How do Japanese people know the pronunciation of names in writing?

Hey everyone!

After getting more and more into reading native material, I’m continually struck by the fact that I seem to just be guessing the pronunciation of names of characters in novels, short stories, etc. For instance, I recently read a short story with a protagonist called 洋子 (no furigana given), where I simply assumed that the name was probably pronounced よこ. However, after consulting jisho, I basically have no idea whether that was the case.

Of course, when reading on your own, it doesn’t really change anything whether you accidentally use a different reading than the one intended by the author.

But say a bunch of Japanese people read a novel as part of a book club. Will they then show up to the discussion session with a different idea of how to pronounce the names of key characters, since the kanji may have several different possible readings for the given names?
Or will they just have internalized the correct reading based on years of experience/exposure?

8 Likes

I would guess ようこ, but as you said, there are other possibilities. Usually they are not all equally likely, though.

That Jisho list is probably in alphabetical (er, hiraganical…) order. That is, ようこ shows up low on the list, but I think it’s far and away the most likely.

Perhaps that’s just my bias because that is my mother-in-law’s name. With that exact kanji and reading combo. Not to mention, the most famous ようこ, Yoko Ono.

But anyway, if the author didn’t give a reading, then they either expect readers to guess the most likely reading, which they will be able to do because they encounter thousands of names on a regular basis, or the author wants it to be ambiguous.

18 Likes

how do you figure out the most likely readings then? sorry for the dumb question i’m not that good at japanese yet

1 Like

Well, a Japanese person does it by meeting tons of people in real life. It’s just a normal thing, people at work, your neighborhood, celebrities, the news, stories that do have readings…

As a non-native, you would have to go out of your way to get exposure for yourself.

8 Likes

I wonder if any online resources/databases have a “most common reading” functionality for names given as kanji?

3 Likes

In books, names used will usually be well established one way or another, or the reading will be given. In real life it’s a pretty big problem even for japanese people. You’ve maybe or probably heard of the thing called kirakira names where parents give weird ass “cool looking/sounding” names to their kids while taking massive liberties with the kanji used. Even without going as far, because readings for names can be so many random things, that’s why you see kids detailing the spelling and pronunciation of their name when introducing themselves to a class or whatnot. And I remember reading an article about how most teachers weren’t able to read half of the names of the kids in their classes these days if they don’t give the reading themselves. It might be a bit exaggerated but in short it’s a real problem even for them.

11 Likes

This might be literally true in a sense, but to me it’s probably a bit sensationalized.

Most people have readings that can be guessed. Sure, there might be two or three possible readings, but most people would know the possible options. So while they would need to ask the person for sure, the chances they’ll be hit with some kind of never before seen reading is rare.

東 as a last name can be ひがし or あずま, so yes, you’d need to ask someone which is the right reading. So that probably counts as “unable” to read the name without the reading, but any native would know to guess those two.

It’s not like 50% of people have kirakira names.

3 Likes

If I’m reading a novel in English and there’s a name I’ve never heard, I don’t necessarily know the pronunciation. I just make a guess and move on. Since they’re a fictional person it doesn’t really matter. If I’m meeting someone in real life they will of course tell me how to pronounce it. I imagine it’s the same in any language.

I sometimes see furigana on names in manga, implying that Japanese people don’t automatically know how to pronounce names.

3 Likes

Actually, it seems like this website, Kanshudo, has something like that.

Using 洋子 as an example:
https://www.kanshudo.com/searchn?q=洋子

5 Likes

I think a bit of this. Maybe somewhere down the line there will be a floral/animal pun referring to the name. Often happens in manga, right? Otherwise, it’s really a guessing game :smiley: .

For this one I would probably go with ようこ as the “most obvious” candidate as well. Unless, the author is trying to be creative like the NASA pun in Tonikawa.

If you google 洋子 読み, 洋子 名前 or something similar, you will come across many websites, for example namegen.jp listing possible readings or even detailing the probability for the different readings. For last names, there’s websites like myoji-yurai.net where you can find possible readings and distribution statistics across Japan.

If you want to familiarize yourself with common Japanese names, Tofugu actually has a list of Japanese names by frequency:

I haven’t used it, but if you would like to study common names and nanori readings that Japanese people could definitely read (or at least have a confident guess at), it might be worth the 10 bucks.

5 Likes

Thanks for linking this. It’s pretty cheap so I might give this a try. :slight_smile:

1 Like

What do you think how my little German brain pronounced all the names in Harry Potter, when I didn’t speak a word of English and the movies weren’t out yet :smiley:

2 Likes

I have nothing useful to add, but was reminded of this character portrait from School Rumble:

10 Likes

That one actually seems like the character misread the kanji rather than guessed the wrong reading. Since 烏丸 and 鳥丸 are very visually similar.

11 Likes

*squints at kanji*

Well I’ll be, they are different kanji that look similar. I didn’t even know!

8 Likes

My God… That’s bird and crow, right?

5 Likes

A friend of mine actually talked about this issue. He was born in Japan and his family moved when he was a preteen I think, and then he went back later in his early 20s, so he’s got pretty decent Japanese, but even when he went back for teaching, he was having a hard time taking attendance for new classes because he was having difficulty reading the children’s names, and the children would laugh and correct him.

So yeah it comes with exposure but it sounds like there will always be a few names in life where you just gotta ask.

1 Like

It is bird and crow, yes.

The question has basically been answered by now, but in short: they don’t, and sometimes it’s confusing for them. In many cases you can guess correctly if you’re familiar enough with Japanese names (and kanji) to know how something is probably read, but you can still get it wrong.

1 Like

Sometimes you just don’t know, and have to ask. I once had 2 students in the same grade, both named 愛梨 except for one was エリ and the other was アイリ. I tried to learn all of my students names, and got a list of names for the students, which were written in kanji. If I couldn’t read a name, I would ask about it. Most of the time confusing names would be one of two options, sometimes they were just random readings for characters that the parents chose because they liked the meaning. In the end we usually had to consult the master list, which came from asking people what their name was. In some cases if the reading is not given, that is the only way. This is why when writing your name in Japanese on documents, you’re usually asked for the reading of the characters as well.