What gave the baby name Shoji a boost in 1927?

Emperor Hirohito, a.k.a. Emperor Showa (1901-1989)
Emperor Hirohito of Japan

According to the U.S. baby name data, the Japanese name Shoji saw a distinct spike in usage in 1927 — the one and only year it reached the U.S. top 1,000.

  • 1929: 8 baby boys named Shoji
  • 1928: 6 baby boys named Shoji
  • 1927: 81 baby boys named Shoji [rank: 725th]
    • 35 born in Hawaii, 34 in California, 6 in Washington state
  • 1926: unlisted
  • 1925: unlisted

Here’s a visual:

Graph of the usage of the baby name Shoji in the U.S. since 1880
Usage of the baby name Shoji

The fact that over 85% of the usage came from the states of Hawaii and California strongly suggests that this name was being used primarily (if not entirely) by Japanese-Americans.

Unlike the Japanese names Tatsuo and Torao, though, Shoji’s pattern of usage doesn’t correspond to the Chinese zodiac (which follows a repeating 12-year cycle).

Instead, I think the most plausible theory regarding the single spike has to do with a different sort of calendar system: the Japanese “era” calendar, in which an “era name” is assigned to the reign of each emperor.

Japan’s four most recent eras are:

  • Taisho (1912-1926), under Emperor Yoshihito
  • Showa (1926-1989), under Emperor Hirohito
  • Heisei (1989-2019), under Emperor Akihito
  • Reiwa (2019-present), under Emperor Naruhito

The Showa era began in the final days of 1926, when Yoshihito passed away (on December 25) and was succeeded by his eldest son, Hirohito (who’d been the de facto ruler of the empire since late 1921, due to Yoshihito’s declining mental and physical health).

Right away, this news appeared in the U.S. papers. For example, here’s a December 26 headline from the Japanese American News (which was headquartered in San Francisco):

Showa headline

And here’s a quote from the article:

Upon ascending to the throne of Japan […] the Prince Regent who became the 124th Emperor, issued the rescript naming the new era to begin today “Showa,” meaning brilliant peace.

The word Showa — which has also been defined as “enlightened peace” and “bright peace” — consists of two kanji characters: sho, meaning “bright” or “enlightened,” and wa, meaning “peace” or “harmony.”

According to data from Japan’s Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company, era names influenced baby names in Japan during the early 1900s. Specifically, many babies born during the early part an emperor’s reign were given names that incorporated a kanji from the new era name.

So it follows that Japanese-Americans would likewise be influenced by new era names.

And this would explain the conspicuous spike in the usage of Shoji [sho+ji] in 1927.

In fact, it would also explain the rise in usage of the name Shoichi [sho+ichi] the same year.

(In Japanese names, the elements ichi and ji — meaning “one” and “two,” respectively — are typically associated with first- and second-born sons.)

Do you have any thoughts on the name Shoji?

P.S. The Reiwa era began in May of 2019, but it didn’t inspire very many people in either Japan or the U.S. to chose baby names featuring rei or wa. (That said, the girl name Rei did happen to reach peak usage in the U.S. in 2020, and more than a third of that usage came from California…)


Images: Adapted from Emperor Showa (public domain); clipped from the Japanese American News (26 Dec. 1926)

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