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How To Write Names In Japanese - Part 2

This article first appeared in the August issue of Martial Arts Insider Magazine

[Part 1] [Part 2]

Translating names to Japanese, in most cases, should be done using the katakana syllabary. There are several cases though where a translation to kanji may be preferable. One example given in the first part of this article was for use in a personal seal.

kanji was adopted from Chinese characters in the fourth century AD with kanji literally means "Chinese Characters." While kanji and today’s Chinese writing system have many similarities, it must be emphasized that the reading is completely different and the usage are often quite different. This means that using a Chinese translation for a name would not be the same as a Japanese translation.

Chinese characters originated as a pictographic or ideographic way to represent words. That is, like Egyptian hieroglyphics Chinese characters started as pictures to represent words and concepts. Over the years these were abstracted and simplified, but their origins as pictures remains.

As mentioned in the first part of this article, there are four ways to translate names into Japanese:

1. Phonetic Translation - katakana
2. Phonetic Translation - hiragana
3. Phonetic Translation - kanji
4. Literal Translation - kanji

In the first part of this article we discussed phonetic translations to kana (which refers jointly to katakana and hiragana). In this second part of the article we will discuss methods for phonetic and literal translations to kanji.

Phonetic Translation - kanji

A Phonetic translation maintains the pronunciation of the name but assigns a new meaning to the name. In general, phonetic translations work best when the name has one to three syllables.

An excellent example is the name Oscar which has a meaning of “spear of the gods” from Old English. In Japanese Oscar would be osuka- which can be translated phonetically to kanji as osuka  meaning “man of fire.”


Phonetic Osuka 雄火 Man of Fire



Note that the vowel elongation symbol (enchou fugou) does not exist with kanji and so cannot be used when a name is translated to kanji.

An example of a name that does not work well as a phonetic translation to kanji is Adriana which has four syllables and in Romaji is eidorianna. At best this can be translated to five kanji which is quite long for a name. It is also difficult to find a consistent and meaningful translation for such a long name.

When a name translates to over three kanji, one should consider a nickname or an abbreviation. For Adriana the nickname Adrie would be eidori in Romaji and would be two or three kanji which is more suitable for a phonetic translation.

As a further example, Timothy would be teimoshi- which is rather long at three characters, but Tim could be translated as teimu which for a gardener meaning Garden Dream would work nicely.


Phonetic Teimu 庭夢 Garden Dream



Katakana has been modified over the years specifically to make it easier to transcribe non-Japanese names and words into Japanese. The result has been that there are standard ways to translate names to Katakana that cannot be translated to kanji. This is because Katakana has evolved to represent sounds that are simply not found in the Japanese language.

One example, as previously mentioned, is the elongated vowel symbol which looks like a horizontal line when writing horizontally or a vertical line when writing vertically. There is no equivalent for this in kanji and it simply cannot be represented. This is why one will see “osuka-“ as a Romaji representation for a Katakana translation but will see osuka for a kanji translation.

Another example is the name Jennifer. Jennifer is written as jenifa- in Romaji. However, there are no kanji for je and fa. Notice that je is created by using ji and the small e. Likewise fa is created by using fu and the small a. In kanji these would be represented by not using the small characters but rather their actual size counterparts. And so when using kanji, je would be jie and fa would be fua.


jie fa fua


ジエ ファ フア

So Jennifer in Katakana would be jenifa- ジェニファー and in kanji would jienifua ジエニフア. The kanji version is now five characters. This is very long for a first name (most Japanese first and names are two characters each).

A solution as mentioned previously might be to use the nickname Jenny which would be three kanji.



Another solution would be to use a literal translation which I describe in the next section. There are several origins suggested for Jennifer with the two most common being “Pure” and “White-Wave”. Both make excellent translations and preserve the original meaning of the name.

Another difficulty with a phonetic translation to kanji can be the fact that there may be a poor selection of kanji that have the right sound. That is, one or more kanji may exist with the right sound, but the meanings are less than acceptable. Two examples that are common in non-Japanese names, but have very few options are the single syllables he in Helen and ra as in Randy. With he the solution is to substitute hei which sounds similar and offers some kanji with appropriate meanings.

