When we think of an Asian country where many people have the same last name, Korea usually comes to mind. With just 250 surnames in use, half the Korean population bears one of three names: Kim, Lee or Park. Compare that to Japan that has over 100,000 surnames. So when we hear of a place in Japan where over 20% of the people share the same last name, it’s enough to pique our curiosity.
Meet the Amanos: Amano-san the ferry port manager and Amano-san the grocer; Amano-san who owns the liquor shop and Amano-san who serves curry lunches; Amano-san the plumber and Amano-san the carpenter. They’re all different people who live on the same small island and who, believe it or not, are not related.
How can this be? We bet you can’t guess why.
Perhaps you’ve heard the name Amano before. There is artist Amano Yoshitaka and his Fantasy Art Gallery. There’s Amano Foods. And then there’s Amano Yukiya, the current Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency who gets a lot of press these days. But the name Amano isn’t considered popular either. It doesn’t rank up the there with the top 10 Japanese names, which millions of people share. As a matter of fact, Amano doesn’t even make the 100 most common surnames in Japan.
But Amanos have inhabited Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea for as long as anyone here can remember. Part of the Kasaoka island chain off of Okayama Prefecture, Shiraishijima has only 570 residents, 92 of them who have the last name Amano.
The Amano name consists of two kanji characters, the first one meaning “heaven” and the second meaning “field.” But tiny Shiraishi Island, with just 350 houses, a 6 km-road, and 92 Amanos, has another interesting quirk: The island gets tourists from all over the world including Germany, Holland, France, Finland, Australia, Canada, Italy, the U.S. and sometimes even Iceland or Romania.
The reason the island brings in a couple of thousand international tourists each year is because it is listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook (which in addition to the English edition, is translated into many other languages) as well as a handful of other travel guides. The lure of this fairly remote island is the Shiraishi International Villa, a prefecturally-funded accommodation built back in the ’80s when Japan was in the middle of one of its internationalization efforts. Since then, the villa has become property of the island itself but still lives up to its original purpose: to give foreigners the opportunity to observe Japanese island life and see how people live in the countryside. As a result, it endures as an off-the-beaten-track destination for intrepid travelers–who also want a Western toilet. And it’s cheap, at only 3,000 to 3,500 yen per person per night.
Many of the foreign visitors are just passing through on their tour of Japan. After the 40-minute ferry ride from Kasaoka, they get off at Shiraishi Island and are instructed to pick up their room key from Amano-san at the International Villa Information Center. With room key in hand, the tourists head up the 600-meter foot path to the International Villa, which sits on top of a hill. On the way, they might stop and procure some alcohol from the the island’s only liquor store, run by who else but the Amanos. As they continue on their way up to the villa, they will pass houses with name plates bearing the Amano name.
When the tourists finally reach the villa, the villa manager greets them and says, “Hi, my name is Mrs Amano!” In just five minutes, the tourists have met three Amanos. As a matter of fact, everyone they’ve met so far has been an Amano. But, wait, there’s more. They go to the beach and have lunch at Amano-san’s beach-front curry shop.
After lunch, with stomachs full of Amano-san’s curry, they decide to do some marine sports, so they schedule a banana boat ride with, oh no, another Amano. Little do the tourists know that if they lived on the island, they’d get further Amanoed at the town hall, the JA Bank and the fisherman’s co-op. The only plumber on the island is an Amano, and Amano-san the carpenter can help you with the rest of your house.
Some places are a little less obvious about their Amanoness. This ryokan hotel, for example, says “Amagiso” on the outside … but is Amano on the inside. Remember that liquor store I mentioned earlier, owned by Amanos? It’s called Amafuku and was named after owner’s father Amano Fukuichi, who started the shop over 100 years ago. This campground’s name is “Sakinishi,” but I bet you can guess you who really owns it.
But the question remains: Why all the Amanos?
Well, you may have heard that the common Japanese people didn’t have surnames until the Meiji era (1868-1912). Before then, surnames were reserved for nobility and people of power. But when the Family Register Law of 1898 came into effect, commoners had to take on surnames. People were suddenly faced with having to choose a name for their families. Some took on names closely related to farming and agriculture, such as Tanaka (“middle rice field”). Others took on names of successful enterprises, hoping some of the luck and reputation would rub off on them. Then there were the Amanos.
The Amano name had been around since at least 1600. Apparently, when these nobles’ names became available to commoners, many charged a fee to use their name. But Amano Hagie, who lived on Shiraishi Island, decided to let people use his name for free, in essence giving people a free license to use his surname. If the Internet had been around then, I’m sure he would have gone on to found Wikipedia.