What’s in a Name? Sometimes, Confusion.

I’m continuing my “fact from fiction” series today with a look at samurai naming conventions and why they caused me a little trouble in CLAWS OF THE CAT.

Most samurai received and used several names in the course of a lifetime.

The childhood name was given at birth and used until the samurai completed his genpuku, the coming-of-age ceremony during which a samurai male received his swords and his adult name.

In addition, samurai children often answered to various nicknames, either personal (like the ones we use for our children now) or numeric and based on the child’s age and rank within the family.

13H08 Samurai on roof

The samurai’s adult name had its own conventions. Male samurai names normally consisted of two (occasionally three) written characters, at least one of which was the same as a character in the name of the samurai’s father.

For example, a man named “Mitsuhide” might name his son “Hideyoshi” or “Yoshihide” – or even “Yoshimitsu.”

When a samurai had multiple sons, each one would usually share the identical character from the father’s name, resulting in a plethora of similar-sounding names within the clan.

This issue came home to rest in my first Shinobi Mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT, which involves a murdered samurai. The dead man has a brother, a daughter, and a son, and though I did my best to keep the names as distinct as possible, I also didn’t want to breach the history by using names that didn’t follow convention. As a result, I ended up with:

  • Hideyoshi, the murdered samurai.
  • Hidetaro, the older brother of Hideyoshi.
  • and Hideyoshi’s children, Nobuhide (a son) and Yoshiko (a daughter – and the easiest one to name because “Yoshiko” translates simply, “the child of Yoshi”).

Had Hideyoshi not been dead before the novel started, the naming convention would have caused no end of grief. As it stands, it still requires a little attention to keep them straight. While I don’t regret the choice of a family story to lead the series, or the choices I made for the various characters’ names, it’s definitely an issue I will keep in mind when plotting future installments.

Wherever possible, I try to keep my characters’ names distinct and dissimilar, both from one another and from characters who appeared in previous books. In fact, I have a “naming chart” that helps me track the names I’ve used, the characters who have them “claimed,” and whether those characters are alive or dead (or both, depending on the book). I organize it alphabetically, to help avoid alphabetical duplications and also ensure a decent “spread” of names in every succeeding volume.

In addition to the names I’ve mentioned, a samurai might also change his name if a lord or powerful samurai decided to “gift” him a character from the lord’s own name or title. This happened either as a reward (most often for service in battle) or when clans allied by marriage.

Finally, a samurai who retired from warfare and joined a monastery (as many of them did in their later years) might cast off his warrior name along with his swords and adopt a Buddhist name. Buddhist monks adopted names in much the way many Jesuits do — relinquishing their worldly names in favor of religious ones at the time they take their vows. Samurai who survived to old age often opted to spend their twilight years in more peaceful company that that which characterized their bloody youths. Changing their names was a sign of commitment to a more peaceful way.

Would you have trouble remembering all those names, for yourself as well as all of your family members?

4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Sometimes, Confusion.

  • August 9, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Fascinating! I knew some of this instinctively while studying Japanese history (the similarity in names is inescapable) but it’s interesting that they handed down one character from their name to each child! I love it!

    I also had some naming issues in my book that I never resolved. Miko and Mariko being the closest two names that I just couldn’t change. I’m attached to them now. Thankfully they’re in different generations. I also kept Koichi (father) and Yoichi (son) which sticks with the samurai naming convention 🙂

    • August 11, 2013 at 10:24 pm

      It’s funny how attached we become to our characters and their names, isn’t it? I’m hopeful it didn’t turn out too confusing in CLAWS, because I definitely like the way the family relationships play into the plot, at least in Book 1. Book 2 moves on to the shogunate, so at least I had a little more freedom with naming there!

  • August 9, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Early medieval Europeans have similar habits that can confuse modern readers. Charlemagne’s family recycled the names of Charles, Pepin, and Louis. The Saxons also had naming conventions where part of the father’s name was passed down to his child. Usually they had one name for life. But Charles the Great did have one of his sons renamed, thus giving us two sons named Pepin.

    • August 11, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      It’s a challenge, for sure. We’re always working on walking the line between historical accuracy and confusion. It’s interesting to hear that other historical eras had similar issues.

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