bilateral, meaning that it includes relatives connected to both the husband and the wife. The same terms address both blood relatives and relatives related by marriage. In this system, horizontal ties usually were emphasized over vertical relationships, and hence the kinship system is ideally complementary to the hierarchical lineage system. Honorifics are a part of the terms used to address or refer to grandparents, parents, older siblings, and even birth order within the family. Terms differentiate how to address brother and sister according to age. But, when addressing or referring to family members beyond the family household, the honorifics are dropped, and the terms changed.

In earlier periods, family and kinship systems in Japan varied significantly depending on the region, class, and period. In other words, patriarchy is a relatively recent thing and far from the norm in pre-modern and early modern Japan when the family and kinship system was very flexible. So, despite the patriarchal structure of the Meiji Civil Code, which continued in effect until the end of World War II, Japan remained a society in which this flexible family and kinship system still survives in practice, and the family registration system and civil codes have gone through a series of revisions to reflect this reality.


Part of this reality for families with unwed daughters and in need of a suitable male heir to carry on the family line or the family farm or business, it wasn’t unusual for families to pass on their family line to an “adopted male heir,” a custom called youshiengumi (養子縁組).[31] It often entails the adoption of a daughter’s husband and acceptance by her family as a mukoyoushi (婿養子) or “adopted son-in-law,” thus, making the husband a legitimate son and heir. Provisions for adoption has a long history in Japan, going as far back as the Taihou Code of 702, which was influenced by the adoption practices in China where it was used to ensure a male heir. It’s still used today mainly for the reasons of family continuity. In fact, it’s not unusual for a man with proven capabilities to be a mukoyoushi when the chounan, the natural heir-to-be, proves to be incapable of taking over as the head of household, the family business or when his own family has disowned their son.

It also wasn’t unusual for a woman’s family of higher socio-economic status than the man’s family to adopt the man. The adopted son-in-law was cut-off legally from his biological parents, and natal household took on his wife’s family name and was transferred into her family’s registry. His children would have his wife’s family name, and the children thought of as members of his wife’s household.[32]

For the adopted son-in-law, it wasn’t a degrading or demeaning thing at all; it was both a show of familial commitment and a business transaction. No one looked down on men who made that choice since in almost all cases, it was a social and economic step up for them. As a mukoyoushi, the adopted son-in-law inherited all the obligations allotted the head of household as if he was the biological firstborn son to his parents-in-law.

So, changing a family’s myouji doesn’t seem to pose a difficult choice for Japanese. It’s been an established custom for hundreds of years, not just in households or families, but in businesses, too. It wasn’t unheard of for a family with a son that didn’t measure up to get a better more suitable one through mukoyoushi.

This kind of maneuvering within the family was critical to the Japanese to ensure the most suitable linear continuity of the family line (and not necessarily the bloodline), especially if the family lineage had some significance regarding social value and status. These maneuverings strongly tied adoption (of either a man or husband), the death of the head of household, illegitimacy or even abandonment. But, by far, the most common reason was a man adopted as a husband into an eldest daughter’s family or a mukoyoushi.


Looking closer at the custom of mukoyoushi, it traces back 400-years to the Edo period (1603-1868).[33] It’s an old tradition that’s uniquely Japanese, and it’s still practiced today, witness my own family with my grandfather Harumatsu Ebata.

Mukoyoushi developed as a practical, but a strategic mechanism for families to extend their family name, estate, business or craft without a heavy reliance on bloodlines. It’s a tradition that guarantees the continuity of a family’s genealogy, not the family’s bloodline, and even the occupation of the family for many generations when there’s no suitable male heir.

During the Edo Period, it was used mostly by the samurai class to create a strong, fixed position in society through the succession of positions, such as the head of household or head of the business. It also was a way for higher-class households with no sons to continue a patrilineal line and remain a functioning societal power. A samurai family wishing to adopt were encouraged to look first within their blood relatives for suitable sons but would search outside of the family if there were no capable sons. This type of adoption was particularly crucial for families with higher positions in society.

Adopted sons during the Edo period were usually a part of the same social circle and income level. It was the most common purpose, but from their point of view, it wasn’t so much a way to improve their social position, but a means to live an independent life by leaving behind the title of jinan or sannan, etc., to become a chounan. By being adopted, younger sons could take over as heads of households or become the leader of the family business as well as a leader in the community itself.

Nowhere is mukoyoushi more evident than in the Japanese business landscape where family-run businesses won’t hesitate to seek the adoption of a son-in-law as a business transaction rather than hand the company over to a blood heir who is less than capable of running it to carry on the family business. If there weren’t a competent jinan or sannan to succeed, the company head would try to find a more capable man outside of the family to marry one of his daughters and then legally adopt him and pass it on. In fact, the most influential family-run companies in Japan tend to be those run by an adopted heir. It’s believed to be a custom not encountered in any other country.

A couple of interesting points about Japanese family-run businesses standout. One fact is that Japanese business families still practice arranged marriages in which the daughter of the current family patriarch meets an approved man – usually a capable top manager – selected by the patriarch. Japan has a long history of omiaikekkon (お見合い結婚) or “arranged marriages” and about 5% to 6% of Japanese still utilize this custom.[34] The other fact is that Japanese don’t hesitate to adopt adult sons if the family is without a biological son or if no capable sons or if sons aren’t willing to take over. 

Next, to the US, Japan has the highest rate of adoption in the world. What’s more interesting, though is the fact that while most adoptions in the US involve children, it accounts for only 2% of all adoptions in Japan. The other 98% include adult males in their 20s and 30s.[36] Japanese families strategically use this flexible kinship system to their advantage, employing various succession strategies to ensure the continuation of the household or business. 

Families of Japanese businesses will usually choose an adult male among their most promising top managers, and he agrees to marry the patriarch’s daughter and is then adopted by his new family. If an adult male married a matriarch, he’s a nyuufuyoushi (入夫養子) or an “adopted husband.” If there was no children or daughter to marry, the prospective son-in-law could take a bride from outside his adopted family called fuufuyoushi  (夫婦養子) or “adopting a married couple.”

So, it’s not surprising that an ancient country like Japan with an old economy would be home to most of the world’s oldest businesses. Japan is home to 8 of the 10 oldest-running businesses in the world.[36] In 2011, there were more than 50,000 companies over 100-years-old in Japan. Of this total, Japan had 3,886 companies that were older than 200-years, the most in the world, and 517 firms that were more than 300-years-old (see Figure 3).[37] The average lifespan of a Japanese family business is something like 56-years, which is twice that of their American counterparts.[38] In the US, the average life of a family-run company is 24-years. In fact, just 3% made it past the third generation.

A large number of the oldest companies are local and family-owned in a variety of trades and industries, including hot springs (onsen 温泉), hotel or inn (ryokan 旅館), confectionaries (okashiya お菓子屋), saké breweries (tsukurizakaya, 造り酒屋), temple builders (kensetsu-gaisha 建設会社), industrial machinery (sangyou-kikai 産業機械), religious goods (shuukyou youhinten 宗教洋品店), tea houses (saten 茶店), and pharmacies (kusuriya 薬屋).[39]

Once thought to be the oldest operating family-run hotel in the world, the 1,300-year-old Houshi Ryokan in Ishikawa Prefecture is now the second oldest. The story goes that in 717 AD the god of Mount Haku came to the Buddhist shugendoumonk Taichou Daishi in a dream and instructed him to find a hot spring in the nearby village of Awazu in modern-day Ishikawa Prefecture where the people didn’t know they were sitting right on top of a hot spring with wonderous healing powers. Taichou ordered one of his students Houshi Garyo to build a ryokan (guest house) at this hot spring in AD 718. Houshi adopted a son as his successor who took his childhood name of Zengoro. Since then, the hotel and the name – Houshi Zengoro – has been passed down over 1,200 years and operated by the same family for 47 generations.[40]

Founded in 705 AD by Fujiwara Mahito during the Keiun Period, hence the name Keiunkan. Fujiwara was the son of an aide to Emperor Tenji in the 7th-century. The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is located at the foot of the Akaishi Mountains in Yamanashi Prefecture is the oldest ryokan. In 2011 the onsenwas officially certified as the oldest family-run hot springs hotel in the world by the Guinness World Records, operating continuously by 52 generations by the same family for over 1,300-years, and some staff also pass on their jobs to their children. Some very famous guests have stayed at the inn, such as Kouken, the 46th-emperor, who was reportedly cured of an illness by bathing in the local spring water, and it’s said that Tokugawa Ieyasu stayed there twice. Later, it was referred to as the secret hot spring of Takeda Shingen and Tokugawa Ieyasu because of its beneficial effects of the spring water on aching muscles.

Kinosaki Onsen Sennen-no Yu-Koman is a ryokan founded by Gonnokami Hiuke over 1,300-years-ago in 717. The onsenalso has tales of divine origin. Hiuke had a dream of four Gods who told him to live there from that point onward and create a life for his family in Kinosaki, Toyooka City in Hyogo prefecture to protect his descendants. He built a shrine on the hotel’s property in thanks to the Gods and, in turn, his descendants went on to open bathhouses in the nearby Kinosaki Onsen.

Tech Kaihatsu is a machinery company that started out as a smithy in 760, which makes it 1,258-years-old; it’s the second oldest. 

Genda Shigyo has been making paper goods since 771, making it 1,247-years-old. 

Tanaka-Iga (religious goods) was founded in 885. After 1,133-years, it’s still being run by the Tanaka family and sells many beautifully-made items of high-end craftsmanship for Buddhist shrines and ceremonies. 

Ichimonjiya Wasuke is a traditional Japanese confectionery maker of wagashi and was established in 1000 in Kyoto and is operated for over 1,018-years by the 24thgeneration of the Ichimonji family.

Sudou Honke is a manufacturer of Japanese sakébased in Obara, one of the original settlements in Ibaraki prefecture. It was founded in 1141 and run by the 55thgeneration of the Sudou family for over 870-years; it’s the oldest sake brewery in Japan. 

Tsuen Tea is the oldest continually operating tea house since 1160. From its start, the tea shop is located at the same location on the east side of the Uji Bridge (constructed in 646) in Uji City near Kyoto. Today, it’s operated by 24 generations of the Tsuen family for over 850-years. Tsuen’s descendants started to sell tea to people that crossed the bridge and eventually led to the establishment of a formal tea house. The shop was visited by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. 

Ito Tekko is the oldest metalworks company and was founded 829-years-ago in 1189. It’s located in Tsuruoka City in Yamagata prefecture. Today, the company name is Ito Ironworks Co., Ltd. 

Right of primogeniture

One explanation for such longevity of these companies was the right of primogeniture. Because the eldest or first-born son inherited all the patriarch’s wealth, entire companies could pass to a single member of the family.

The other explanation is that even though primogeniture faded by the Meiji period, owners still passed their companies on to a sole heir – albeit keeping business within the family is often aided by the custom of mukoyoushi. It’s a form of legal adoption paired with an arranged marriage, known as omiaikekkon, of a daughter, where the adopted son-in-law becomes a son at the same time because he changes his family name to the wife’s family name. It can be analogous to a merger of two companies rather than the joining of two families. The company head legally adopts the right male to run the company and then passes it on. The man agrees to marry the company head’s daughter and drop his family name and is adopted by their family to become head of household and of its business. In Japan, daughters can manage the company’s back-office operation, but its front face must still be male.[41]

But the union cannot be just a business transaction. If the couple doesn’t like each other, both the marriage and business could fail. Thus, marriages in Japan can have cultural and legal implications because whoever takes over the family business will have a future impact.

