Because of the writing system, Japanese names can carry more meaning than names in an alphabetic language. All names can carry meaning in their sound and associations. A Japanese name can generally be written in many different ways, and the characters chosen for the name carry their own meanings and associations. I tried to bring out the multiple meanings, but it can get complicated.
Japanese spellings of the names are from the ending credits. In some cases I checked the Japanese Wikipedia (Utena characters in Japanese) to verify the pronunciation of family names that are not spoken in the series.
I divided the names family name•personal name for the convenience of English speakers. Japanese does not usually divide words in writing.
These names are all plant-related, and so are many others. In fact, almost all students have plant-related names. The characters are cultivated by Anthy as if they were in her greenhouse, and nourished with the correct water of illusions and tears to grow up as proper members of the system of control. The non-plant students I found are Nanami’s minions Aiko and Yuuko (whose family names we don’t know; they might be plant-related) and Kazami Tatsuya.
Utena and Anthy are students and have plant-related names. They are “cultivated”. Dios and Akio do not.
Arisugawa Juri (有栖川•樹璃). Arisugawa is not a rare name. The character 栖 for su means nest, and arisugawa can be read as meaning “river where birds nest”. It ties Juri to birds and to water, connections that are prominent in episode 17. The name also ties Juri to Arisugawa-no-miya, a branch of the Japanese imperial family. Juri is a princess (perhaps not literally, though we know her family is wealthy and powerful). Juri as a standalone word (spelled differently) means acceptance, as in acceptance of a document or acceptance of a resignation. That is probably meaningful, though I don’t know how. The spelling 樹璃 for Juri as a name is not standard. 樹 for ju is a slightly fancy term for tree, used in compound words. 璃 for ri is also used mainly in compounds and is given in dictionaries as either “glassy” or “lapis lazuli” the blue semi-precious stone. I think that lapis lazuli is the intended meaning. The blue stone (sometimes sky blue) fits with her connections to birds and water.
Kaoru family (薫). “Kaoru” is a verb meaning “to be fragrant”, that is, to have a nice smell. I can’t tell what nice smell this family is supposed to have.
Kaoru Kozue (薫•梢). “Kozue” means treetop. “Fragrant treetop”.
Kaoru Miki (薫•幹). “Miki” means tree trunk. “Fragrant tree trunk”. Like Utena and Anthy, Kozue and Miki are named as parts of a whole. The tree trunk is male and the treetop is female in Utena’s system of sex symbols. The trunk supports the treetop, as conventionally a man supports a woman. Figuratively, in Japanese the “trunk” is the most important part; according to the system of control, Miki is more important than Kozue (and Kozue agrees). Kozue and Miki are not revolutionaries.
Kiryuu family (桐生). The character 桐 by itself and the name as a whole both mean paulownia tree, specifically Paulownia tomentosa. It’s not a rare family name. Wikipedia says the genus is named after the daughter of a tsar, in other words a princess, and in Japan it is called a princess tree. It is also a symbol of the government of Japan. In the context of Utena I guess it represents both powerlessness and power, for princess Nanami and student council president Touga. The species name “tomentosa” means hairy (from Latin). That doesn’t seem to matter, since many characters have ample hair.
Kiryuu Nanami (桐生•七実). This spelling of “Nanami” means seven fruits. (It’s common for personal names to have multiple standard spellings with different meanings, plus some parents make up their own—see Juri and Saionji.) A paulownia fruit is a capsule full of seeds. (It may count as a pod; see Saionji below.)
Kiryuu Touga (桐生•冬芽). Touga written this way means “winter bud”. It seems appropriate for Touga’s cold heart. Paulownia trees flower in early spring, so winter budding must happen.
Saionji Kyouichi (西園寺•莢一). The characters for “Saionji” mean “west garden temple”. The dictionary tells me that “Saionji” refers to Xiyuan Temple in China, and that the Chinese name has the same meaning (of course it does, the characters are the same). It’s possible that features of the temple, like its sculptures, are relevant. For example, the turtle may connect with Wakaba’s kappa hot water dispenser. The name Kyouichi is common, but the spelling 莢一 is not. The common spelling is 恭一, where 恭 for kyou means respect. 莢 means pod, especially a bean pod. Saionji’s full name can be read as meaning the first pod from the west garden. Avoiding the common spelling suggests that Saionji does not show respect (I think it’s that, rather than that he doesn’t deserve respect).
Bean pods are long and therefore symbolically male. They are commonly green, which is Saionji’s color. In episode 14, Utena stems green bean pods as Anthy leaves to visit Akio. I don’t know what connection that has with Saionji, but there must be one.
Three sets of characters come in threes, as many things in Utena do.
A-ko, B-ko, C-ko (A子、B子、C子). The shadow girls have anonymous names—arbitrary labels, really. The -ko element 子 at the end of a Japanese personal name marks the person as female. (It’s a bit of patriarchal language: ko means child.) Alphabet-ko names are used in news stories when a woman in the story is not to be named, and in general when a woman is to be left anonymous or when her name does not matter. It can be taken as a symbol of the anonymity of women in general. A man is named, a woman is “his wife” or whatever the relation may be.
