by Yurie Horiguchi

Dear Bridges:

Why do nearly all Japanese girls’ names end in ko, which I understand means “child,” yet the ko is carried over into adulthood? And please explain about adoption, where the husband takes the wife’s family name. CURIOUS.

Dear Curious:

The custom of suffixing ko to a girl’s name became popular in the Meiji Era. It may have been snobbism that caused it, for before the Restoration, daughters of merchants and other lowly people wrote their names either in hiragana or in katakana—in other words, not in Chinese characters—and the prefix “O” was attached, such as O-Iwa, O-Hana, O-Kiku, etc.

In the Edo Period, ordinary people did not use the suffix ko out of deference to the Im­perial Household where it was used, while outside of court circles, the use of ko at the end of a woman’s name was considered to be a mark of respect.

By 1933, however, not only were 90% of girls’ names written in kanji (Chinese cha­racters), but at least 70% also bore the suf­fix ko.

The tendency today, however, seems to be to get away from the all-too-prevalent ko suffix (which follows only a two-syllable name) by either dropping it entirely or by giving girls three-syllable names such as Sayuri, Yurika, Hanae, etc. This is a reverse movement and a return to names that were popular some centuries ago.

Incidentally, most Japanese girls are named after flowers, plants, or natural phenomena, such as spring (Haru), snow (Yuki) or green (Midori), while others are named for abstract qualities such as peace (Kazuko), light (Mitsuko), intelligence (Hideko), although each name really depends on the Chinese characters with which it is written.

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As for adopted sons and husbands, here again, we go back in history—way back— since this arose from early ancestor worship and the strong belief that the head of the family’s foremost duty was to worship the spirit of his ancestors and care for their tombs. The yoshi (adopted son) system started from this in families where there were no sons.

It took on greater importance in feudal days when court and military positions and ranks were hereditary. The male heir always succeeded to his father’s position, as well as to the family wealth and property. Also, in the case of farmers and merchants, the male heir alone inherited the farm or the business.

So a couple without a son adopted a child to perpetuate the family name, position and wealth. These adoptions were made care­fully, and in most cases a child was chosen from among relatives, or close friends of rela­tives.

When there was an only daughter, an equally careful selection was made from among eligible young men with no blood rela­tion, and the new groom was adopted into his wife’s family, eventually to become its head.

Another reason for “adopting” a daughter’s husband was that in very closely knit families it was painful for parents to have a beloved daughter leave the household to join that of her husband. It is traditional to accept that when a girl marries she is no longer a mem­ber of her father’s family and owes obedience and loyalty only to that of her husband.

So to keep the daughter in the family, even though sons were not lacking, parents sought a young man willing to take his wife’s name even though prospects of inheriting from the father-in-law were minimal. This was pos­sible in the days of pre-arranged marriages.

The position of the yoshi changed with the Meiji Restoration when hereditary posts were abolished. Since the war, with the new Constitution and the revised Civil Law, the necessity of adopting a son became less acute.

But tradition dies hard in Japan. There are still families with daughters only who find it difficult to accept the fact that their name is doomed to die out.

Young men today, however, are reluctant to give up their own names and families to become a yoshi. They feel it is undignified, and are afraid of the inevitable jokes about being henpecked, or to use a Japanese ex­pression “sitting under his wife’s zabuton (floor cushion).”

In certain circles, however, such as the Kabuki stage, and wherever traditional hand­craft arts still flourish, it remains the custom to adopt a son (when possible) to carry on the family name and work. Hence, we have generations of Kabuki actors, all bearing the same name with a I, II, III, etc., placed after it. And famous craftsmen pride themselves on being fifth, sixth or seventh generation descendants of the original genius, even though each successive family head may have been an adopted son.

Sometimes, as is happening more and more frequently these days, the son of the family does not wish to follow the family tradition, whether it be the stage, arts, or more lowly occupations such as soba making.

And because so many young men have be­come uninterested in painstaking manual work, it is next to impossible to find someone willing to be adopted and initiated into the production of the unique crafts that were one of the glories of old Japan.

Quite a few neglected ancestors must be shifting in their ashes over the desertion of their posterity.