Some of the most well-known Japanese enterprises established themselves during the Meiji Restoration, firms like the Suzuki Motor Corporation (Suzuki family), Toyota Motor Company (Toyoda family), Matsui Securities (Matsui family), and Suntory Holding Limited (Torii family). These families all took advantage of the practice of omiaikekkon and mukoyoushi, or both, to ensure the continued succession of their companies.[42]

Source: CampdenFB


I always believed Japan’s traditional family system was very rigid and conceived of as “purely” patrilineal because they place a significant value on their family bloodline. But this isn’t always the case, and there are exceptions to the rule. Japanese families have a certain degree of freedom in changing it. I didn’t realize it before, but to Japanese, a family name merely identifies the household to which one belongs, not necessarily the bloodline. My family’s ancestors took advantage of this same latitude of freedom to ensure the succession of the Ebata household in Hawaii.

Interestingly, my grandfather, Harumatsu Ebata wasn’t the only family member to be adopted. One of my uncles was adopted. My Uncle Jack (Katsumi) Suwa was taken in by another family as a child, but I never heard the story behind it until recently. 

The story goes that Chuzo and Aki Suwa of Kurtistown on the Big Island, who also emigrated from Niigata Prefecture and was acquainted with my family, adopted my uncle, Katsumi Ebata when he was only 5-years-old. My uncle was the youngest of four brothers or yonnan (四男) and adopted as a futsuuyoushi (普通養子), which means “ordinary adopted son” into a family who had no children of their own. Futsuuyoushiis an official adoption with the consent of both parents but without dissolving the relationship with the biological parents. He took on his new family’s name, Suwa, but his first name also changed to James, so he became known as James Katsumi Suwa. In 1943, at the age of 19, he legally changed his first name to Jack. Remarkably, my uncle didn’t learn of his own adoption into the Suwa family until he attended grade school. He had to bring his birth certificate to school for a class project, and that’s when he learned that his biological parents were Harumatsu and Tetsu Ebata and that he had seven other siblings.

Through this examination of my family name, I discovered that my grandfather Harumatsu Ebata was a mukoyoushi and my Uncle Jack Suwa was a futsuuyoushi. My great-grandparents, Teizou and Tsuru Ebata, had no heir, so they arranged for a proxy marriage with their daughter, Tetsu Ebata, my grandmother, and Harumatsu Hori. They then adopted Harumatsu, and he took on the Ebata family name and became Harumatsu Ebata. When my great-grandfather passed away in a horrible workplace accident on the sugar plantation sometime in the 1920s, Harumatu became the head of the Ebata household.

While the family name I inherited at birth is Ebata, I cannot ignore the fact that under normal circumstances, my inherited family name could’ve been Hori. My name is Ebata due to the strategic maneuvering of my great-grandparents to ensure the succession of the Ebata household even if it meant discontinuing the family’s bloodline. 

The practice of mukoyoushi, therefore, played an essential role in the continuity of my family name; it’s the reason why my name is Ebata and not Hori. This represented a critical point in my family’s genealogy because now my grandparents made a choice not to return to Japan, ensuring my family’s roots would continue to be nurtured in the fertile volcanic Hawaiian soil in Paauilo on the Big Island. Teizou and Tsuru carved out a niche for themselves and raised their eight children in their new home.[43] Now, five generations later, the Ebata family continues this legacy in Hawaii and has even extended to the mainland. 

So, now that I’ve learned about how and why I came to inherit the Ebata name, I’ll focus now on determining its origin and meaning.


To learn about the origin and meaning of my family name, I found it essential to first understand its long history, and it’s one that’s quite complicated.

To learn this history, I relied on a couple of excellent posts by Mami Suzuki on the Tofugu blog titled A Long Japanese History of Japanese Names and How “Cow Poop” Became a Real-Life Japanese Family Name for much of this history.

Different ways to write and say “family name”

As a starting point, it’s important to explain that today there are four ways to write and say “family name” in the Japanese language: 氏 shi, 姓 sei, 苗字 myouji, and 名字 myouji. These terms point towards the fact that, historically, Japanese family names originated from distinctive sources and each of these ways had various meanings.

名字 Myouji. In referring to family names today, the Japanese educational system uses 名字 since the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science decided to use it. 

Before the Edo period, the same characters 名字 were pronounced naazana and took on more of a “(formal) nickname.” This designation was often given to an adult male and, in Japan, was used in place of a family name in formal situations; it functioned in much the same way as people use family names today. Technically, since naazana were “nicknames” and not given by the emperor, people had a certain degree of freedom to change it from time to time depending on their occupations or new environments. After a while, these nicknames became formalized family names and was passed on from one generation to another, so people didn’t just change it without careful planning.

苗字 Myouji. By the Edo period, 名字 was replaced by 苗字 and began to be called myouji. It assumed the role that naazana used to serve for family name because 苗 (myou), which comes from the word nae (なえ) or “seedling,” better signified the idea of family bloodline. But, with the simplification of the Japanese writing system after World War II in 1946, 苗somehow didn’t make the list of authorized “name kanji” called jinmeiyou kanji (人名用漢字) and was replaced with 名 (myou), which is derived from the word na, meaning “(true) name.” Thus, 名字 became the popular way to indicate Japanese family names or myouji.[44]

氏 Shi. As a legal term, 氏 (shi) is still used to indicate family name since the Family Registration Act by the Ministry of Justice still uses it. But in ancient times, the character 氏was pronounced uji and was first used to denote patrilineal clan names, but later merged with the word myouji. Up until 1870, only the nobility and samurai class and certain privileged commoners could have a family name, while all other commoners were only permitted to have first names called zokumyou (俗名) or tsuushou (通称), referring to “common (first) names” or “popular (first) names” by which a man would commonly be known.

姓 Sei. In fortune telling, 姓 (sei) is used for family name, but in ancient times this same character was pronounced kabane and was understood to be a hereditary aristocratic title to denote rank and political standing (familial order) or as an occupational privilege granted by the emperor in ancient times. Sei had initially been a matrilineal family name. Later, it became a patrilineal family name and it was granted only on a hereditary basis to nobles in the Imperial court solely by the emperor. As such, there were few sei, and most noble clans can trace their lineage to these sei or the courtiers of these sei. The great samurai family names of Minamoto, Fujiwara, Taira, and Tachibana were originally kabane names.

姓 Sei. In fortune telling, 姓 (sei) is used for family name, but in ancient times this same character was pronounced kabane and was understood to be a hereditary aristocratic title to denote rank and political standing (familial order) or as an occupational privilege granted by the emperor in ancient times. Sei had initially been a matrilineal family name. Later, it became a patrilineal family name, and it was granted only on a hereditary basis to nobles in the Imperial court solely by the emperor. As such, there were few sei, and most noble clans can trace their lineage to these sei or the courtiers of these sei. The great samurai family names of Minamoto, Fujiwara, Taira, and Tachibana were originally kabane names.

Now, let’s look at the history of Japanese myouji or family names.[45]

Family names (Uji) in ancient times

It was during the Yayoi period (300 BC – AD 300) that marked the start of intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields located in and around the Yamato Plains, which is the region between the present-day cities of Nara and Osaka). With the introduction of rice paddy agriculture, social classes started to evolve, and parts of the country began to unite under a powerful “clan system.” This clan system was called shizoku (氏族). The clans were made up of people of common descent, each related to the other either by blood, marriage or a common ancestor. 

Back then, people used their clan names, called uji (氏), in place of family names.[46] Uji were granted on a hereditary basis to the most powerful clans by the Yamato emperor. These clans held high-ranking political positions within the Imperial court. Later, people used their uji as family names and originated from their occupations or the natural features of their home region, such as rivers, mountains, valleys, etc. – Yamamoto (“foot of the mountain”), Tanaka (“among the rice-fields”), and Matsumura (“pine tree village”).

Uji-kabane (Shi-sei) seido

The Yamato’s domain expanded as more clans pledged their allegiance to them. By the beginning of the Kofun period (AD 300-538), a center of power had developed in the fertile Kansai plain in the south-central region of Honshu, and by about AD 400, influential clan leaders and their families called gouzoku (豪族) emerged.[47] Small, autonomous domains were established, each ruled by a different clan. One clan stood out amongst all the rest regarding political power and influence during the Asuka period (AD 538-710). This clan was known as the Yamato, and they settled in the fertile agricultural region in the Kansai region around what is modern-day Nara Prefecture.

When the Yamato united Japan and established itself as the leading power in the 3rd-century, its clan chief created a centralized government in Heijou-kyou near the modern-day city of Nara in the middle 7th-century and created a Japanese imperial line which is said to be descended from the sun-goddess and the deity of the Yamato clan, Amaterasu-Oomikami. The Yamato was known for its bravery in battle and their superior fighting techniques. As a result, all other clans within Japan became subject to them following many years of warfare. It resulted in more people working for the Imperial court and thereby increasing the need for the Yamato emperor to differentiate the status of each clan.

Not all clans received equal status with the emperor, though. Some local clans developed close ties with the ruler and supported the Yamato from early on, while others didn’t give their support until later. To show the distinction in political status between clans, the Yamato introduced a “system of clans and hereditary titles” called the uji-kabane seido or shi-sei seido (氏姓制度). Under this administrative system control, the Imperial court, specifically the emperor, designated an uji (氏) or clan name and attached a hereditary aristocratic title, called a kabane (姓) to the uji name. Thus, 氏姓, uji-kabane, became the means to classify different groups within the Yamato kingdom.[48]

Both were titles held in reserve for nobles living in the capital with the highest status and the dominant local clans with close ties to the emperor but remained subordinate to the Yamato rule, and according to each person’s occupation, skill or degree of contribution to the state. The uji-kabane system became the means to classify the hereditary rank and political standing of each clan in the Yamato kingdom and, thus, became the foundation for Japanese family names today.

There were four key kabane titles: omi (臣, retainers), muraji (連, retainers), tomo no miyatsuko (伴造, administrator/overseer) and kuni no miyatsuko(国造, official/local magistrate). The Court awarded lower-ranking titles to clan leaders of smaller, distant clans who nonetheless swore their allegiance.

Both omi and muraji were hereditary titles given to those with the highest political status, and both titles were earmarked for the most powerful clans during the Kofun period. But, basically, there was a difference between the two kabane – long-time supporters of the Yamato clan received omi, while clans related with specific government occupations received muraji.

The omi clans were the most powerful, and they took their names from the geographic location from which they originated, thus making them regional lords. By tradition, those who held the kabane of omi were koubetsu shizoku (皇別氏) or branches of the imperial line who claimed their descendance to Kougen, the 8th-emperor of Japan. The most powerful omi added the prefix oo(大) or “great” to the omi title and were referred to as Ooomi (大臣).