Nanami’s minions have normal names, but they sound like letters of the alphabet. They are anonymous like the shadow girls: They are undistinguished ordinary girls, or at least ordinary girls who have come under a boss like Nanami. Nanami mentions Keiko’s family name in passing in episode 21, but Utena gives the other two personal names only, with no family names. The credits do not list family names for any of them. I think it’s because family names run in the male line (as in European tradition, if one marries, she will take her husband’s name).
I did not notice Keiko’s family name myself. Nikita Chestnov had to tell me. Thanks!
Sonoda Keiko (園田•茎子) I am only guessing at the spelling of sonoda, but this is the most common way to write it. It means vegetable garden. Keiko is pronounced like “K-ko”. 茎 for kei means stalk or stem: She acts as the leader of the three. The other two are presumably the vegetables growing in her garden. See the shadow play of Keiko’s episode 21 for my interpretation of her hair as possibly resembling a butterfly. It also resembles leaves on a stalk. She has a plant-related name, though the other two minions do not (presumably their unknown family names are plant-related).
Aiko (愛子) is pronounced like “I-ko”. 愛 ai means love. It might mean she is motivated by love of Touga, but I think it’s ironic; she is not loving. Her hair curls outward, which I take to suggest cruelty toward others.
Yuuko (優子) is pronounced like “U-ko”. 優 yuu means excellence: She is supposed to be a good girl. If an excellent girl is mean, then the name fits. Her hair curls inward, which I take to suggest self-centeredness.
I call them nerd boys, but they’re really only stereotypical boys. Forgive me for my excessive kindness. Utena gives them family names only, no personal names, because they don’t matter as individuals—though their family names are granted power to overwrite any wife’s family name. Their names are among the most common, least distinguished family names in Japan. They are like Smith and Jones. That’s what matters; the meanings of the names do not matter—except for one point: All are plant-related.
Suzuki (鈴木). “Suzu” means small bell, and “ki” means tree.
Yamada (山田). “Yama” means mountain, and “da” means rice field (the character shapes directly depict their meanings). It’s pronounced “da” rather than “ta” as in Tanaka because of a semi-regular sound shift.
Tanaka (田中). “Ta” means rice field, and “naka” means inside, so “in the field”.
Chida (千唾). Chida is a normal family name, but it is usually written 千田, a thousand fields. The character 唾 for da means saliva—a thousand spits. 唾 as a standalone word is pronounced tsuba with the same meaning, but the dictionary tells me it can also be pronounced tsubaki, which is a homonym of the word for camellia. Sometimes the plant connections are a little remote.
Chida Mamiya (千唾•馬宮). Mamiya is a normal personal name, but it is most often written 間宮. Utena’s Mamiya is written with 馬, which means horse. I have to interpret Mamiya 馬宮 as horse princess. I gather that Mamiya, as played by Anthy, is set up to be Mikage’s prince on a white horse, who corresponds to Dios in the prince story and Akio in Utena’s Second Seduction. But Anthy is in fact a princess.
Chida Tokiko (千唾•時子). A straightforward personal name: Time child. Tokiko’s name is like Miki’s stopwatch; it points to the... unusual nature of time in Utena. In the Black Rose where Tokiko appears, events which must occur decades apart are shown as virtually simultaneous, and events that must be close in time may be shown far apart. For example, the fresh red roses of episode 15 reappear wilted, but not until episode 22. I found plenty of real people with the name Tokiko spelled the same way. Tokiko and Mikage share the time character 時 in their names.
Chu-Chu (チュチュ). Chu-Chu’s name seems to be onomatopoeic, and nothing more. Chu-Chu makes “choo” sounds. The dictionary tells me that chuchu is Japanese for “tutu” (it’s a direct transliteration), but that seems unrelated. Another way to learn it is to watch Princess Tutu, which was influenced by Utena. The imaginary skirt Chu-Chu wears in episode 17 is not a tutu. In episode 15, Miki calls Chu-Chu “Chuu-Chuu”, with vowels of long duration, which is phonemically different in Japanese. Utena answers that “chuu-chuu” is the sound a mouse makes—and Chu-Chu is separately compared to a mouse. “Chuu” is also the sound of a kiss, which suggests what Miki may be thinking of.
Hozumi Mari (穂積•茉莉). Mitsuru’s sharp-tongued friend Mari is prominent in episode 18. 穂 for ho means ear of grain, and 積 for zumi means a pile or load, or related meanings. The grain is presumably rice, so I read it as “a pile of ears of rice”, though there are other interpretations. The dictionary tells me that 茉莉 for Mari is borrowed from the English name “Marie” (and assigned arbitrary characters). Does she have a connection with the Christian Mary? 茉莉 is more often pronounced matsuri and means jasmine, the plant.
