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Samurai Names



During the course of his life, the samurai could expect to be known by a series of names. Sometimes confounding to the historian, this tradition occasionally produced a myriad number of tags for a single well-known samurai. Each name carried with it a certain significance, as we will see in the following, brief overview of this topic. As the samurai of the 15th to 16th Century provide us with the best-documented examples, these will be drawn on for cases in point. Taken generally, these customs may be assumed to have been historically universal (with the exception, of course, of Christian names).

Childhood. At birth, a samurai was given a name by which he would be known until his coming of age ceremony. These were occasionally chosen to sound fortuitous or simply by fancy. In a well-known example of the former, Takeda Shingen was born Katsuchiyo, or '1000 Victories in Succession', or, simply, 'Victory Forever'.

These childhood names were often superceded to an extent within a samurai's household by a certain nicknaming custom. By tradition, the eldest son in a household was known as 'Taro', the second, 'Jiro', and the third, 'Saburo'. (Fans of Akira Kurosawa's films may remember this convention being applied in the movie Ran). These familial names might even linger into a samurai's adulthood, especially while his father was still in charge.
Famous samurai and their childhood names….

Date Masamune: Bontenmaru
Ii Naomasa: Manchiyo
Kobayakawa Takakage: Tokyujumaru
Môri Motonari: Shojumaru
Oda Nobunaga:
Sanada Yukimura: Gobenmaru
Takeda Shingen: Katsuchiyo
Tokugawa Ieyasu: Takechiyo
Tokugawa Hidetada: Nagamaru
Uesugi Kenshin: Torachiyo

Adult Names. A samurai typically received his 'first' adult name upon the event of his coming of ag ceremony (normally conducted in his 14th year). This almost always consisted of two characters, one of which was hereditary to his family and another that might have been given him as a gift from an exalted personage (including the shôgun), or simply by whim. The hereditary character was often but not necessarily to be found in his own father's name. Often, a number of characters might be associated with a given family, changing with the fullness of time. To illustrate this point, we shall use the Môri lords as an example (covering from the mid-14th Century until 1600)….


The Môri also provide an example of 'gifting' characters. Môri Okimoto (the more famous Motonari's elder brother) received the Oki in his name from the powerful Ouchi YoshiOKI, a daimyô whose lands lay just to the west. Môri Takamoto, Motonari's son, recived the Taka in his tag from Yoshioki's son YoshiTAKA. Terumoto received the Teru in his name from the Shoôgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru. However incapacitated the Ashikaga shogunate may have been as a political power, it WAS nonetheless considered an honor to receive the award of a character from the shôgun's name.
Other well-known daimyô that received the honor of a shôgunal character….

Asakura YOSHIkage
Date TERUmune
Imagawa YOSHImoto
Matsunaga HisaHIDE
Shimazu YOSHIhisa
Takeda HARUnobu (Shingen)
Uesugi TERUtora (Kenshin)

Some samurai, especially lords, might opt to change the characters in their name at some future date, often as a result of the sort of reward mentioned above. Occasionally this name change might be made to mark a fortuitous event, or for political expediency. This could even extend to family names. Date Masamune, for example, was given the honorific family name Hashiba by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. During the 1590's he became close to Tokugawa (Matsudaira) Ieyasu and as a way of demonstrating his loyalty in a unsubtle gesture, he changed his family name to Matsudaira.

Uesugi Kenshin provides us with a nice example of the various reasons a daimyô might change his name around. Originally called Nagao Kagetora, Kenshin later changed his name to Terutora when he was honored by the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru (Kenshin being exceptionally filial to the Ashikaga). He changed his name again, to Masatora, when he was adopted by Uesugi Norimasa around 1551.

Religious names. Of course, the name Kenshin is the best known, and this provides us with an example of a Buddhist name. Many samurai - both daimyô and retainer - adopted Buddhist names at some point in their life, at least nominally taking up a monk's habit and shaving their heads. Some daimyô took this much more seriously then others (Kenshin being one of those), while a certain few, including Ôtomo Sorin, went from layman to Buddhist monk to Christian - and sometimes back again to Buddhist monk.
The following are some better-known daimyô who adopted Buddhist names (their secular names in parenthesis)...

Asakura Soteki (Norikage)
Hôjô Soun (Nagauji)
Ikeda Shonyû (Nobuteru)
Maeda Gen-I (Munehisa)
Miyoshi Chokei (Nagayoshi)
Ota Dôkan (Sukenaga)
Ôtomo Sorin (Yoshishige)
Takeda Shingen (Harunobu)
Uesugi Kenshin (Terutora)
Yamana Sozen (Mochitoyo)

In a practice unique to the mid to late 16th Century in Japan, samurai who had converted to Christianity were baptized with a western name. These are, of course, rarely used today in reference to any given figure, but were not uncommon. The following are examples of famous samurai and their 'Christian' names…

Gamo Ujisato: Dom Leao
Konishi Yukinaga: Dom Agostinho
Kuroda Yoshitaka: Dom Simeo
Omura Sumitada: Dom Bartolomeu
Ôtomo Sorin: Dom Francisco
Takayama Ukon: Dom Justo

Finally, certain well-known samurai names include titles or positions they held. These are not names in the truest sense, but might be applied to them as such. The following are some examples…

Furuta Oribe (Shigenari)
Takayama Ukon (Shigetomo)
Yamamoto Kansuke (Haruyuki)
Yamanaka Shikanosuke (YukiMôri)

Occasionally, a samurai might be referred to by the province he 'held' as the result of the honorific title 'lord of…' (…no kami). Baba Mino no kami Nobufusa might therefore be referred to as Baba Mino, or simply Mino…although only be those of at least equal social standing.
The final name a samurai would assume was his death name, given to him posthumously-essentially, a spirit name, and in some cases to mark his deification. This would be used in ceremonies and observances regarding ancestor worship. Here are some famous samurai and their 'ancestor names'…

Ôtomo Sorin: Sanhisai
Takeda Shingen: Hôsho-in
Tokugawa Ieyasu: Tosho-daigongen
Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Hokoku daimyôjin
Uesugi Kenshin: Sôshin