The muraji rivaled the rank of omi in political power and standing during most of the Kofun period. By tradition, the muraji clans claimed descent from the shinbetsu shizouku (神別氏族) or mythological gods. Like the omi, the most powerful muraji clans added the prefix oo (大) to muraji and was referred to as oomuraji. For nobles and samurai, their family names often reflected their role in the government they served or in recognition of significant achievement or contribution. One of the oldest muraji clans was the Ootomo (大友) clan whose hereditary lands lay in Kyushu. The Ootomo clan’s power spanned over 400-years from the Kamakura period through the Sengoku period. The clan’s family name meant “great attendant” (大 oo means “great,” and 友 tomo means “attendant” or “companion”) because their family’s purpose was to protect the Emperor from losing political power to rival clans. 

A step below the muraji was the tomo-no-miyatsuka (供造), and this kabane was given to those clans associated with tsukasa (司, administrators) working in government office occupations. Clans that governed as kuni or local magistrates of small territories were the kuni no miyatsuko (国造).

Since the Yamato emperor was the only one who could grant the uji-kabanefor each clan that served him, he and his family didn’t require one. The emperor was considered a person of divinity that didn’t belong to any clan, so in those times the Imperial family didn’t have a family name, and it’s a custom that continues today.

Kani-juuni-kai (12-level cap-and-rank system)

Table 1:
12-level “cap and rank” system.

The uji-kabane system had a significant flaw. As more people gained employment with the Yamato court, a kabane had to be assigned not only each clan but to everyone holding a political rank within the Imperial Court. The problem was that each clan already had a title, so each person would now be having an uji(clan name), a kabane(title to the clan name) and another kabane(title to the court position/rank).

To help solve the problem, the Court introduced in AD 604 in the early Asuka period the kani-juuni-kai (冠位十二階) or 12-level “cap-and-rank” system. The court officials wore silk caps that were decorated with gold and silver, and a feather indicated the official’s rank. The following table (Table 1) lists the various ranks and the colors that were believed to have been assigned to each one.

Meanwhile, the Court abolished uji, but people still retained their uji-kabane. Despite having previously awarded a kabaneto each clan, individuals were given titles in the new system based on their political positions within the Imperial Court. It was the first of what would be several similar cap-and-rank systems – e.g., kabane+ court rank/position.

The primary distinction between this cap-and-rank system and the old kabane system, which was based on a person’s hereditary rank, was that the cap-and-rank system allowed for promotion based on the 12-ranks of individual merit and achievement. Even though the new system didn’t end the uji-kabanesystem, the introduction of the cap-and-rank system, ironically, just made things more complicated because now the Court had to deal with more titles.

Katsushi no sen (Imperial Edict)

In AD 646, the Taika Reforms reasserted imperial rule and united Japan as a nation under the Ritsuryou Codes. It defined both the criminal code (律 ritsu) and the administrative code (令 ryou). Among the first actions of the Taika Reform was to abolish the kabanesystem.

Shortly after, an Imperial edict or katsushi no sen (甲子の宣) was issued in AD 647, replacing the twelve-cap-and-rank system. The law was an effort to try to address the problem of titles by eliminating the number of ranks from 12 to just 3 – oouji (大氏), kouji (小氏), and tomo no miyatsuko (伴造) – to try to clear up the confusion of which clan belonged to which rank. It essentially was a combination of old and new systems. The law also prohibited people from having more than one uji, so if a person had multiple uji, he had to choose just one. The Imperial edict may have simplified the system a little, but difficulties continued.

Yakusa no kabane

In AD 684, Emperor Tenmu, the 40th-emperor of Japan, wanted to set apart the nobles from the powerful clans as well as organize the uji-kabane system, so he restructured the kabane into an eight kabane system or yakusa no kabane (八色の姓) to try to weaken the power of the local clans. It was a combination of the new and old systems.

At the time, he added four new kabane— one for the royals (真人, mahito) and three for the nobles (朝臣, ason; 宿禰, sukune; and 忌寸, imiki), who claim their genealogical origins to imperial princes. He then kept only three of the originals for the local clans: 臣 (omi), 連 (muraji), and 稲置 (inagi). The powerful omi (臣) of the time, such as the Fujiwara, Taira and Minamoto, were given the kabane of ason (朝臣), which ranked second under the new system. Meanwhile, most of the muraji were given the kabane of sukune, which ranked third. Its purpose was to try to clarify which clan belong to which rank. The powerful local clans found themselves demoted under this new system of royals and nobles. In AD 701, it was even decided that those first four kabane were to be granted certain privileges under the Taihou Code and the power of the local clans became even weaker. Later, as the clans began to devolve into individual households, the kabane system gradually faded from use.

Kougonenjakuand Kouinnenjaku (Family Registration)

Reform was also taking place with the family registration system for the common people or bemin (部民) of the Yamato kingdom. In AD 670, a family registration system called the kougonenjaku (庚午年籍) was initially introduced, followed by another in AD 690 called the kouinnenjaku (庚寅年籍). All the bemin in the kingdom were registered and given uji-kabane– that is, uji-kabanebecame a way to show one’s social standing in the hierarchy of the state.

In comparison, the modern koseki or household family registry wouldn’t appear for another 1,000 years until the Meiji government introduced a national family registration law and a national family registration system in 1871; the kougonenjaku served as the basis for the modern koseki or household registry that appeared in 1872.[41]

By AD 702 (in the late Asuka period), many people were still without an uji-kabanein the existing family registration book, the kougonenjaku. When the Nara period began in AD 710, the government worked to have all citizens officially recorded with an uji-kabane, but it took them 47 years to do it. By AD 757, all Japanese citizens registered formally had an uji-kabaneof their own. It would be momentary, though, as clans began to decentralize into individual households. Family lineage and status took precedence over the social status of a clan. As a result, the uji-kabanesystem began to collapse, and it gradually lessened in use.

Kabane becomes useless

In the 9th-century of the Heian period (794-1185), the Fujiwara-ason, a name bestowed on them by Emperor Tenji, became the most influential samurai clan within the Imperial court. The title of ason (朝臣) was the second highest kabane rank in the cap-and-rank system, and it was a title for noble clans whose genealogical origins often claimed back to imperial princes. 

The ancestral uji (氏) name of the powerful Fujiwara clan was Nakatomi (中臣), after the name of its founder Nakatomi no Kamatari (AD 538 -710). He was granted the name Fujiwara by Emperor Tenji as a reward for loyal service to the sovereign. The name originally was Nakatsuomi (“minister of the center”), denoting an ancient, hereditary office as an intermediary between men and deities. The clan claimed descent from Ame no Koyane, a son of the deity Takamimusubi and a companion of the mystical hero Ninigi. The Fujiwara took their name from the “field of wisteria” (fuji= wisteria; wara= field) near their estate.

Moreover, some emperors began giving uji-kabane as a reward to family members, who, for some reason, had to leave the ranks of the Imperial family and demoted to the ranks of the nobility. Kanmu, the 50th-emperor, gave his family members the name Taira no ason, which became the origin of the Taira clan. The Taira clan is often referred to as Heishi (平氏 Taira clan) or Heike (平家 House of Taira). Seiwa, the 56th-emperor, gave his family members the name Minamoto no ason, which became the origin of the Minamoto clan, and who were also called the Genji (源氏).[50] As a result, the uji-kabane system under the Ritsuryou Code began to breakdown as a system of appointing names to individuals with specific skills emerged. Kabane became unnecessary, and the family registration system under the Ritsuryou Code began to fade away as well.

In the 10th-century of the Heian period, several powerful local clans came under the influence of prominent nobles and became their retainers. These clans even changed their clan name, drawing criticism for dishonoring their original uji-kabane titles. This action became all too familiar an occurrence and was known as boumei kain (冒名仮蔭), which translates as “misrepresentation of one’s clan name and hereditary title.”[51] Additionally, certain family lineages became fixed because of the type of business or trade they conducted. A movement by these families resulted to try to change their uji after marriage and what one’s newly acquired name would be was dependent on the new family’s business. Before then, a person’s uji was passed on to blood relatives and didn’t change because of marriage.

Uji names decline

At this point in the Heian period, the diversity of clan names began to decline at this point, and specific names became common, such as Minamoto, Taira, Tachibana, Fujiwara, and so on. Consequently, there was a tremendous growth in families that shared the same family name, particularly the powerful Fujiwara family. This was happening so often and for such a long time that these clans needed yet another name to distinguish themselves from one group to the next. As a result, the nobles continued using uji names while samurai families started using 名字 or naazana, which began to be used as a replacement for family names.

Meanwhile, kabane continued to be used, but regarding its actual function, it was barely upheld as a public naming system until its demise at the beginning of the Meiji period when the government created a new law called seishifushourei (姓尸不称令).

Naazana starts to replace “family names”

Meanwhile, after the Ritsuryou Code began in AD 701, the use of uji-kabane declined steadily because family lineage and status took on greater importance over an entire clan’s social status. As a result, by the late Heian period, naazana started being used as family names to differentiate the smaller groups within separate clans or factions within clans. Even though the two groups belonged to the same clan, there was different levels of power and influence between the two lineages. Moreover, even among the same lineages, some factions were born under influential lineages. The names that these groups began to use to differentiate themselves from others in the same clan are believed to have been namesakes from the places where they were born.

Originally, when naazana started to be used, it was called by another term, gou (号). It was used only for one generation, meaning that it wasn’t passed on to family members. But people realized that it made more sense to call a family by their actual family name. Unlike the Chinese usage of official nicknames as a replacement for first names, in Japan, naazana were official nicknames used to replace a family name and, thus, by the late Heian period, the naazana began to be passed down to descendants. There was an official nickname for first names called zokumyou (俗名) or tsuushou (通称), which referred to “common (first) names” or “popular (first) names” by which a samurai would commonly be known. Today, nicknames are no longer called naazana but called adana (渾名), which is believed to have come from the term azana(字).

Meanwhile, the Ritsuryou system reached its peak during the Heian period and fell apart, and powerful samurai groups, known as bushidan (武士団), started to form in the provinces to manage the mansions of noblemen, or even to protect the lands and assets they had earned for themselves. 

In the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) periods, as the regions held by bushidan expanded, some powerful ones found themselves in control of multiple territories. Many samurai started dividing their assets to distribute to their children. Even if an illegitimate child inherited a territory from the family, and once they settled down in a place, they started using the land name of the area as their naazana(family name) to the territory. Furthermore, they cultivated new lands and the overall area that was inhabitable increased. Once they settled down in a place, these samurai groups laid claim to owning such land by using the land name as their naazana. They started using something descriptive to name themselves after the domains they ruled alongside their uji-kabane. In time, these naazanastarted being passed on to family members as well. This caused the number of naazanaused by the samurai to increase, and it’s the reason most samurai names are deeply connected with a place-name.

So, in the case of the samurai class, it’s not surprising that 80% to 90% of Japanese family names are place-names – that is, names of villages, village neighborhoods, old provinces or modern prefectures. The Fujiwara clan from the Heian period was a powerful family of regents who took their name from the “field of wisteria” near their estate. Thus, family names came to express the ownership of a territory and status in society.

