by Philbert Ono, updated: June 17, 2023
“Sato” (佐藤) is Japan’s No. 1 most common family name with about 1.8 million people named “Sato.” This translates to 1.5 percent of the population or one person in 67 being a “Sato.”
Even outside Japan, “Sato” is a common surname among descendants of Japanese immigrants including businesses bearing the Sato name (also spelled Satoh or Satou).
There’s a long history behind Sato, like 1,000+ years long. The Sato family originated from the aristocratic Fujiwara Clan that controlled the Imperial Court in Kyoto during 794–1160 (Heian Period).
Since there’s no definitive record of the origin of the Sato name and family, there’s some debate and confusion over the origin and meaning of the name.
The Sato surname was used as early as the early 11th century, and it first appeared in known documents in the latter 12th century. By this time, Sato families had spread from Kyoto to as far as northeastern (Tohoku) Japan.
Also interesting is how it became Japan’s most common family name. A number of factors worked together to make it happen.
Where did the Sato family come from?
The earliest known Sato families were 11th-century, mid- or low-tier nobility related to the Fujiwara (藤原) aristocratic clan (namely, Fujiwara no Uona in the 8th century and Fujiwara Hidesato in the 10th century). The Fujiwara was Japan’s most prominent clan since they controlled the Imperial Court in Kyoto, Japan’s capital during 794–1160 (Heian Period). Daughters of the Fujiwara became the wives or concubines of Japanese emperors, giving the Fujiwara much influence in the Japanese government.
The first Fujiwara was aristocrat Nakatomi no Kamatari (中臣鎌足) in the 7th century when Emperor Tenji bestowed the Fujiwara name to him as a reward for his loyal service. Kamatari was a friend and ally of the emperor.
“Fuji” means wisteria and “wara” means “field.” The name was inspired by Kamatari’s wisteria garden apparently pretty enough to become a clan name. The wisteria is a highly favored flower in Japan for its beauty, tenacity, and strong life force. Its vines can grow around almost anything even in the wild. The plant’s trunk can twist and turn without a problem. The flower appears in the family crest of the Fujiwara and some offshoot noble families. (Not to be confused with Mt. Fuji which uses different kanji characters [富士] with a different meaning.)
Kamatari changed his name to Fujiwara no Kamatari and became the founder of the exalted and influential Fujiwara Clan. The Fujiwara evolved into four main family lines which dominated the Imperial Court as Imperial regents and advisors to the emperor.
The Fujiwara also spawned numerous branch families which were mid- to low-tier nobility in military or religious occupations. They took care of palace security, shrines, etc. These families created surnames which retained the “fuji” (藤) kanji character from “Fujiwara” and combined it with a kanji character indicating their job title or locality. The “fuji” kanji character can also be pronounced as “to” or “do” (sometimes spelled in English as “toh” or “doh”).
“Sato” was one such branch family and surname and the most common one. The “Sa” (佐) indicated the person’s job title or locality (more about this later).
Another example is “Ito” (伊藤). The “I” can stand for “Ise” (伊勢) which is the home of Ise Grand Shrines, Japan’s most important Shinto shrine in Mie Prefecture. Or it could stand for “Izu” Province (伊豆) in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. The surname would indicate the person’s connection to the Fujiwara while being the governor, etc., in Ise or Izu.
There are about 100 of these “fuji” wisteria surnames and the more common ones include Kato (加藤), Saito (斎藤), Goto (後藤), Kondo (近藤), Endo (遠藤), Ando (安藤), Kudo (工藤), Naito (内藤), Sudo (須藤), Shindo (進藤 or 新藤), Muto (武藤), and Odo (尾藤). So if your name is any of these, it’s possible that your ancestor was from the aristocratic Fujiwara.
What does the name “Sato” mean?
Since there is no historic document explaining the origin and meaning of “Sato,” nobody knows for sure. Name researchers can only theorize or speculate about the name’s origin based on available circumstantial evidence. The debate centers on the origin of “Sa” (佐) and who inspired the name. The first known person named “Sato” is known. The question is, who gave him that name and what does it mean or signify?
The three most discussed possibilities are:
- “Sa” came from “Sado Province” (佐渡), a Niigata Prefecture island where a Fujiwara served as governor by the 11th century.
- “Sa” came from a place called Sano (佐野) in Shimotsuke Province in present-day Tochigi Prefecture where a Fujiwara lived.
- “Sa” is from a government job title such as Saemon-no-jo (左衛門尉), a middle management position in charge of guarding the left-side gates of castles and palaces. However, the “Sa” kanji character in this title (which means “left”) is not the same as the one in “Sato.”
- It came from the word suke (佐), meaning “helper or assistant.” The family served as an assistant to the Fujiwara.
Written records indicate that the first Sato was Sato Meizan (佐藤 明算). Sato name experts believe that he must have received the Sato surname from his father or grandfather. His father had no job title or locality name containing the “Sa” found in “Sato.” But his grandfather Fujiwara Kin’yuki (藤原公行) did since he served as the governor of Sado Province.