As a further example, Petra is a beautiful sounding and very feminine name. With a little background in Greek, however one knows that the name means rock which is iwa in Japanese. A phonetic translation would be petora and could be translated to mean Gentle Tiger 平虎 or Smooth Silk 平十羅.


The example Petra brings up a final interesting point on phonetic translations. There are no kanji that by itself reads pe. In fact of the five or so kanji that start with a “p”, only one is a native word. In this example we have use “hei” which is often used in names and is read pei at the end of the name when written after an ‘n’ or the sokuon, the small tsu. Two common examples of these names are Kanpei 寛平 and Ippei 一平.

While many times it is possible to create a suitable phonetic translation, there are cases when one must either stretch the rules or use an alternative method of translation such as a literal translation to kanji.

Literal Translation - kanji

Literal translations maintain the meaning of the name but assigns a new pronunciation. A literal translation to kanji may be selected when the meaning of the name is important or when a phonetic translation simply cannot work.

As an example, the name Liberty is riba-ti in Romaji which is リバーティ in Katakana. A phonetic translation to kanji can be done which would be three characters. However, the original meaning of the name would be lost. In cases where the meaning of the name is important, the meaning can be preserved by using a literal translation. Here Liberty would be translated as 自由 preserving the meaning which is read as jiyuu.



Other examples of names that may be more suitably translated to Japanese using a literal translation are as follows:

Literal Translations to kanji

Amber kohaku 琥珀
Fawn kojika 小鹿
Forrest shinrin 森林
Hunter kariudo 狩人
Ruby kougyoku 紅玉
Star Hoshi

Another example of when one might select a literal translation may be for artistic reasons. The name Joy is a short and beautiful name. This can be rendered phonetically as 上位 which is read joui and means superior. Or it can be rendered literally as a meaning Joy and is pronounced yorokobi.


From the example one can see a visual similarity between Joy in English and in kanji.

There are several cases where literal translations cannot be done. The most common case is when a name’s meaning is not known. The meaning of several ancient names have been lost and for these there is no recourse. In the beginning of this article I used Adriana as an example. Adriana means “From Adria” which is a place name and without a meaning the name cannot be suitably translated.

Another case when names cannot be translated is when the word or concept is either too foreign to Japanese or may not be appropriate. Calvin for some reason means Bald which some may not consider worthy of preserving in a name translation.  Another example is Brody which means Ditch.

As examples of names that are foreign are Lyndon (from the Linden tree) and Ashley (from the Ash tree) which may be specialized names,  but no common names in Japanese.

For a literal translation to Japanese one must first determine the appropriate meaning for the name. This is a study in and of itself and there are several excellent books and on-line resources. Once one has the meaning then a good Japanese dictionary is a must. The better the dictionary the more likely the meaning will be unambiguous and in common usage.


To translate a name to Japanese all that is needed is the Kana charts, a kanji dictionary, or a Japanese dictionary. With these tools a suitable translation can be found. However, if you do the translation yourself it is always a good idea to get feedback from a native speaker.

As an example of what can go wrong, two cases come to mind. One person wanted Casanova translated as Lover. Using a literal translation from a dictionary, the version of lover that this person selected was aijin which means lover as in a mistress. Certainly this was not the intended meaning.

In a second example the person wanted a name that meant heaven translated literally. To do this they had selected an archaic reading of a modern kanji. And as this ancient meaning is no longer taught, Japanese who read the translation read it as “to dry out”.

Always verify information and always get a second opinion.

[Part 1] [Part 2]


Suggested Resources:


Takase Studios - Names in Japanese is great for phonetic translations to katakana and literal translations to kanji.

Jeffrey's Japanese<->English Dictionary Server is a good Japanese/English and kanji dictionary.

Jim Breen’s WWWJNAMES Server is great for translating names from romaji to katakana.


The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary

by John H. Haig, Andrew N. Nelson

An excellent reference book for looking up kanji by radicals or pronunciation.



Kanji & Kana : A Handbook of the Japanese Writing System
by Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn

An excellent book for the study of Joyo kanji.



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