Samurai still had uji-kabane

During the Kamakura period, the samurai continued to have an uji-kabane name as an official name, so it became known as honsei (本姓), which means “(true) family name.” Take for example Nitta Yoshisada (head of the Nitta clan) and his brother, Wakiya Yoshisuke. Although they both had different family names – Nitta and Wakiya – their uji-kabane was Minamoto. So, their honsei was Minamoto-no-Yoshisada and Minamoto-no-Yoshisuke. Only the emperor could give a true family name, which is indicated by a の (no) between the official name and their given name. The naazana that people gave themselves, the ones that derived from the region they lived in, weren’t permitted this distinction. So, unlike the nobles, samurai tended to use official nicknames, and they tended to use that rather than their actual first names.

“Taiko’s Sword Hunt”

In 1588, during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603), Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued his katanagari (刀語), a decree to forbid all commoners from bearing swords and having a family name. It became known as the “Taiko’s Sword Hunt.”

Under the decree, farmers were forbidden to possess any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms, or other types of weapons. If unnecessary implements of war are kept, the collection of taxes on the annual harvest (nengu年貢) may become more difficult, and without provocation, uprisings can be incited. The tax rate would vary from village to village but would average about 40%-50%. So, those who committed improper acts against samurai who were recipients of their lord’s favor in the form of land grants or stipends (kyuunin給任) would be brought to trial and punished. But, in that event, their wet and dry fields would remain unattended, and the samurai would lose their rights (chigyou 知行) to the yields from the fields. Thus, the heads of the provinces, the samurai who received a land grant, and deputies were well-motivated to confiscate all the weapons and submitted them to Hideyoshi’s government.

To justify this imposition, Hideyoshi noted that farms end up untended when the farmers revolt and are arrested. He also emphasized that the farmers would become more prosperous if they concentrated on farming rather than on rising-up. Finally, he promised to use the metal from the melted-down swords to make rivets for a Grand Buddha statue in Nara. In this way, farmers would benefit not only in this life but also in the lives to come thus securing blessings to the involuntary “donors.”

Hideyoshi reasoned that if farmers possessed only agricultural implements and devoted themselves exclusively to cultivating the fields, they and their descendants would be better off. This concern for the well‑being of the farms was the reason for the issuance of this edict, he explained, and such a concern was the foundation for the peace and security of the country and the joy and happiness of all the people.

Hideyoshi sought to solidify the separation of class structure between samurai and farmers. His sword hunt was designed to create a gap between the two classes and to prevent peasant uprisings. Hideyoshi wanted everyone to know their place in society, and to keep it that way. In a bit of beguiling irony, he insisted that farmers be bound to tilling their fields. 

Hideyoshi’s separation edict 

In 1591, Hideyoshi ordered his mibun tousei rei (身分統制令) or “Social Status Control Edict,” a process to socially separate the samurai and commoner classes to create a social gap intentionally. The law banned the samurai and their retainers from becoming peasants or merchants and banned peasants from abandoning their fields to engage in commerce or wage labor. The edict laid down punishments for those who violated these provisions. 

The townspeople and farmers had to scrutinize if any samurai or low-ranking samurai footmen and servants – chuugen (“samurai’s attendant; footman”), wakatou (“footman or foot soldier”), or komono(“servant; errand boy in a samurai family”) – had become merchants or farmers. If they’re found, they had to be expelled, and if the townspeople or farmers hide them, the entire village would be punished.

If any farmer abandoned his fields and engaged in commerce or wage labor, not only the farmer himself but his fellow villagers would be punished. Those not involved in either military service or working the fields would be investigated and expelled. If an official didn’t execute these instructions, he would have his lands seized for negligence. If there was any concealment by the townspeople or farmers, the whole county or town would be held accountable.

No one could employ anyone who left his former master without permission. An individual’s background would be thoroughly investigated to ensure he hadn’t done so. If he had, he would be arrested and handed back to his former master. If this law was ignored or if a violator of the law was deliberately released, then it was ordered that two or three people would be decapitated in the violator’s place and their heads will be delivered to his former master. If this order isn’t carried out the person who sought to employ the violator would be punished.

While the intent of the edict was to ensure stable revenue from the land tax and a pool of warriors in view of Hideyoshi’s imminent invasion of Korea between 1592 and 1598, it proved to be just another way to keep the peasants in their place in society.

Hideyoshi’s hypocrisy 

Both edicts, demonstrated Hideyoshi’s hypocrisy since his rise from the poorest of peasant origins to become supreme ruler was unique in a hierarchy-obsessed Japan.[52]He was born with no traceable samurai lineage. As a child, Hideyoshi was an orphan, a peasant wandering in search of adventure. At the age of 11, he strayed into the Oda clan, lords of Omi Province (present-day Fukui Prefecture) and ended up serving as an ashigaru(common foot soldier) and sandal-bearer to Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). The man who was born without a family name was the architect of the Tokugawa era’s rigid class system.

“Toyotomi,” the family name for which history remembers him, was one of several family names he gave himself. He used several family names, such as Kinoshita, Hashiba and Taira, but in 1585, he came up with Toyotomi, which means “rich abundance.” The divine descent he was claiming for himself at this point called for a name in which his ancestors couldn’t be traced. He then had the Emperor confer Toyotomi upon him; this was just two years before he ordered the ban.

His given name we known him by has an interesting story, too. In 1569, under the name of Kinoshita Toukichiro, he distinguished himself in battle and was flattered to learn that Nobunaga compared him to the 13th-century warrior Asahina Yoshihide.[53] Toukichiro quickly took the name Yoshihide. But the shougun’s name was Ashikaga no Yoshiteru, and it was forbidden to use a name starting with “Yoshi.” So, he simply reversed the order of Yoshihide and became Hideyoshi.[54]

Myouji replaces naazana as family name in Edo period

When the Edo period begins (1603-1868), the way a honsei or true family name was used became limited. It was only used on occasions when they formally received an official rank from the emperor, so it was hardly used in daily life. As a result, the naazana that people used at the time began to function in much the same way people use family names today. The kanji for naazana 名字 was replaced by 苗字 and began to be pronounced myouji. It assumed the role that naazana used to serve for a family name because 苗(myou), which means “seedling,” better implied the idea of a family bloodline.

Since naazanaweren’t names given by the emperor, anyone could have one, including commoners. This was true until the Tokugawa shougunate decided to ban commoners from having naazana, except for a few prominent families. This was done to establish a status difference between the governing classes and the masses.

Of course, the “masses” referred to the commoners who represented the rest of the population at the time in Japan’s social scale – shomin (庶民) or heimin (平民). They made up 95% of Japan’s population, such as farmers, laborers, merchants, artists, and artisans. The terms shomin and heimin are remnants of the Edo period feudalism and were used to describe the “common people” as opposed to the samurai. 

But this didn’t mean that individual commoners didn’t have a family name during the Edo period. Commoners could be awarded one for special service to their daimyou. In addition, there was, in fact, another tiny minority of commoners who had privately used self-proclaimed family names, such as some prominent and wealthy merchants and artisans, but these names were never officially registered. For the most part, though, most commoners entered another long period in which they were only allowed to have first names.

By the middle of the Edo period, during a time known as Genroku (1688-1704), the merchant class began to ascend to its highest point, marking a time of great renaissance in Japanese culture when aristocratic and common arts flourished. It was a time of jovial self-expression on the part of the merchant class. As the samurai class came into chronic fiscal crisis, they became dependent on the contributions by wealthy merchants, they became deeply in debt to them, into whose hands the wealth of the country was to pass. So, the samurai allowed these merchants the status of myoujitaitou(苗字帯刀) – the right to bear a family name and to wear a sword – in return for the cancellation of their debts.


Initially, the Meiji government didn’t make any policy changes regarding myouji. They simply followed the Tokugawa’s ruling of forbidding commoners from having family names, yet the new government wavered often on many of its policies.

During the Boshin War (1868-1869), between the Tokugawa shougunate and the Meiji government, the government decided to revoke the names that only a select group of commoners could have and banned them from having a family name. In the same year, they also banned the shougunate from bestowing family names to feudal lords or other people under their influence. This was done to prove a point to the shougunate. 

After this, they allowed the policy to be open to interpretation and informed commoners that the government could issue them family names if they were to render their services to them. Merchants who supported the Imperial Army by supplying food to the soldiers at the battlefields were awarded with the status of myoujitaitou

When the war ended in July 1869, the lands and people were returned to the emperor. The Meiji government revoked most the myouji recognized by the Tokugawa shougunate. The new order recognized only the family names of those who served the new government. 

Consequently, the government reverted to the former family naming system, going from myouji (苗字) back to uji-kabane/shi-sei (氏姓), aka honsei(本姓). But most of the people who originally were a part of the nobility became Fujiwara, and most of the people who were part of the samurai class became Minamoto. Incredibly, more than 86% of Japanese family names became one of four names: Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara or Tachibana. Obviously, this system wasn’t practical and didn’t fit in with the current times, and so the Meiji government very quickly rescinded it.

Myouji becomes mandatory

In 1870, the policy for family names changed course, led by the Ministry of Finance who was trying to modernize Japan. On September 19, 1870, the Ministry officially announced the heimin myoujikyokarei (平民苗字許可令), a law allowing commoners to have myouji. Commoners who didn’t already possess one could choose names for themselves. In many cases, though, it usually was a local official who assigned names, sometimes the same family name for an entire small village; names related to their location or names of plants, animals, or even commercial products were often used. They usually made up a name or used a substitute instead, or they used prefixes referring to their trade or location.

But, a lot of commoners felt very distrustful of the law. It was a shared belief that the government wasn’t interested in enhancing their dignity but make them pay taxes or be subject to conscription into the Imperial Army if they decided to use a myouji.[55] As a result, very few commoners opted to have a family name.

Monks also refused this policy. They claimed that because they entered the priesthood, taking on a family name was unnecessary. As a result, the Ministry forced the monks to take on a myouji by enforcing thejuushoku souryou myoujihisshou gimurei(住職僧侶名字必称義務令), a law imposed in 1872.

Despite this, commoners still weren’t in any hurry to adopt family names. In response, the government created another law, heimin myoujihisshou gimurei (平民苗字必称義務令), which for the first time in history made it compulsory for all families and individuals to have a myouji regardless of their social classes and registered in the official government registry. This new law went into effect on February 13, 1875, replacing Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s decree of 1588 banning all non-samurai from having either a sword or having a family name. It wasn’t with good graces that the commoners went about complying with the new law. Defiance, though, was impossible. The most basic formalities of life – marriage, for example – would be useless without a myouji. With this new way of thinking came a shakeup of established social systems. The government abolished all previous social classes and every Japanese recorded asheiminor commoner.

During this time, 80% of the people had no family name and now had to come up with one, which meant that they could choose whatever name they wanted; it was a chaotic situation. It was a time when the country had a very large population, about 30 million during the early Meiji period. Samurai, no less than commoners, had to scramble for identity. Many people chose names that were already in use, hoping to gain a little extra credibility by sharing a name with those belonging to the upper-classes. Others adopted historical names or names reflecting their trade, role in society or the hometown of their region. Still others merely made-up whatever names they wanted to be known.