Sato name experts therefore believe the most plausible theory is 1 above. “Sato” was named after grandfather Kin’yuki’s job title of Sado Province Governor (佐渡守) in the early 11th century. (Kin’yuki might not be the correct pronunciation.)
Meanwhile, quite a few name researchers believe Meizan’s brother Fujiwara Kinkiyo (藤原 公清) inspired the name “Sato” because he did have the Saemon-no-jo job title. But this seems to be less plausible since the new surname wouldn’t go to a sibling first. It would go to a direct descendant of Kinkiyo. Kinkiyo also had a Fujiwara brother who had descendants named “Sato.” So it makes more sense if the new surname came from their father or grandfather.
(Incidentally, Kinkiyo’s great grandson was Sato Norikiyo (1118–1190 佐藤 義清) who became the famous Buddhist priest and poet Saigyo. He didn’t really use the Sato surname though.)
So there are two different people in question. One is the person who inspired or gave the name (probably Fujiwara Kin’yuki), and the other is the first person who received the name “Sato” (Sato Meizan).
The above discussion only applies to the first and original Sato family. The origin of later Sato branch families will vary. There are also families who named themselves “Sato” just because they liked it even without any relation to the Fujiwara. There was no rule or law against it.
How did the Satos become so common in Japan?
The original Sato family line started in the 11th century, and early Sato families first lived mainly in Yamashiro Province (southern Kyoto), Kii Province (Wakayama), and Mutsu Province (Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori).
The Satos were among the marginal nobility who were squeezed out of important government and Imperial Court jobs in Kyoto dominated by the Fujiwara during 794–1160 (Heian Period). Competition for the important jobs was next to impossible. This was before the rise of the samurai (Taira and Minamoto Clans) who took over the government.
This dire job situation spurred the Satos to move to faraway rural provinces where administrative jobs were easier to get, and they could better exert their influence on local government. Although some Satos remained in Kyoto (Yamashiro Province in southern Kyoto), many of them moved to Mutsu Province (Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori), Dewa Province (Yamagata and Akita), Hitachi Province (Ibaraki), Mino Province (Gifu), Awa Province (Tokushima), and Kii Province (mainly Kinokawa in Wakayama).
The prestige of being related to the Fujiwara and their direct communication pipeline to the central government in Kyoto gave them plum jobs and much influence in these rural provinces. Life in the countryside was good.
Another major development for the proliferation of Sato families was their inclination to create branch families. The branch families themselves sprouted even more branch families with most retaining the “Sato” surname. Sato families thus multiplied almost exponentially.
Starting a branch family required land because without the land to live and farm on, the family would not survive. Since the Satos were in rural provinces, there was a lot of land to go around. And since they descended from Kyoto nobility, samurai, or other distinguished families, they had the clout and social status to obtain what they needed and serve in important positions such as the village headman. They could afford to start branch families even up until the Edo Period (1603-1867).
In Kyoto, however, starting a branch family was hardly possible because available land was scarce. And so the Satos multiplied and thrived mainly in the provinces. Even today, most Sato families are in eastern Japan and the Tohoku Region.
Another factor was that during the Edo Period, there was no daimyo feudal lord named “Sato” even though there were many samurai retainers named “Sato.” This further boosted the Satos.
When a new daimyo took over a domain, it was customary for the domain’s samurai retainers and residents having the same surname as the daimyo to change their surname. For example, when Lord Yamauchi Kazutoyo took over the Tosa domain (Kochi in Shikoku) in 1601, people named “Yamauchi” in Tosa changed their name to “Yamanaka,” etc.
With no daimyo named “Sato,” all the samurai retainers and common folks named “Sato” could keep their surname. How lucky!
All these factors have contributed to making “Sato” No. 1 in Japan. If you’re a Sato, congratulations! Only one out of 100,000 (or 200,000 Japanese surnames) chance of this happening…
The Sato samurai brothers (佐藤兄弟)
The public image of the Sato surname got a major boost from the loyal, self-sacrificing heroics of two Sato samurai brothers Tsugunobu and younger brother Tadanobu (佐藤 継信・忠信). They were both top-ranking retainers under the famous samurai commander Minamoto Yoshitsune during the Genpei War in the 12th century when the Minamoto won and established Japan’s first military dictatorship based in Kamakura.
On the battlefield at Yashima (Sanuki Province in present-day Takamatsu, Kagawa) in 1185, Tsugunobu on horseback became a human shield when he took an arrow intended for Yoshitsune. He died as a result.
Later in 1186, Tadanobu helped to fight off enemies chasing Yoshitsune. To buy some time for Yoshitsune to escape, Tadanobu wore Yoshitsune’s armor to disguise himself as Yoshitsune as he fought off the enemy in the rear. He succeeded and went into hiding in Kyoto. However, he was later discovered and attacked in Kyoto. According to legend, his used a go game board to defend himself (see image below). He committed seppuku to avoid capture.
