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Excuse me, but aren’t you so-and-so’s whatchamacallit?

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

According to a dispatch by the French news agency AFP, France on Feb. 21 officially banished use of the term Mademoiselle when referring to unmarried women. Henceforth, Madame will be used irrespective of marital status.

The Germans phased out Fraulein four decades ago. And in the English-speaking world, the use of “Miss” is selectively being replaced by “Ms” (pronounced “miz”).

What about Japan? Has ポリティカル・コレクトネス (poritikaru korekutonesu, political correctness) forced changes on the language?

Certainly the media in Japan is discouraged from using 差別用語 (sabetsu yōgo, discriminatory terms), such as words referring negatively to the handicapped and various taboo subjects. But as far as forms of address go, the choice of words depends more on the subject’s age and the relationship to the speaker than it does on marital status and gender. There are exceptions of course, such as お嬢さん (ojō-san), an acceptable form of address corresponding to the English “young lady.”

While not as egalitarian as the Marxist 同志 (Dōshi, Comrade), the polite suffix “-san” will work for approximate social equals of both sexes and conveniently can be used with a person’s surname or first name. It’s also commonly used when addressing someone by their occupation, such as お巡りさん (Omawari-san, police officer), 運転手さん (Untenshu-san, taxi driver), 大工さん (Daiku-san, carpenter) and 板前さん (Itamae-san, chef).

One notch up on the scale of politeness is the suffix 様(-sama), used when writing out addresses on envelopes and in the bodies of letters (including emails); in public announcements; and when addressing お客様 (Okyaku-sama, customers) during business transactions. In everyday conversation, “-sama” is used when referring to another person’s family members (never your own), from お子様 (Oko-sama, son or daughter) to 奥様 (Oku-sama, wife), おじい様 and おばあ様 (Ojī-sama/Obā-sama grandfather and grandmother).

On about the same level as -sama in terms of politesse is 方 (kata, person), which is considered tactful when you don’t know, or don’t wish to refer to, someone’s name. A public announcement might go トイレに傘をお忘れになった方、受付においで下さい (toire ni kasa wo owasure ni natta kata, uketsuke ni oide kudasai, Will the person who left behind an umbrella in the restroom please come to reception).

Another useful form of address is 先生 (Sensei). Most beginners will assume this means teacher. But Sensei is written with the characters 先 (sen, first or previously) and 生 (sei, born), and is therefore used to address a person older than the speaker. The word may also be used when speaking to persons of high social standing, including medical doctors, elected politicians, such as members of the national Diet, authors of books, orchestra conductors and recognized experts in any serious endeavor.

When in doubt, it’s better to use Sensei, because a person who feels they warrant being so addressed might be a little peeved at being addressed as -san in an early stage of the relationship.

Anata, the familiar form of “you,” and -san are roughly at the same level of politeness — not necessarily rude, but not polite enough to be used when addressing a superior.

One effective way of substituting for the pronouns “you” and “me” is through the use of お宅 (Otaku “your honorable house”) and 家 (Uchi, “my house”). The possessive forms for both are made by simply adding the particle の (no).

The general term used for a person’s 称号 (shōgō, title) or 地位 (chī, rank) that might appear on his or her business card is 肩書き (katagaki), written out with the characters meaning “shoulder writing.” As a foreigner in a business situation, if you’re confused or concerned about how to address someone, you have the prerogative of asking them. Let’s say you’re introduced to a Mr. Maeda, a 部長 (buchō, division general manager) at a company. After exchanging business cards, you can ask, 「じゃ、『前田部長』と呼んでよろしいですか」 (“Ja, ‘Maeda-buchō’ to yonde yoroshii desu ka?” “Well then, is it all right for me to address you as ‘division head Maeda’?”). Once when I posed this question the manager replied in perfect English, “Please call me Mike.”

If you haven’t yet been introduced to someone or are uncertain of the relationship between two people, it’s safe to refer to him or her as お連れの方 (Otsure no kata, the person accompanying you). Back in the mid-1970s, a hit song by the Downtown Boogie Woogie Band had a line that went あんたあの娘のなんなのさ (Anta ano ko no nan-nanosa, You’re that girl’s whatchamacallit), which became a popular buzzword. The nan-nanosa (what is known as a “placeholder name” in English) is suggestive here of “boyfriend.” While a bit lowbrow, I like how it puts a humorous spin on the awkwardness of referring to couples in a relationship.