The obvious option was to register the unregistered family name they had been using all along. Many did just that, but vague fears of ancient name taboos and of assuming a real, official name to which one was not certifiably entitled sent many others to the one accessible authority who could lay such fears to rest – the village priest or village headman make-up a name for them. It helps to explain why there’s a high concentration of families sharing the same family name in specific areas, but aren’t related by blood, and why there are so many varieties of Japanese family names today. Thus, the current name structure – myouji (名字, family name) + na/mei (名, given/first name) – didn’t materialize until the1870s when the government made the new family registration system.

These naming practices became fixed by the early 17th-century, but the legal term for family name used today, myouji, historically referred to one’s clan or lineage group, and its use was supplemented from the 9th-century onward by additional or replacement names indicating location. It was common to use a name that was representative of one’s birthplace.

Since having a myouji was a kind of “duty” now, there’s now a “Family Name Day” in Japan called myoujiseitei kinenbi (苗字制定記念日), which means “Commemoration Day for the Establishment of Family Names,” and it’s celebrated on February 13th each year.

Between the laws above, there were also some other changes to family name policy. In 1871, the Meiji government created a law called seishifushourei (姓尸不称令) which brought the use of uji-kabane to an end. In addition, the terminology around family names at this time was so confusing that the government had to categorized 姓本 (honsei) as 姓 (sei), 氏(uji/shi) and 名字 (nazaana/myouji) as 苗字 myouji, and lastly, 姓 (kabane) as 尸 (shi). year. 

Daijoukan fukoku and Daijoukan shirei

Additionally, according to the daijoukan fukoku (太政官布告) or “Proclamation by Grand Council of State,” legally registered names became harder to have changed. Because of that, people questioned the government about the right to change their wife’s family name after marriage. Changing a woman’s family name to that of her husband’s family name was traditional at the time. On March 17, 1876, in response to this debate, the daijoukan shirei (太政官指令) mandated that husbands and wives must keep their original (maiden) family name and cannot change it following marriage. The system of husbands and wives keeping separate maiden names lasted until the meiji minpou (明治民法) or Meiji Civil Code became enforced in 1898 returning to the old civil law that obligated wives to adopt their husbands’ family name. Since then, only one family name could appear in the koseki and it’s usually the wife that must abandon her family name. As recently as December 2015, more than 100 years later, the Japanese Supreme Court continues to uphold this legal provision forcing married couples to use the husband’s family name.

Interestingly, a myouji is supposed to reflect a person’s social and legal status. But it wasn’t a privilege extended to women and still isn’t in many instances. Even women of samurai families weren’t allowed to have a myouji and couldn’t be a successor in her own house, reflecting the state of gender inequality of the time between men and women. Daughters were expected to marry out of the family and adopt their husband’s family name because even as late as 1898 under the Meiji Civil Code, women were subjugated to the will of the male family head of household and denied legally owning or controlling property; they couldn’t even choose their spouses.[56] In fact, the Japanese household system stifled any development of individualism, individual rights and in particular women’s rights. Importance had been placed on the household rather than on individual family members. Still, in many cases, women continued to be denied constitutional rights and subjugated to the will of the male head of household.

Finally, the kanji for myouji was 苗字, but after the simplification of the Japanese writing system after World War II in 1946, 苗 was replaced with 名and, as a result, 名字 became the popular usage for myouji.

So, here we are at last. We have finally reached the system of family naming that’s used in Japan today.


Prior to the Meiji period, some families inherited their myouji from their ancestors, while others adopted the family names of influential families. Still, others were given their family name by a village head. So, entire communities may have shared the same name, but they didn’t share the same blood. After the Meiji period, people were suddenly forced to register their family name legally. Some of them changed their family names to one they favored, while others just made up their names, which is one of the reasons why there are so many varieties of Japanese family names existing today. Among those family names created, some families took their names from historically famous families, whose origins date back to ancient Japanese. So, remember that most Japanese assumed their family names only recently in the early Meiji period. Even if you were to encounter someone today with a family name of a historically famous family, say Fujiwara or Taira, whether that person’s family ancestors were Fujiwara or Taira dating back to ancient times is very questionable and it’s doubtful that there are any blood ties.

In my case, my grandfather Harumatsu’s inherited family name is Hori, which is an old name, one that has been used even before the Edo period, but it’s unlikely that there’s any ancient blood ties at all. He took on the adopted family name of Ebata when he married my grandmother Tetsu Ebata. The Ebata name is an uncommon name and is believed to be of recent vintage.

Family names people registered

Up until 1875, commoners weren’t allowed to use family names in official situations. It didn’t mean they didn’t have any, though. Contrary to popular belief, some commoners such as merchants and artisans did have family names, although they wouldn’t have flaunted it, or they’d invite trouble, so it would be extremely rare to see any signed document from a commoner.[57] Some may have given up using their family name by the 12th-and 13th-centuries. Some may have naturally forgotten their family names when the Meiji government introduced the family registration act at the beginning of the Meiji Period. Whichever the case, most Japanese family names registered today didn’t originate from clan names as they are in China or Korea.

So, what family names did people register as their myouji?

Many families almost exclusively derived their new myouji after nature, revealing Japan’s agrarian past, but there were legal limitations on the number of authorized kanji that could be used. So, Japanese family names were almost exclusively limited to combinations between geographical locations (i.e., physical features in their local landscape) or flora/fauna names and descriptive adjectives. Thus, most myouji are typically composed of two authorized kanji, but sometimes only one or even three kanji are used.

In trying to make their own family names distinctive, people used such things as place-names consisting of geographical features of the region, physical property, local sceneries where their ancestors lived or variations of ancestral names. For instance, here’s a sample of place-names used: rice field/paddy (田 ta/da); mountain stream (沢 sawa/zawa); river (川 kawa); mountain (山 yama); dry field (野 no or 原 hara); pine tree (松 matsu); cedar tree (杉 sugi); bamboo (竹 take); chestnut (栗 kuri); wisteria (藤 fuji); tree/wood (木 ki); beach/seashore (浜 hama); forest (林 hayashi); a well, mineshaft or pit (井 i); moat, canal or ditch (堀 hori); and so on. 

Let’s look at the top ten Japanese myouji registered today. They’re all two kanji names: Satou (左藤), Suzuki (鈴木), Takahashi (高橋), Tanaka (田中), Itou (伊藤), Watanabe (渡辺), Yamamoto (山本), Nakamura (中村), Kobayashi (小林) and Katou (加藤).[58]

A family may have also chosen its myoujiby using one of the kanji from a historically famous family name whose origins date back to an ancient Japan samurai clan and suggests a possible connection to that family. Some families really do have legitimate links to these very powerful and ancient samurai clan, while others chose their family names to reflect their occupation or job title, like Satou.

Satou is Japan’s most common family name, but even so, only 2 million people or 1.6% out of the nation’s 126 million Japanese share this common name.

The origins of the Satou family name originate from the Fujiwara (藤原) from the Heian period. Under the Ritsuyou Code, there were four main job titles in the provincial government: kamisukejou, and sakan. The kanji 左was used for the position called suke. A person with the family name Fujiwara at this position was given the name Satou as their name by the emperor and may suggest that the Satous had clan roots to the Fujiwara clan. There was also a governmental post called saemonnojou (左衛門尉) at the time, and a person with the name Fujiwara at this position combined 左+ 藤原 and named themselves Satou.[59] Therefore, a person holding either the job title of suke or the position of saemonnojou used Satou as their name.

The name Satou borrows fuji (藤) for “wisteria” from the Fujiwara name and added the adjective sa (左) to create the name Satou (sa 左 “left” and tou 藤 “wisteria”). The second kanji 藤 may indicate a connection with the powerful Fujiwara clan because the same character for tou (藤) can also be read as fuji (藤). 

In fact, other family names with the kanji 藤 (tou) as the suffix is significant – Saitou (斉藤), Itou (伊), Mutou (武藤), Katou (加藤), Gotou (後藤) – because it always means “wisteria,” suggesting possible historical connections to the Fujiwara clan.[60]

The Fujiwara granted their samurai myouji ending with the first character of their name, to denote their status in an era when commoners weren’t allowed to have family names. The Fujiwara unofficially ruled Japan throughout the Heian period. They cut a broad swath in their day and claims of Fujiwara descent – legitimately or otherwise – are a big part of the history of Japanese family names. One branch of the Fujiwara in the mid-Heian Period acceded to the hereditary court office that might translate as “Judge of the Left Guard.” The word “Left” is written with the kanji sa (左left) – sa(左) plus the Fujiwara fuji(藤) as a prefix equals Satou. 

Down the centuries, the original Satous flourished as samurai of high, but not the highest rank. It was their comparatively modest status that enabled them to confer their name upon their vassals. The daimyou refrained as a rule from doing that – the more significant the name, the stricter the taboos surrounding it. That’s why there are so many Satous and so few Tokugawas or Ashikagas. Satou is still a common family name in eastern Hokkaido and in the Tohoku region (Akita, Fukushima and Yamagata in particular) as well as western Japan (Tokushima and Hiroshima Prefectures) and eastern (Oita Prefecture). Meanwhile, it’s uncommon in the Kansai region (Osaka and Hyogo Prefectures) and Okinawa. The reason the name Satou is so concentrated in eastern Japan is because after the civil war between the Genji and Heike clans in the late 12th-century, the western Heike were defeated, and their lands assigned to the eastern Satous who moved in and took over.[61]

Some of the Fujiwara descendants in the Tohoku region are still known as Satou. The Fujiwara family that lived in Sado in Niigata Prefecture also started calling themselves Satou. But, despite the number of Satous there are today, not all of them descend from those with close ties to the Fujiwara. During the Meiji period, when people were forced to decide on their family name, Satou was one of the most commonly chosen names. So, whether Satou was simply chosen because of its popularity, it sounded good, or of the image the name conveyed, Satou became the most popular name of all time.

The name Katou (加藤) can be traced back to the Asuka period, when Emperor Tenji bestowed the Fujiwara family name to a famous Japanese politician named Nakatomi no Kamatari, who helped centralize the government and launched the Taika Reform of AD 645. He was from the old Kaga Province in Ishikawa Prefecture, and so the name Katou is a combination of ka (加) of Kaga province with the fuji 藤 (wisteria) of Fujiwara, which means “Fujiwara of the Kaga Province.” The name is common in the Chukyo region (Nagoya area in Aichi Prefecture) but not in the Hokuriku region.

Like Katou, the name Itou (伊藤) borrows the character 伊 (i) from Ise in Mie Prefecture and the fuji 藤 from the Fujiwara, which means “Fujiwara of Ise.” Itou is found mainly in the Chukyo, Tohoku, Kanto, Sannin, and Kinki regions; it’s very common in Aichi and Mie Prefectures. It’s highest in the number of any Japanese city found in Nagoya. 

The original Suzukis (鈴木) were a family of Shinto priests in Kumano, which is in today’s Mie and Wakayama prefectures. They had mythological origins: three brothers confronted a deity riding a dragon. One brother made an offering of hackberry (enoki 榎) trees and received the name Enomoto (source/base of the enoki), eno (榎) meaning “Japanese hackberry tree”) and moto (元) meaning “source.” The second brother offered round mochi-rice cakes and was named Maruko (round child), maru (○) meaning “round” and ko (子) “child.” The third brother offered harvested rice ears and was named Suzuki (rice ears) in the Kumano dialect, and written as  kari (刈) means “reap,” and ho (穂) means ear (of plant). Suzuki descendants became priests of the Kumano shrines and warriors. The Kumano cult spread east, so did the Suzukis. There are 1.8 million registered Suzukis; it’s the second most common family name, especially in Aichi (Mikawa in particular) and in the northeastern and southern Kanto regions (Shizuoka Prefecture). It’s a comparatively rare family name in western Japan, except in Wakayama Prefecture, andnot a common name in and Okinawa.