Both brothers died young in their 20s and have been immortalized in joruri puppet and kabuki plays like the famous Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees).
The Sato brothers were from Fukushima Prefecture where Sato is the most common surname today. They are buried at Ioji Temple (医王寺), a Shingon Buddhist temple in Fukushima city which served as the Sato samurai clan’s family temple. They remain very popular in Fukushima and the Tohoku Region.
Other monuments and sites related to the Sato brothers include Tatenoyama Park (舘の山公園) in Fukushima city which was the site of Otori Castle (大鳥城跡). It was their home and base of their father Sato Motoharu (佐藤 基治). No castle structures remain.
In Takamatsu, Kagawa, there’s a gravestone for Tsugunobu who died at Yashima.
In Nagano city at Zenkoji Temple, there’s a pair of very old stone memorial monuments inscribed with the posthumous Buddhist names of the Sato brothers and dated 1397. The original monuments were built and dedicated by their mournful and heartbroken mother Baishin-ni (梅辰尼) who prayed for her sons’ souls when she worshipped at Zenkoji.
Where are most of the Satos today?
Most of them today are in eastern Japan (especially Tokyo and Kanagawa), the Tohoku Region, and Hokkaido. Sato is the No. 1 most common family name in Iwate, Fukushima, Yamagata, Miyagi, Akita, Niigata, and Hokkaido. And No. 2 in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Ibaraki, and Aomori. They represent about 5 percent to 7 percent of the prefecture’s population.
A few places like Chokai-machi in Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture have Sato families comprising as much as 30 percent of the neighborhood. Sato-rich neighborhoods and schools have used nicknames to distinguish the Satos from one another.
“Sato” is No. 1 in Hokkaido because many of the Tohoku samurai retainers who retreated there after they lost the Boshin War in 1868-69 were “Sato.” They had sided with the losing Tokugawa samurai government which was overthrown by pro-emperor forces.
Since Hokkaido had lots of land, it was easy for Sato samurai families to split off into branch families which split into more branch Sato families like they did in Tohoku.
Due to its high population, Tokyo has the highest number of Satos with over 220,000. Followed by Kanagawa and Miyagi with over 160,000 each.
Sato is also common in a few prefectures in western Japan (No. 1 in Oita and Tokushima) thanks to samurai retainers named “Sato” who moved there after their daimyo lord received the domains upon victory in the 12th-century Genpei War.
All these high numbers of Satos reflect historical events that occurred as far back as a thousand years ago.
My family (last) name is “Sato.” Am I a descendant of nobility or samurai?
Maybe and maybe not. Although the Sato family started off from nobility and many medieval Sato families were samurai, it was also possible for anyone to name themselves “Sato” especially when the new Meiji Japanese government started requiring everyone to choose a surname in 1875.
If you can find out where in Japan your ancestors came from, it could provide a clue. If you can trace your ancestors to Hokkaido from the 19th century, they could well have been a samurai family. If they came from the Tohoku Region, it could also be a samurai family. But we can never be sure about anything. Cherish the wisteria, it’s your family flower.
・Out of the top 100 most common Japanese family names today, 10 percent are names originating from the Fujiwara. Among them, “Sato” is by far the most numerous followed by Ito and Kato. There are about 100 of these “fuji” wisteria surnames, but only around 16 of them are common names. Ironically, the ancestral “Fujiwara” surname is today far less common, only the 48th most common name in Japan. It can also be pronounced “Fujihara.”
・Japan has “Sato” place names too. Most are in Tohoku and Hokkaido. For example, there’s Satogadaira (佐藤ケ平) and Satobashi (佐藤橋) in Aomori Prefecture, Satozawa (佐藤沢) and Satomae (佐藤前) in Miyagi, Satobun (佐藤分) and Satohata (佐藤畑) in Fukushima, and two Sato Rivers (佐藤川) in Hokkaido. A Sato family most likely owned or developed these places.
・There are a few Sato families who use variant kanji characters for “Sato.” They are likely Sato branch families who wanted to distinguish themselves from the main Sato family. The variants include 佐東, 左藤, 左東, 砂藤, and 佐登. There are also a few families in Kyushu using 砂糖 (Sato) which means “sugar.” They grew sugar cane and are unrelated to the Fujiwara-related Sato.
・The “to” in “Sato” (さとう) is a long vowel sound in Japanese. That’s why in English, some Japanese people spell it “Satoh” or “Satou.” In Japanese language textbooks, it might appear as “Satō.” However, the vast majority simply spell it as “Sato.” Same goes for the other Fujiwara-related names.
If you’re a Sato and didn’t know the origin or meaning of your name, hope this post helped.
*Also see Suzuki, Japan’s No. 2 surname: https://photoguide.jp/log/2023/06/suzuki-surname-origin/
*Also see Illustrated Japanese family names: https://photoguide.jp/log/2023/06/japanese-family-names-illustrated/
AI-generated images prompted by Philbert Ono.