A child is born

"Why do so many Japanese women have given names ending in -ko?" is a question that... actually you don't hear asked that much any more, because names ending in -ko are out of fashion. But for a good few decades in the middle of the 20th century, such names were very popular, to the extent that in any given class of schoolchildren you would expect more female students with names ending in -ko than without.

Now, this wasn't always the case. A century before that, barely anyone had names ending in -ko. So, even from a historical perspective, "What happened?" remains a valid question.

"Ko" no tsuku namae no tanjō 「子」のつく名前の誕生 ("The birth of names ending in ko"), by Hashimoto Junji 橋本淳治 and Itō Nobuhiko 井藤伸比古 is the record of an amateur primary-source research attempt to answer this question (guided by non-amateur Itakura Kiyonobu 板倉聖宣). I'll tell you up front that they don't actually identify a smoking gun, but it was an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Probably the most intriguing part of the story is the sheer fluidity of names well into post-Meiji Restoration times. -Ko was originally a suffix applied out of respect, originally reserved mainly for the nobility. This kind of thinking apparently persisted into the Showa period at least; the authors share several anecdotes about people from older generations who used to call their wives X-ko even though their "real" names were actually just X, books on polite correspondence advising the addition of -ko, and so on. But at the same time, this overlapped with a slightly different understanding of -ko that emerged later: that it was part of the name, not an appended honorific.

Obviously, it was the latter that led to -ko names qua names becoming overwhelmingly popular among the general population. But it's hard to see how this could happen if the understanding of -ko as an honorific was similar to the understanding of, say, -san today. So either the general population was completely ignorant about the use of -ko among the nobility, and reanalyzed it as part of the name rather than as an honorific, or the very distinction between name and honorific was less clear back then.

Now, it wasn't that the common folk had no honorifics at all — they used the O-X-san pattern. So it seems unlikely to me that they just didn't understand what the noble -ko was doing. Which makes the second option more likely, in my opinion.

One interesting fact the authors dig up is that if you look at the names of female characters in popular fiction, there is a distinct boom in -ko names in 1899, the year after the monster hit novel Hototogisu ("The Cuckoo") introduced its heroine Namiko to the world. The percentage of fictional female names ending in -ko jumped from 5% in 1898 to almost 10% the following year, and steadily increased after that until it was at nearly 30% by 1910. The increase in real-life names ending in -ko apparently began around the turn of the century.

The authors also find two essays published around the same time saying, in effect, "Why shouldn't the common people name their daughters X-ko? I think it's lovely." In other words, mass media may well have played the decisive role in promulgating -ko names among the people of Japan, by including them both explicitly and implicitly in the the post-Meiji national identity that the media shaped.

Popularity factor: 10


That's interesting. I'd noticed there was an excess of -ko names in Western film & tv, but I'd thought it just a terrible cliche that was part of the cookie-cutter Japanese characters, and not something more. Certainly plausible that the wider reach of media played a substantial part in the influence, when you consider in the West, the popularity of actors or their roles often spawned (and still do) trends in baby names.


"names ending in -ko are out of fashion": You astonish me! Having grown up in Japan in the '50s and early '60s, I think of them as completely standard, and in fact am always a little surprised when I see a woman's name that doesn't end in -ko.


languagehat: More common girls' names these days include Rika, Mirai, Hikari, Nano, Soutaiseiriron... (just kidding about that last one) (hopefully)


Yep -- I don't think there is a single little girl (out of dozens) in my son's preschool whose name ends in "-ko".


Is "-mi" dead too? Always liked the sound of "-mi".


I've been helping to transcribe a lot of Japanese-only late Meiji to early Showa gravestones in a Japanese cemetery in Honolulu that was founded in 1908. It's interesting that most of the women's given names (wives and daughters) are written in katakana only. (Lot less headache to transcribe than all the men's name-kanji, esp. for given names!) Some women's names end in -ko during the 1910s, but lots more end in -e (like Harue) and -yo (Chiyo, Masayo). One young eldest son who died young was named Hatsumi 初美. (I couldn't find any other male so named when I googled it, but lots of females.) There were lots of child burials in the early days, and adults, too, before there was a local crematory.


Final "mi" is healthier than "ko" but still pretty rare. Actually generally speaking parents seem to prefer non-traditional names these days, especially for girls. There's a whole word to disparage the practice: "kira-kira neemu" ("twinkling name"). The main complaint is that you can't figure out the pronunciation from the kanji.

Joel: that sounds like a really interesting project! It's always striking to me to see a family tree going back into the 19th century and see guys with wonderful names like 義左衛門 but their wives are called, like, トメ. (Of course, go back any further and the women's names might not be recorded at all.)


What about the Edo-period pattern of female names prefixed with O- (Oharu, Okiku, etc.)? Is there any study of how widespread this pattern was, and when and why it disappeared?

Regarding more recent trends in female names, the first-person protagonist of Wataya Risa's <i>Kawaisō da ne?</i> かわいそうだね? is called Jurie 樹里恵; she isn't particularly happy with the name her parents gave her, but she consoles herself with the thought that at least it isn't as bad as that of her sister Meari 芽亜里. (Wataya Risa 綿矢りさ [!] was born in 1984.)


I've been spending a lot of time in O'Neill's Japanese Names, where the most impressive name I've found is 四万四五右衛門, pronounced Yomoshigo_emon, a name that has fewer syllables (or moras) than kanji. I've come across a lot of old-timey Eisaburo and Heihachiro type names, and an amazing number of men's names ending in -kichi, but not many other -(u)emon or -zaemon names. Most of the old names are from Yamaguchi (Oshima, Iwakuni, Yanai districts), Hiroshima (Saeki, Aki districts), and Fukuoka prefectures.


I'm not sure about the distribution of O-X-san names, but I know that the pattern usually wasn't applied to names of three syllables, only three ("Haru" would become "O-Haru-san" but "Harue" would not), so my guess is that it faded out naturally once everyone's name was two morae + "ko".

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