The name Tanaka (田中) is topographical; it’s a common family name and originated from all over Japan, except for Okinawa. It’s more frequent in western Japan (the Sannin region); it’s the most common family name in Fukuoka and Osaka Prefectures. In eastern Japan, it’s very common in the Hiki region, Saitama (Iruma in particular) and the Koshinetsu region (Nagano Prefecture) as well as Hokkaido.

Tanaka is related to the cultivation of land or tahata (田畑). Tanaka contains the kanji 田 (ta), which means “rice field/rice paddy” and 中 (naka) which means “in/inside/middle.”Since rice was the mainstay of the traditional Japanese agricultural-based economy, Tanaka, which means “middle of the rice paddy,” was a natural and inoffensive choice – about 1.8 million or 1.2% of Japanese share this last name. A family owning a broad rice paddy with a house in the middle was a sign of prosperity, so naturally calling themselves Tanaka was a good way to do it. A myouji derived from an agricultural landscape, such as a rice paddy, spawned numerous family names. If the rice paddy was wide, a family could call itself Hirota (広田), which means “wide paddy.” If it was high, a family could call itself Takada (武田), which means “high paddy.” If near a shrine, a family could call itself Miyata (宮田), which means “shrine paddy;” or if near a temple, Terada (寺田), which means “temple paddy;” and so on.

If the mountain stream was small, a family could call itself Ozawa (小沢small mountain stream), or if the mountain stream was large, Oozawa (大沢large mountain stream). If a stream and a field were combined, a family could call itself Nozawa (野沢 marshy field). If a stream and a pine tree were combined, it’s Matsuzawa (松沢). If a family lived near the entrance of a river, it’s Kawaguchi (川口 mouth of a river).

If a house was on the north end of a dry field, then a family could call itself Kitano (北野 north field). How about at the west-end? Nishino (西野 west field). How about a family that lived in a village to the north? Kitamura (北村 north village). Is there a well or other water source below? A family could use Inoue (井上 above the well). How about if they lived at the base of a rock or under a tree? Iwamoto (岩元 base of the rock) and Kinoshita (木下under a tree).

Some family names occur with varying frequency on a regional basis. The names like Chinen (知念), Higa (比嘉), and Shimabukuro (島袋) are common in Okinawa Prefecture but not in other parts of Japan. This is mainly due to the language and cultural differences between the Yamato people and the Okinawans. 

The top family names derived from the name of modern prefectures are Yamaguchi, Ishikawa, Miyazaki, Chiba, and Fukushima. Most people in the Japanese social scale (90%) were commoners such as farmers, merchants, and artisans, so it was typical for them to use a name representative of the geographical place-names—i.e., names of villages, village neighborhoods, old provinces or modern prefectures, or their birthplace. In fact, something like 8-in-10 Japanese myoujiare named after places. The family name Takahashi is Japan’s most common family name among those originating as a place-name; it’s the most common name in the Tohoku region (particularly around Kitakami in Iwate Prefecture) and in Shikoku. Taka(高) means “high or tall” and hashi(橋) means “bridge,” so the name means “high/tall bridge.” Bridges in early Japan were rare, most river crossings had to be by ferry, so the existence of one might well work its way into a family name of the local elite. A Takahashi clan can be traced back to the 8th-century – serving in the “Catering Bureau of the Imperial Household Ministry.” 

Yamamoto (山 yama“mountain” and 本 moto“origin/base”) is a common family name in western and northeastern Japan; it’s the most common family name in the Hokuriku region (Sanyo), the Sanin region (Kinki). In eastern Japan, it’s more common in Saitama and Shizuoka Prefectures. 

Nakamura (中 naka “in/inside/middle” and mura 村 “village”); it’s a common family name all over Japan, with a higher rate in western regions, in the Kinki and areas.

Kobayashi (小林) means “small forest” (小 “small” and 林 “woods/forest”); it’s a common family name in the Kanto, Shinetsu, Kinki and Chugoku regions.

There were naturally occupational names, many rooted in the ancient clans that rule their territory mostly independently before submitting to imperial rule in a gradual process culminating in the 7th-century Taika Reforms. The most influential clans – those claiming descent from divine deities – named themselves after the territories they ruled; clans with a less impressive ancestry took professional or occupational names identifying distinctive hereditary occupational skills. The Hattori (服部) were (clothing guild) were silkworm weavers; the Akazome (赤染) were dyers; the Kaj (鍛冶) were blacksmiths, and the Inukai (犬養) were dog breeders.

The Wataribe was of interest. Wataru (渡る) means “to cross over,” and be (部) means “hereditary occupational group,” like a “guild.” The Wataribe guild ran ferry services all over Japan before there were bridges in Japan. Their descendants and namesakes today go by another form of their name, Watanabe (渡辺), which means “ferry-side.” and because 渡 means “ferry,” and be (辺) means “shore (of the sea).” This family name is said to have its origin in ferry ports. Watanabe originated in Osaka City’s Chuo Ward and is common all over Japan, except for Okinawa. Nowadays, the name is more common in eastern Japan, Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures as well as the Chukyo and Kyushu regions.

Before starting out researching the history of Japanese family names, I had no idea how long and complicated and rich of a history it turned out to be, but I’m sure happy to have researched it. I found it fascinating and I hope you did as well.


To learn the true origin and meaning of the Ebata family name, I sought the assistance of a friend, Dr. Gladys Nakahara, a Japanese language instructor in the Department of East Asian Languages at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu. To determine the true meaning of my family name, it was critical to identify the specific kanji my family’s ancestors intended to use to do a proper translation because a character can be pronounced differently and have several different meanings depending on the context. Based on Dr. Nakahara’s research and translation, she speculated that the Ebata name is written using two kanji: 江 and 端.

Dr. Nakahara believes that my family name originates from the character 江 (e), which means “inlet” or “bay.” The use of 江 is uncommon in a family name, based on the list of authorized “name kanji” (jinmeiyou kanji人名用漢字).

The second character in my family name, bata, can be written using either one of two possible kanji: 端 or 畑. If the character 端 is used, then bata means “edge.” On the other hand, if 畑 is used, then it means “farm” or “(crop) field.” Looking more closely at 畑, it contains the character 田 ta, which means “rice paddy” or “rice field.” Interestingly, ta forms part of many Japanese myouji. Seeing that nature is associated with both 端 or 畑, it does appear to be representative of my ancestors’ birthplace, the former town known as Nakajou in Niigata Prefecture. Furthermore, my ancestors were farmers, so it also seems to validate that my family lived in or near “a crop field (rice paddy) near a bay.” So, which kanji was intended to be used to represent the character bata by my ancestors?

The answer lies in the geographical location of the Ebata family’s hometown. US census records and the steamship’s passenger manifests confirm the fact that the Ebata family’s ancestral roots trace back to the Echigo Plain in Niigata Prefecture, located on the shores of the Sea of Japan.[62] Now, it’s a scientific fact that the land area of the Echigo Plain is located at the edge of an ancient bay![63]

Thus, it’s likely that the Ebata myouji originates from a geographical feature of the landscape, an ancient bay, near where my family’s ancestors must have lived, so the origin of my family’s name came from 江 emeaning “bay.” That said, it’s now safe to say that the second character for bata is naturally 端, meaning “edge.” Thus, the intended meaning of Ebata using 江 and 端 is “edge of a bay,” and it originates from an ancient bay that reflects the physical landscape of the Ebata family’s ancestral birthplace in Nakajou in Niigata Prefecture. 

EBATA = 江 E + 端 BATA = 江端 (“EDGE OF A BAY”)

When my great-great-grandparents had to decide on their family name, why did pick such an uncommon name? Why not pick a more popular one? The fact that an uncommon name was picked leads me to believe that my great-great grandparents purposely picked a kanji that wasn’t common or because it was popular. Maybe they wanted a name that would bring attention to their name, something grand and different.

By contrast, the “Hori” name is very old, one that’s been in use even before the Edo period (1603-1868). The Hori name originates from a single kanji, which may hint at a Chinese origin since single kanji names were the rule back then. The name Hori is written 堀, which isn’t a common character either, and means “ditch, moat or canal.”[64] Interestingly, as it happens, canals once traversed through the area during the 17th-century. In fact, Niigata City was sometimes referred to as the “City of Willows” because of the willow trees that once lined old canals that flowed throughout the city. By 1964, those canals were filled in to make way for more roads. So, it’s very probable that the Hori family chose their name in reference to these canals.

So, the Hori ancestral roots can also be traced back to the Echigo Plains. In fact, my grandfather, Harumatsu Hori, was born in the village of Kinoto, which is only a few miles away (5 miles/8 km) from the town of Nakajou, and about 29 miles (47 km) away from Niigata City along or near a canal.[65] With such proximity between the town of Nakajou and the village of Kinoto, it seems very likely that the Ebata family and the Hori family may have been somehow acquainted. It may explain why my great-grandparents sponsored Harumatsu Hori to enable him to immigrate to Hawaii and later adopt him as a mukoyoushiinto the Ebata family.

More startling is the possibility that the Ebata and Hori families were related by marriage. Tsuru Ebata and Harumatsu Hori may have been from the Hori bloodline and both married into the Ebata family.

Thus, the origins of both the Ebata and Hori family names support the fact that both families’ ancestral roots can be traced back to the Echigo Plain in Niigata Prefecture. 


As I uncovered the story about my family name and its origin and meaning, I learned several things:

  • The Ebata and Hori families are from Niigata Prefecture. They probably lived close to each other – the Ebata family from the town of Nakajou and the Hori family from the village of Kinoto.
  • Both families probably were related through marriage – my great-grandmother’s maiden name was probably “Hori” and my grandfather was a Hori.
  • The bloodline in the Ebata family was broken two generations ago. My great-grandparents arranged a proxy marriage between their daughter, Tetsu Ebata, and Harumatsu Hori. Harumatsu was a mukoyoushi and took on the Ebata family name.
  • I inherited my family name from my father’s maternal line.

So, while I have come to understand how I happened to be Ebata, I cannot ignore the fact that under any other circumstance I should’ve been Hori. But it wasn’t fate that decided that I was to be an Ebata. Instead, it was due to the traditional practice of youshiengumiand the strategic maneuvering by my great-grandparents in Hawaii to ensure the succession of the Ebata genealogical line and the continuation of the Ebata household, not the Ebata bloodline.


[1]Nisei (二世, second generation) refers to a person of Japanese ancestry born in the US, Canada or South America whose parents were immigrants from Japan. Compared with Issei (一世, first generation), a Japanese immigrant to the U.S., Canada or South America, and Sansei (三世, third generation), a person of Japanese ancestry born in the US, Canada or South America whose parents were immigrants from Japan.

