There is an interesting story regarding the history of Japanese surnames – known to be the most numerous in the world as there are over 100,000 surnames in Japan.
It is said that in the late Sengoku period (16th~17th century), a period filled with civil wars, there were so many soldiers who had died that there was a shortage of men. To remedy this, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who unified the clans in Japan) issued a ruling to all women, stating they must wear a blanket-like cloth on their back and to wear no underwear. If they met a man, they were obligated to have intercourse with them in the hopes of conception. This is the origin of the kimono – a garment that can easily be undone and be used as a blanket outside when required (although now the use is different), and the reason why underwear is not worn with kimono traditionally.
This meant that any surviving males had the luck of having any women they pleased. This resulted in the women not knowing who the father of the baby was and thus they named their babies according to where they were conceived. Out of all Japanese surnames, 80% refer to something geographical: 山本 (yamamoto) – at the mountain, 木下(kinoshita) – under a tree, 竹田 (takeda) – at the bamboo field, 山野(yamano) – mountain plain, 川邊 (kawabe) – next to a stream… and the list goes on.
With their surnames being so ranged and “meaningless”, culturally Japan is not very attached to their own surnames. Contrary to this, the neighbouring countries, Korea and China, place great importance in surnames as it shows the roots of the people. For example, in Korea all families have a book called jokbo where the entire family lineage for the surname can be traced back to the root. Every family member’s name and birth date is recorded along with the generation they are in.
Because of this, the Japanese were perplexed after their invasion why the people were so against changing their names to Japanese. What they did not understand was the pride people have in their names and their cultural heritage, as the same pride is not found in Japan.