Kazami Tatsuya (風見•達也). Kazami (風見) means weather vane. Tatsuya (a common name) written as 達也 (a common way of writing it) means expert or master: He is a master weather vane. Apparently his purpose is to show what direction Wakaba is blowing in. I don’t find a plant in his name.
Mikage Souji (御影•草時). Mikage is a word meaning the spirit of a god or of a dead person—Mikage is both, since he is Hades and, as professor Nemuro, died in the fire he set. The characters can also be pronounced miei, the image of a god or important person. Mikage after he died is perhaps the image of the living Mikage (the same way that the Anthy we see is the image of Anthy in her coffin). Mi (御) means august, that is, high in status. Kage (影) means shadow. I think mikage is most delightfully translated as “shade” in the sense of the shade of a dead person. Souji is a normal personal name, but I did not find any other example of it being written this way. Sou (草) means grass, and ji (時) means time, part of his tie to Tokiko. To me that sounds like eternity in the grave. Souji written 掃除 means cleaning, which I can’t find a meaning behind. Souji written 相似 means similarity or resemblance. The image resembles the person; Mikage has the semblance of a living person.
Ohtori Kanae (鳳•香苗). See Ohtori for her family name. Kanae is a frequent personal name, and this is the most common way to write it. Ka (香) means incense, or a nice smell in general (compare Kaoru). Nae (苗) means seedling (so it’s another plant name). “Fragrant seedling” is a fair translation. The word kanae (written differently) means a kind of three-legged vessel that can be used for burning incense; the reference to incense ties back to that. Kanae’s name means that she is a young and pretty offshoot of the Ohtori family. It connects her with fire, which might be related to her death.
Professor Nemuro (根室). Mikage is sometimes called nemuro kyouju, Professor Nemuro. His building is named Nemuro Memorial Hall. He died in the fire he set that also killed the 100 boys. Nemuro is the name of a town in Hokkaido. I don’t know what connection that might have. 根 for ne means root, literally or figuratively, and 室 for muro means room. You could translate it as root cellar, a place to store food. Figuratively, it points to Mikage’s underground lair where the dead duelists are stored, a foundational mythological location. I think it also refers to the verb nemuru, to sleep. Mikage seeks an eternity of stasis, death or sleep if you like. Sleep ties him to Sleeping Beauty through Mamiya pricking his finger.
Shinohara Wakaba (篠原•若葉). Shino is short for shinodake, a kind of bamboo. Shinohara can be read as “bamboo field”. Wakaba means young leaves, like new leaves growing in spring. Wakaba has an imagistic name of bamboo in early spring. Wakaba can also figuratively mean a young person. Wakaba’s name emphasizes that she is particularly immature, but also suggests that she will grow into her afterstory. Bamboo grows fast.
Takatsuki Shiori (高槻•枝織). Taka (高) means high or tall and tsuki written this way means a zelkova tree, which I had never heard of before looking it up. It looks like the Japanese species is named keyaki (欅), with a different character; it’s kind of confusing. Tsuki written differently means moon, tying Shiori to Akio’s moon; she is corrupt, with purple hair and eyes. Shi (枝) means branch of a tree, and ori (織) means weaving. “Woven branches of a tall zelkova tree.” I see Shiori as more tangled than woven, but whatever. As a word, shiori (written differently) means bookmark (a guide to how far along you are) or guidebook. Shiori can be taken as a guide to how far along Juri is. Juri’s bird nests might be made of woven twigs, if not branches. I suspect there are more meanings.
Tsuchiya Ruka (土谷•瑠果), written clearly on his locker. Tsuchi (土) means earth, soil, the ground. Ya (谷) written this way means valley. Ru (瑠) means precious stone, and sometimes specifically lapis lazuli—it ties him to Juri. Ka (果) has the core meaning of fruit. It is the only part of Ruka’s name that relates him to plants. The character is often used metaphorically, as in the word hate (果て), end or limit (the “fruit”, or result, of continuing on is that you reach the end). This ties him to End of the World (sekai no hate, 世界の果て). His name connects him with the same people as his story. The dictionary tells me that Ruka, spelled differently, is also the Japanese name of Luke from the Bible; I would have to research that to find out if it’s meaningful. I don’t know how to interpret his name as a whole—“valley with gem-fruit”?
Tsuwabuki Mitsuru (石蕗•美蔓). Tsuwabuki (石蕗) is the name of the plant Farfugium japonicum, a low-growing plant with wide spotted leaves. Wikipedia says it grows near streams and seashores, so it is tied to water. Mitsuru is a curious name. As a verb (written differently) it means to become emaciated or haggard. Maybe that happens to him when he fights with the three nerd boys in episode 6. The name’s characters don’t mean that. 美 for mi means beauty, and 蔓 for tsuru means a vine or the runner of a plant. For the tsuwabuki plant, I think it means the shoots of the rhizome. So “beautiful shoots of tsuwabuki”.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 18 December 2022
updated 11 September 2023