[2]Several types of marriages existed during the Meiji period, and the formalities varied between regions, local customs, and social classes. The custom of arranged marriages, adopted from the samurai class which had strict rules concerning marriages, became a common practice that spread throughout the Meiji period. Marriages weren’t a question of love, the selection of the prospective bride and groom and the wedding preparation were often left to a go-between (a nakodou), who acted on behalf of the parents. The new Meiji society accepted marriages between people of different regions and social classes, and the demand for the services of a nakodou increased accordingly.

[3]The number of immigrants from Niigata Prefecture was small compared to immigrants from Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures. Because of their small numbers, immigrants from Niigata were able to form a kenjinkai (県人会, prefectural associations) to provide aid, fellowship, and a sense of community for immigrant workers from the same prefecture. Etsuyukai (Association of Friends from Echigo Province) was formed when the immigrants from Niigata-ken began to migrate to different parts of the island of Hawai’i. The Niigata Kenjinkai of Honolulu was organized in 1909 with 205 members to help unify Niigata immigrants on Oahu. [Nakamura, Kelli Y. (n.d.). Kenjinkai. Densho Encyclopedia. Densho. Retrieved from] 

[4]According to the Passenger and Crew Lists, 1900-1959 for the SS Persia, which sailed from the Port of Yokohama on August 7, 1907 and arriving at the Port of Honolulu on August 16, 1907, Column 18 (“Whether going to join a relative or friend; and if so, what relative or friend, and his name and complete address”), it’s stated that Harumatsu and Riye Hori were joining “Teizo Ebata, Uncle, Hilo, Hawaii.”

[5]Japan Reference (2013, March 4). Marriage in Japan. Retrieved from

[6]An interesting note about Niigata. In 1885, Niigata was the most populous prefecture, beating out even Tokyo and Osaka prefecture.

[7]Up until the end of the Edo period, the Port of Yokohama was just a small fishing village. With the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity, Kanagawa was initially selected as one of five ports to be open to foreign ships. But the shougunate felt Kanagawa was too close to the important shipping route between Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, so they constructed a port facility across the inlet from Kanagawa at the village of Yokohama. The Port of Yokohama was opened in 1859 to both domestic and foreign shipping traffic and so it became hub for Japan’s foreign trade. It became the first entry point to Japan for foreign influences. Today, the port has become a major commercial hub of the Greater Tokyo area.

[8]Family terms where the hierarchy can be seen in the Japanese family: chounan 長男– firstborn son; jinan 次男– second born son; sannan 三男– third born son; choujo 長女– firstborn daughter; jijo次女– second born daughter; sanjo三女– third born daughter.

[9]In January 1873, the Conscription Law was passed, requiring every able-bodied 20-year old Japanese male citizen, regardless of class, to serve a mandatory term of three-years active service, and two additional years with the second reserves. Exceptions included family heads, heirs, and some professions, or one could pay ¥270 to be exempt. This monumental law signified the beginning of the end for the samurai class. The peasant class interpreted the term for military service, ketsu-eki (“blood tax”) literally – government official taking their sons off the lands to serve in the army – and attempted to avoid service by any means necessary. Avoidance methods included maiming, self-mutilation, and local uprisings.

[10]Most of the immigrants who came to Hawaii during the government-sponsored emigration period (1885-1894) were heads of family or eldest sons. Japan’s conscription law of 1873 may have played a part by exempting emigrants as well as heirs from military service. 

To modernize its military, Japan first needed a modern Army. To facilitate this, in 1873, Japan passed a universal male conscription act and abolished the samurai class. The Conscription Law established on January 10, 1873, made military service compulsory for all men in their twenties to enlist. All able-bodied males between the ages of 17 and 40 were considered members of the national guard (kokumingun 国民軍), which would only see service in a severe national crisis, such as an attack or invasion of Japan. Samurai families found the conscription decision unpopular as did many rural families, and many young men utilized a variety of methods to avoid military service, some going as far as hiding in secluded Hokkaidō in the north. Ironically, the conscription law held several exemptions for service, including: criminals, those who could show hardship, the physically unfit, male heads of households or heirs, residence in a foreign country (up to age 32) provided that official permission to go abroad has been granted, students, government bureaucrats, and teachers. A conscript could also purchase an exemption for ¥270 JPN (equivalent to roughly $540 US), which was an enormous sum of money at the time and which restricted this privilege to the wealthy. The bulk of military duty fell on the jinan (二男, second-sons) and younger sons, mostly of impoverished rural farm families, as chounan (first-sons) were exempt from the law. Thus, the bulk of the army consisted of males from the former commoner class, such as sons of poor farmers, artisans, and tradespeople. Volunteers were largely resorted to by males of better class status.

Despite the exemption, many parents were still afraid their first-born sons would be conscripted, so they sent them abroad and made their younger sons their heirs so a family could potentially protect two sons. 

Their fears weren’t unwarranted. Japan was in a period of rapid industrialization and modernization and held trading dominance in East Asia. In 1894-1895, Japan went to war with China and won in just nine months. Japan became the first Asian country in modern times to defeat a European power when it defeated Russia in Manchuria in 1904. Then in 1910, Japan annexed Korea after three years of fighting. In 1914, Japan joins World War I on the side of Great Britain and their allies. By the late 1920s, ultra-nationalism took hold of Japan. The emphasis was one of preserving traditional Japanese values and the rejection of “Western” influence. Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931 and created a puppet-state. In 1936, Japan allied itself with Nazi Germany, and in 1937 goes to war with China by capturing Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing. In 1939, World War II breaks out in Europe. With the fall of France, Japan occupied French Indo-China. In 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor. The US and its allies declare war on Japan.

[12]It wasn’t as if my grandparents didn’t have the opportunity to return home for good – Japanese passport documents show Tsuru did travel to-and-from Japan in 1914. She traveled back to Nakajou to arrange Tetsu’s proxy marriage to Harumatsu. In 1924, Harumatsu went back to his hometown of Kinoto. He may have gone back to Japan because his father may have been ill or passed away as well as maybe to visit his two daughters, Yai and Harui, from his first marriage. So, it appears that they may’ve had the financial means to return to Japan if they wanted to but decided to settle in Hawaii permanently. 

The actual reason(s) for not returning to Japan aren’t known; it seems likely that they had come to adopt Hawaii as their new home to raise their children, the opportunities of life in America had to offer, and, at the time, the economic conditions in Japan during the 1920s was in a state of “chronic depression” – Japan was facing severe financial difficulties during the 1920s. 

[13]On February 18, 1907, Congress approved amending existing immigration legislation, allowing President Roosevelt to issue an executive order on March 14 stopping the migration of Japanese laborers from Hawaii and Mexico. In concert with the Gentlemen’s Agreement, this action ended Japanese labor migration to the US and put labor contractors out of business. The Japanese government ceased issuing passports for Japanese to go to the US mainland but continuing to authorize immigration passports for Hawaii. Both Teizou and Tsuru Ebata and Harumatsu (Hori) Ebata were among a group of 125,000 immigrants from Japan to sail to Hawaii between 1894 and 1908 as jiyuu imin (自由移民).

[14]Originally, there was data indicating that Harumatsu Hori was the second son of Masahiro Hori. Harumatsu’s older brother in Japan was believed to be a G. Hori. It appears that may be incorrect as new data indicates that Harumatsu’s father was Gisaburo Hori. So, it’s likely that Masahiro Hori was Harumatsu’s older brother (first-born son).

[15]Niigata-ken (prefecture) 新潟県, Kitakanbara-gun (district) 北蒲原郡, Kinoto-mura (village) 乙村, Ooaza (large section [of village]) 大字 Hirakida 平木田. 

[16]Tanaka, Kei (2009). Marriage as citizens privilege: Japanese picture marriage and American social justice. In Proceedings of the NASSS 2009. Nanzan Review of American Studies, History and Society II. Vol. 31 (2009): pp.131-150. Retrieved from

[17]In those days, interracial marriage was out of the question, both socially and legally.

[18]The Japanese ME Church, which stands for Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church, began in 1899 on the corner of South King Street and Punahou. Reverend H. Kihara was its first pastor, followed by Reverend Gennosuke Motokawa in 1903.

[19]The Japanese writing system consists of three different character sets: kanji and hiragana and katakana. Both hiragana and katakana consist of 46 characters; together they are called kana. Kanji are Chinese characters (several thousands) that was first introduced to Japan in the 5th-century by way of Korea. Kanji are ideograms, i.e., each character has its own meaning and corresponds to a word. By combining characters, more words can be created. Before the introduction of Chinese characters, no Japanese writing system existed. When adopting the characters, the Japanese not only introduced the characters’ original Chinese pronunciations, but also associated them with the corresponding native Japanese words and their pronunciations. As a result, most kanji can be pronounced in at least two ways and have more than one meaning.

[20]Kanji names in Japan are governed by the Japanese Ministry of Justice’s rules on kanji use in name. As of September 25, 2017, only the 863 “name kanji” or jinmeiyou kanji (人名用漢字), a supplementary list of characters that can be legally be used in registered personal names, and 2,136 “commonly used characters” or jouyou kanji (常用漢字) are permitted for use in personal names. This is intended to ensure that names can be readily written and read by people literate in Japanese. Rules also govern names considered to be inappropriate. The jouyou kanji list was announced officially by the Japanese Ministry of Education in 2010.

Many archaic characters can still be found in adults’ names, particularly those born before World War II. The legal restrictions on the use of such kanji caused inconvenience for those with such names and encouraged the proliferation of identical names, thus many recent changes have been to increase rather than reduce the number of authorized kanji for use in names. Even the use of a space in given names (to separate the given and family names) is not allowed in official documents because a space is not an allowed character. But spaces are sometimes used on business cards and in correspondence.

Namesless Angels (n.d.) Study of Japan. [Blog post]. Retrieved from The following are least commonly used kanji in family names or myouji: 土 (dotsuchi): earth; 桜 (sakura): cherry tree; 菊 (kiku): chrysanthemum; 寺 (tera): temple; 神 (kankami): deity; 堀 (hori): moat, canal; 江 (e): inlet, bay; 滝 (taki): waterfall; 泉 (izumi): spring. Note that the kanji 堀 and 江 are used in my family names.

[21]Hoffman, Michael (2009, October 11). The long road to identity. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

[22]Azuki, T. (2017, May 31). What are the 10 Most Common Japanese Surnames in Kanji and Their Origins? Goin’ Japanesque. Retrieved from Abe, Namiko (2017, June 19). Top 20 Japanese Surnames. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from Ten most common Japanese family names or myouji as of June 2017: 1) Satou; 2) Suzuki; 3) Takahashi; 4) Tanaka; 5) Watanabe or Watabe; 6) Itou; 7) Yamamoto; 8) Nakamura; 9) Kobayashi; 10) Katou. 

The Japan Times (2009, October 11). Most common Japanese family names by prefecture. Life. Retrieved from The five most common names in Niigata Prefecture: Satou, Watanabe, Kobayashi, Takahashi, and Suzuki. 

Shimabukuro, James (2017, March 5). Liuchiuan. [Blog post]. Retrieved from The five most common surnames in Okinawa Prefecture: Chinen 知念, Higa 比嘉, Shimabukuro 島袋, Kaneshiro 金城, Oshiro 大城, Miyagi 宮城 and Arakaki 新垣 are common in Okinawa but not in other parts of Japan; this is mainly due to differences between the language and culture of Yamato people and Okinawans.

