For decades, no, centuries, Japanese parents were happy giving their kids regular Japanese names. Sure, there have been trends, but the latest one is producing some kids with peculiar names -- and even worries about bullying.
Japanese names are slightly different from English ones. Traditionally, first names were selected based on the number of brush strokes in the child's last name and based on the meaning of the kanji characters used in the first name. Some kanji are viewed as more favourable based on their meaning. Girls were often given simple names as their last names would change if they married, and the parents worried that a complex name with many brush strokes might not go with their new last name.
Now, many young parents are selecting "sparkly names" (kirakira neemu or キラキラネーム) for their children. These names are based only on how they sound, and the kanji characters don't have much, if any, meaning. Sometimes, people are naming their kids after manga or video game characters -- something that would have been unheard of a generation ago in Japan. For example, last fall a magazine model named her son "Ace" after the One Piece character, shoehorning in kanji characters for the kid's name.
There have been newspaper columns in which bullying has been discussed, with kids bearing unusual names being teased. The appeal of these names, however, is to stand out. Parents don't want their kids to have the same first name as other kids. Many last names are fairly common in Japan, so the desire to be different is understandable.
For the upcoming election in Japan, the country's Liberal Democratic Party is even taking this up as a political cause, talking about educating parents better. "Children are not pets," said LDP front runner Shinzo Abe. "Parents need the necessary guidance." One of the sparkly name examples cited was naming a kid "Pikachu", which would use the kanji 光宙, which literally means "light" and "space".
There have been naming trends over the years, and these "sparkly names" are just the most recent trend. During the decades following the war, more and more girls were given the kanji for "ko" (子), leading to many women with names like "Yoko", "Kyoko", or "Yuko". One of the reasons why "ko" spread so during these years was the Empress Michiko. She was the first commoner to marry into the Japanese Imperial Family, causing the number of girls with the then regal sounding "ko" skyrocketed. Now, "ko" sounds old fashioned to some younger Japanese. After the "ko" boom, more girls started getting names with "mi" (美), which means "beautiful", among other trends.
The sparkly name trend is actually closer to how many Americans name their kids -- they pick a name they think sounds good. Sure, some folks give family names or check the meaning of the name, but many don't. People should pick names they think are good names that the kids can be proud of. That being said, parents, Japanese or elsewhere, don't name your kid Pikachu. Just... don't.
Top photo: GameFreak