Translating foreign words and names in Japanese

Foreign words, that have been adopted into Japanese, and foreign names are normally transliterated into Japanese using the katakana writing system. A foreign word or name, when transliterated into katakana is often forced (using several unwritten rules) to fit into Japanese sounds. During the transliteration process, the foreign word undergoes many radical changes and often become unrecognisable to a native speaker of the language from which the word was originally derived. Below are examples of foreign words transliterated into katakana (with romaji - Roman letters -  in brackets):

London ロンドン (rondon)
Africa アフリカ (afurika)
Soccer サッカー (sakka)
Necktie ネクタイ (nekutai)

Below are some examples of foreign names and how they are transformed in Japanese:

Peter ピーター (piitaa)
Michael マイケル (maikeru)
David デビッド (debiddo)
Kate ケイト (keito)
Elizabeth エリザベス (erizabesu)

A list of basic pronunciations of Roman letters in Japanese is provided below for reference.

a = 'a' of father
i  =  ea' of eat
u = 'oo' of boot
e = 'e' of end
o = 'o' of lord
k = as in kit
g = as in good
s = as in sue
sh = as in sheep
z = as in zoo
j = as in jam
t = as in time
ch = as in chicken
ts = as in boots
d = as in doe
n = as in no
h = as in hot
f = as in who
m = as in march
ya = as in yard
r = between 'l' of loom and 'r' of room
w = as in wash

Katakana/Hiragana/Romaji Name Translator

Kanji Zone's Katakana/Hiragana/Romaji Name Translator translates names in two steps.  In Step 1 the translator breaks up the name into syllables, “adjusting” the syllables so that they fit into sounds found in Japanese. Then in Step 2 it allocates the katakana/hiragana/romaji that match the sounds of the syllables created in step 1.

Kanji Name Translator

Japanese names are generally written in kanji and, although foreign names would normally be written in katakana, it is also possible to translate non-Japanese names into kanji. Kanji Zone's Kanji Name Translator translates names in two steps. In step 1 it breaks up the name into syllables, “adjusting” the syllables so that they fit into sounds found in Japanese. Then, in step 2 the Kanji Name Translator will allocate kanji which have readings that match the sounds of each syllable. Kanji are selected from our kanji database (see below).

The majority of kanji have more than one way of being read. The “On” (Chinese) reading(s) are derived from an approximation to the Chinese sound when the kanji was first introduced into Japan from China. The “Kun” reading(s), the Japanese reading, is based on the pronunciation of the Japanese word. A third type of reading, "Nanori" are readings found specifically in names. Each kanji can have several "On", "Kun" or "Nanori" readings. Japanese names can use either the “On”, the “Kun” or the "Nanori" readings of a kanji solely or in combination with other kanji.

Examples of kanji in Japanese names:

1. The kanji  美 used in the Japanese name Miki (美紀) is read using the “On” reading “mi”. (The “Kun” reading of 美 is “utsuku” as in the Japanese word for beauty “utsukushi”)
2. The kanji  菊 used in the Japanese name Kiku (菊) is read using the “Kun” reading. (Kiku is the Japanese word for chrysanthemum.)
3. The kanji  恵 (meaning blessing or favor) used in the Japanese name Satoshi (恵) is read using its"Nanori" reading.

There are many different kanji, each representing different words, which have the same pronunciation/reading. Therefore, the majority of names may be written with a variety of kanji combinations. For example the Japanese name 'Aki' can be written in at least four different ways. The four variations have radically different meanings:

Aki 晶 "sparkle"
Aki 明 "bright"
Aki 秋 "Autumn"
Aki 亜希 from 亜 (a) "Asia" combined with 希 (ki) "hope"

When choosing kanji for a child's name in Japan, a combination of kanji with positive meanings would normally be selected. In addition, the total number of strokes of the kanji, including the kanji of the child’s surname, is taken into consideration.

When Kanji Zone's Kanji Name Translator is translating a name into kanji, where possible it will offer a selection of kanji combinations for a single name. You will then be able to select your preferred kanji based on its meaning and the way it looks. Kanji Zone's Kanji Name Translator has been programmed to give preference first to kanji that are commonly used in Japanese names, secondly to kanji that have positive meanings, thirdly to kanji with neutral meanings and finally kanji with negative meanings. Please note, the interpretation of meanings is very subjective and will differ from person to person.

Kanji Zone's Kanji database

Kanji Zone's Kanji Name Translator selects kanji from the Jouyou and Jinmeiyou kanji lists. The Jouyou or "General Use" kanji list was published in 1981 by the Japanese Ministry of Education and is felt to represent the commonest and most important kanji in everyday use today. The list comprises 1945 kanji characters and Japanese children have to learn all Jouyou kanji by the time they leave high school. The Jinmeiyou or “people name use” kanji are kanji, additional to the Jouyou kanji, which have been officially approved for the writing of names. As of 23 April 2008 the Jinmeiyou list comprised 983 kanji. Many of the Jinmeiyou kanji are used in Japanese names for their auspicious significance.