[23]Hoffman, Michael (2009, October 11). The long road to identity. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

[24]Sinosplice (n.d.). The Top 100 Chinese Surnames. Retrieved from

[25]Ghosh, Palash (2013, November 15). Kim, Park and Lee: Why Do Koreans Have So Few Surname. International Business Times. Retrieved from

[26]In most Asian countries, such as Japan, China, South Korea Japanese names, the family name (surname) comes first, followed by the given name. The reason is that greater importance is placed on the family over the individual. Also, one’s identity is tied to the family or clan one belonged to and placed less emphasis on individuality. Meanwhile, in Western countries, a person’s given name comes first, followed by the family name. Western countries place greater value on individuality over the family.

[27]In Hawaii, I grew up using the word obake (お化け) due to the influence of the large Japanese immigrant population in the islands. The word obake made its way into the dialect of the local people and many Japanese stories have made its way into the local ghost folklore.

[28]Contrary to what one would expect, the idea of a woman taking on her husband’s family name isn’t a centuries-old tradition in Japan, but one established during the Meiji Restoration. Before 1868, it was customary for a woman to maintain her family name after marriage. But it was recognized in a government directive in 1871 that in cases where she inherits property from her husband, she’ll be able to take on his family name.

[29]The original koseki (戸籍) was introduced in the 6th-century and later modernized in 1872 when it became mandatory for all citizens to have a family name as well as a given name. Only Japanese citizens may be registered in a koseki because it served as certificates of citizenship. Non-Japanese may be noted where required, such as being the spouse of a Japanese citizen or the parent of a Japanese offspring but aren’t listed in the same fashion as Japanese spouses or parents. The koseki functions as birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage licenses, and based on family, not individuals. For married couples, only one family name may appear in the koseki, which means that one person must abandon his or her family name when he or she marries. As recently as December 2015, Japan’s Supreme Court continues to uphold a legal provision forcing married couples to use the same family name. It’s usually the woman who must abandon her family name. 

[30]In Japan it’s customary for the chounan(長男) or eldest son to live with his parents and take over managing the affairs of the family. He has the responsibility to care for his aging parents and provide direction for the other family members. When he marries, his wife and children are also included in the household of his parents.

[31]It’s not unusual for a man with proven capabilities to be a youshiengumi (養子縁組, “adopted as an heir”) when the eldest son, the natural heir-to-be, proves to be incapable of taking over as the head of household or business or when his own family has disowned the son. In the absence of a suitable male blood heir, it’s common for families to pass on their family line for a mokuyoushi (婿養子), “adopting a son-in-law,” or a nyuufuyoushi (入夫養, “adopting a husband,” or a fuufuyoushi (夫婦養子, “adopting a married couple,” or even a futsuuyoushi (普通養子, “adopted a son.” A futsuuyoushi is a regular adoption (official adoption with the consent of both parties and without dissolving the relationship with the biological parents).

[32]In China, although the married son-in-law gives up his family name and takes that of his wife, only his second son belongs to the mother’s line; any children (both son and daughters) retain the original family name of the father. In Taiwan, the married son-in-law even keeps his “maiden” name rather than changing his family name at marriage.

[33]There’s evidence that the practice of mukoyoushi began as early as the 1200s within the sect of Buddhism known as the Pure Land Sect but became widely used by the Edo Period. 

[34]Japan Info (2015, December 11). Omiai: The Culture of Arranged Marriage in Japan. Retrieved from

[35]Brinded, Lianna (2017, January 12). 98% of All Japanese Adoptions Are Employers Adopting The Adult Men Of Their Staff, Not Children. The Independent. Retrieved from

[36]Finnigan, Michael (2017, March 28). Infographic: Japanese family businesses. campdenFB. Retrieved from

[37]Finnigan, Michael (2017, March 28). Infographic: Japanese family businesses. CampdenFB. Retrieved from

[38]Schwartz, Hendrick & Bergfeld, Marc-Michael (2017, May 9). What’s Japan’s Over 1,000-Year-Old Family Owned Businesses Can Teach. (Insights) Munich Business School. Retrieved from

[39]More than 90% of Japanese companies are family-owned. Top 10 oldest companies in Japan: 10) Hotei Saken (~1184); 9) Sudo Honke (1141); 8) Shumiya Shinbutsuguten Co. (1024); 7) Ichimojiya Wasuke (10000; 6) Nakamura Shaji (970); 5) Tanaka Iga (885); 4) Hoshi Ryokan (718; 46th-generation); 3) Koman (717); 2) Keiunkan (705); 1) Kongo Gumi (578; 40thgeneration).

[40]Oi, Mariko (2012, September 19). Adult adoptions: Keeping Japan’s family firms alive. BBC Magazine. Retrieved from

[41]Tamkin, Emily (2014, October 20). Keeping it in the family: Why are so many of the world’s oldest companies in Japan? Slate. Retrieved from

[42]Suzuki Motor Corporation: Michio Suzuki set up the Suzuki Loom Works during a silk boom in 1909. Suzuki is now the 9th largest carmaker in the world. The CEO, Osamu Suzuki, is the fourth adopted son to run the company.

[43]Teizou and Tsuru raised eight children (5 sons, 3 daughters, 2 unknown): Isami (Roy), Kiyoshi (Stanley), Takashi (Kenneth), Sakiko (Eleanor), Katsumi (Jack), Chieko (Carol), Toshie (Marion), Yoshiki, and two unknown siblings who died at age 26 (Riye Hori?) and 3 (Yai or Harui Hori?). Yoshiki died in 1944 at the age of 19. 

[44]Jinmeiyou kanji (人名用漢字) are the 861 Chinese characters that can be used legally in registered personal or first names in Japan. The kanji 名can be pronounced namei or myou and means “name,” and 字 can be pronounced azana(“nickname”) or ji (“character”). The kanji 苗 can be pronouncednaeand means “seedling.”

[45]Suzuki, Mami (2014, September 10). A long history of Japanese names: Where did all these names come from? [Blog post]. Tofogu, LLC. Retrieved from

[46]Shizouku means “clan” or “family”: 氏 shi (family name; clan) and 族 zouku (tribe; family). The kanji 氏 is also pronounced uji (family name; lineage; birth). 

[47]The Kansai region (Kansai-chihou 関西地方) lies in the southern-central region of Japan’s main island of Honshuu. The region includes the prefectures of Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Shiga, sometimes Fukui, Tokushima, and Tottori. The region is a cultural center and the historical heart of Japan — the cities of Osaka and Kyoto forms the core of the region.

[48]Sei or kabane (姓) was a title born by hereditary right or as a privilege granted by the emperor. There weren’t many in number and (for the most part) the same as family names.

[49]Such household registers existed at the local level for hundreds of years, being compiled originally for levying rice taxes. Everyone in the family registered as a household (ie) under a family head (koshu). Local municipal offices held the registers, with a copy at the regional office of the Ministry of Justice; they provided proof of a person’s status, listing information such as birth, death, adoption, marriage, and divorce. When a woman married, a line was drawn through her name in her natal family register and entered her husband’s. She, therefore, left her own family and became part of her husband’s both legally and practically.

[50]The Taira clan was a major clan of samurai, extremely skilled in the art of jujitsu in historical Japan. Along with the Minamoto, Taira was a hereditary clan name bestowed by the emperors of the Heian Period to certain ex-members of the imperial family when they became subjects. The Taira clan is often referred to as Heishi (literally “Taira clan”) or Heike (literally “House of Taira”), using the character’s Chinese reading hei. The Taira were one of the four prominent clans that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian Period – the others were the Fujiwara clan, the Tachibana clan, and the Minamoto clan.

[51]Suzuki, Mami (2014, September 10). A Long History of Japanese Names: Where Did All These Names Come From? [Blog post]. Tofugu. Retrieved from

[52]Hoffman, Michael. (2009, October 11). Fake names were to the fore in many a rise from humblest to highest. The Japan Times Online. Retrieved from

[53]Asahina Yoshihide probably was a historical figure. He appears in literature and in kabuki as a somewhat superhuman legendary character and whose mother was the renowned 12th-century female warrior Tomoe Gozen (1157-1247), known for her bravery and strength. Asahina supposedly had superhuman strength which he used to accomplish many stunning feats. 

[54]Hoffman, Michael. (2009, October 11). Fake names were to the fore in many a rise from humblest to highest. The Japan Times Online. Retrieved from

[55]In truth, the Family Registration Act was put into force in 1871 to enable the government to mobilize soldiers. The Conscription Act of 1873 was part of a sweeping military reform, replacing the independent samurai armies of the feudal domains with a national conscript army.

[56]Contrary to what one would expect, the idea of a woman taking on her husband’s family name isn’t a centuries old tradition in Japan, but one established during the Meiji Restoration. Before 1868, it was customary for a woman to maintain her family name after marriage. But, a government directive in 1871 recognized that in cases where she inherits property from her husband, she had to take on his family name.

[57]In feudal Japan, the lowest social class were the commoners. There were three classes of commoners: farmers/peasants, artisans and then merchants. Artisans and merchants were lower in social class to farmers because farmers/peasants worked the agricultural fields and produced Japan’s food in which the other classes were dependent. The lowest social class of the Edo period caste system belonged to the Ainuzoku (アイヌ族) (Ainu race; the indigenous people of Japan), Eta (穢多) (people whose work comprised of handling dead human bodies or animal carcasses like executioners, butchers and tanners), Hinin (非人) (convicted criminals, ex-convicts or vagrants) and Prostitutes.

[58]Abe, Namiko (2017, June 19). Top 20 Japanese Surnames. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from

[59]Suzuki, Mami (2014, September 24). The Japanese Name Satou and It’s Rise to #1. [Blog post]. Tofogu, LLC. Retrieved from

[60]Ruide, Koh (2017, July18). Gov’t statistics reveal most common Japanese surnames; Satou No. 1. Japan Today. Retrieved from Satou, Itou, and Katou are among the top ten most common Japanesemyoujiand among the top 100 myouji.

[61]Japan Today (2012, November 2). 5 most common Japanese surnames are Satō, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka and Watanabe. Retrieved from

[62]The location of Nakajou is at longitude 139.367655 and latitude 37.997655. The location of Niigata City is at longitude 139.027655 and latitude 37.907644. The distance between Nakajou and Niigata City is about 35km or 22-miles. Nakajou is on the east-side of Niigata City.

[63]There was a convenient source to validate which kanji for batato use – my judo obi or belt. My father had my family name embroidered on my obi when I made the rank of first-degree black belt (shodan初段) and second-degree black belt (nidan 二段). As a result, I was able to validate that my father used the kanji 江端 for Ebata, which means “edge of the bay.”

[64]There are three different ways to write “hori” (ほり): 堀 (ditch; moat; canal), 濠 (trench; dugout; air raid shelter) and 壕 (moat; ditch; canal; Australia).

[65]Kinoto-mura is located at latitude 38.1167° and longitude 139.4000°. The village of Kinoto is just 2.5 miles away (4 km) from Nakajou-chou.

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