In ascending order, the most common Japanese surnames today:
Persons with name: 980,000
Meaning: The first kanji, sai 斉, can be used to refer to a meal taken by monks and priests, but in broader terms it conveys an image of purity and divine worship. The second character, tō 藤 (pronounced with a long ‘oh’) can also be read as “fuji”, and means wisteria. The inclusion of this character suggests possible historical connections with the Fujiwara clan, and is found in a large number of Japanese family names, though how many of said families had genuine attachments to the group is debatable.
You may have heard of: Yuki Saito, the Yokohama-born actress, essayist, author, devout Mormon and star of numerous movies and a bevy of Japanese TV dramas.
Persons with name: 1,019,000
Meaning: “Small forest”, using the kanji small 小 and woods/forest 林 (pronounced ‘hayashi’ on its own), the name may refer to the region its owner was from.
You may have heard of: 35-year-old Takeru Kobayashi, holder of four Guinness World Records for competitive eating.
Persons with name: 1,059,000
Meaning: Literally ‘inside’ or ‘middle’ (naka 中), followed by village (mura 村). A person from the middle village, perhaps?
You may have heard of: Professional footballer Shunsuke Nakamura, who was the first Asian player to score a goal in the UEFA Champions League.
Persons with name: 1,077,000
Meaning: Composed of the characters mountain (yama 山) and base/origin (moto 本), this name is second only to Yamada (山田) for being nice, easy kanji to write, saving elementary school kids blessed with the name the hassle of learning kanji characters that they otherwise wouldn’t meet for years.
You may have heard of: Isoraku Yamamoto, the Marshall Admiral and commander-in-chief during the beginning of the Pacific War. Yamamoto went down in history for being the man ultimately responsible for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Persons with name: 1,080,000
Meaning: The first kanji character, 伊 is also used to denote Italy, but historically speaking 伊 literally means ‘this’ or ‘that one’. Coupled with the aforementioned kanji for wisteria, 藤, we might again suggest that the name suggests links to the Fujiwara clan, however tenuous. The name is both written and pronounced differently to ito 糸 (which has a short ‘o’ sound, and means ‘thread’), so be sure to clearly pronounce that long “oh” at the end.
You may have heard of: Actor and anime voice actor Atsushi Ito, who played the nerdy male lead in popular TV drama “Densha Otoko.” Or perhaps you spotted 28-year-old Hanae Ito competing as a backstroke swimmer in the London 2012 Olympic Games?
Persons with name: 1,134,000
Written: 渡辺 (sometimes 渡邊)
Meaning: To cross or pass over 渡, and “area” or “border” 辺.
You may have heard of: Ken Watanabe, the go-to guy recently for seemingly every major role that calls for a Japanese actor. Watanabe has appeared in dozens of Western films including “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Batman Begins” and “Inception.” Look out for him in the U.S. reboot movie “Godzilla,” too.
Persons with name: 1,336,000
Meaning: Literally “rice field” 田 and “middle/in” 中, the name most likely comes from those who owned or worked the “middle field” in any given town or village, and has stuck around ever since. Another nice, easy name to write, Jin Tanaka is also a popular placeholder name for used for things like credit card ads or shady people checking into hotels where Westerners would scrawl John Smith or Jane Doe.
You may have heard of: Tomoyuki Tanaka, the movie producer who brought us none other than the original “Godzilla.”
People with name: 1,416,000
Meaning: “Tall/high” 高 and “bridge” 橋 suggests that perhaps the families who originally chose this name lived in an area beyond a deep valley crossed by long bridge. There again maybe they were going for something a little more symbolic rather than literal?
You may have heard of: the now extremely wealthy creator of such works as Inu Yasha and Ranma 1/2, Rumiko Takahashi.
People with name: 1,707,000
Meaning: “Bell tree”. Suzurin 鈴 is a small round bell, the kind of which you might put on a cat’s collar. Why they’re being tied to trees 木 though, we’re not sure.
You may have heard of: New York Yankees’ outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
Number of people with name: 1,928,000
Meaning: Alongside the ever-popular “tō” 藤, we find sa 佐, meaning “to assist”. Do todays Satōs descend from those with close ties to the once great clan, or did they just love the way it sounded and the image it conveyed? We may never know.