Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

How to address the foreign elephant in the room — in Japanese?

by Louise George Kittaka

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said William Shakespeare, but for some foreign nationals in Japan, the use of their monikers by Japanese colleagues, students and friends can lead to ambivalent feelings. The topic comes up frequently on online English forums, and opinions vary widely.

For those who are only in Japan a few years, are still quite young or who don’t speak Japanese, this may be a nonissue. However, for long-termers who have invested time and effort in learning the language and working to fit into society here, it can be a bone of contention.

In a language where the polite default term of address is last name plus the suffix san, why is there an overwhelming tendency to address ostensibly foreign people in Japanese by first name plus “san,” or even just first name only? In the vernacular, referring to someone by name without “san” is known as yobisute. The practice of omitting “san” — or using the more casual kun or chan — is usually limited to family members, close friends or those quite junior to yourself, and would normally be considered inappropriate in a professional setting, especially with someone you don’t know well.

One major factor in the use of first names for foreign nationals is the widely held view that non-Japanese prefer a more casual approach to names, i.e., first name — with or without “san.”

“Many Japanese believe it’s more friendly and natural for an English-speaker to be called by their first name, and mean no harm. On the contrary, most are totally unaware that it feels strange for the non-Japanese person,” says Kuniko Tanaka, a Japanese in her 40s employed at a foreign embassy in Tokyo.

Certainly, this image is promoted by the mass media. When foreigners appear on Japanese TV shows, usually only their first names appear on screen, and even bicultural “half” celebrities often go by just a first name, as if to accentuate their “foreign” side.

A lot of Japanese have grown up calling foreign assistant language teachers (ALTs) or native teachers at English conversation schools by their first name, perhaps with sensei (teacher) at the end (“Jane-sensei”) — notwithstanding the fact that it is usually only preschoolers in English-speaking countries who address their teachers this way (as in “Ms. Jane”).

This is a constant source of frustration for one Canadian teacher in her 30s, who requested that her name not be published.

“I asked my students if they called their Japanese teachers by first name. Nope? We don’t call teachers by their first name in Canada, either,” she says. “I told them that whoever told them foreigners always go by their first name was wrong. I’ve offended countless (Japanese) teachers by using their first name right back at them when they’ve done it to me. They never clue in as to why until I ask them why they look upset.”

The idea that all foreigners go by first name only can lead to some incongruous situations. Rachel Yokomatsu works for an English language school with teachers of various nationalities. When a new pamphlet was recently printed, Japanese nationals were listed by their full names but it was first names only for the foreign staff.

“We should have had our full names written, according to both Japanese culture and our own home countries’ cultures,” says Yokomatsu, a New Zealander who has spent 20 years in Japan. “It was particularly irksome because a Japanese teacher with a foreign surname had her surname included, so it wasn’t a case of our names being too long, or unreadable.”

Diane Hawley Nagatomo has written extensively on the issues of identity and gender in the English teaching industry in Japan.

“I have to specifically teach my university students to call me Dr. Nagatomo or Professor Nagatomo. I’m not their age and I’m not their friend,” says the 50-something California native, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Science and Humanities at Ochanomizu University. “They think it is all right to call all foreigners by their first names, but this will get them in trouble when they deal with people who are older or who are of a higher status.”

Based on the range of comments received from foreign nationals for this article, it seems that it more likely to be women who receive the first-name treatment in professional settings. Whether deliberate or not, this bias may be indicative of the tendency for female staff to hold less weight in the Japanese workplace.

Eric Skier, 47, an American associate professor at Nihon University’s School of Pharmacy and a practitioner of kendo, says he feels fortunate to be addressed in the same way as his Japanese colleagues, “and the same applies to the kendo world, as I am treated the same as anyone else with my credentials and experience. Maybe I am lucky I am surrounded by people who respect me, or I have ‘earned my stripes’ and am being acknowledged in my social circles.”

Adrian Pinnington is dean of the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University. “In my experience,” says Pinnington, who is British, “it is always safer to be too polite rather than not polite enough, so, at least in the university setting, it is better to use either ‘sensei’ or ‘professor’ for teachers.”

While the main issue for foreign teaching professionals may be the way they are addressed by their students, those working in Japanese companies commented on communication with coworkers.

American Todd Foutts works for an educational publishing firm where the majority of staff is bilingual. He isn’t worried whether colleagues use his first or last name, or even “san” for that matter.

“Quite a few of my Japanese colleagues call each other by their first names, even in fairly formal situations,” he explains. “Based on my almost three decades of experience in Japan, I’d say the general rule that people should be referred to as ‘surname plus san’ has many nuances and exceptions. It seems to depend not only on context but also personality. As my dad used to say, ‘Call me anything but late for dinner.'”

In a similar vein, some workplaces have more a more laid-back corporate culture with regard to names than others.

“I actually told my coworkers to just use my first name, even though they started off using ‘san,’ ” says Adam Henry, an American tech industry programmer in his 20s who is the only non-Japanese employee at his firm. “My coworkers use nicknames anyway, so it is a really casual office by Japanese standards.”

Some respondents reported that their feelings have changed over time, and that they had developed a desire to “take back” ownership of how they are addressed by Japanese colleagues as they grew in confidence and seniority. During her first decade working as an in-house translator at a major Japanese firm, her coworkers usually addressed New Zealander Juliet Wise as “Juliet-san.” The turning point was being introduced to some newly hired employees.

“I suddenly realized that I didn’t want these babies calling me by my first name! I do find it a little awkward to refer to myself by my last name only, but I think it’s much better, and ensures that I’m on the same standing as my Japanese co-workers, especially in the eyes of newbies and customers,” says Wise, 44.

On the flip side, Japanese cultural mores may promote a tendency for people to add “san” to the names of Japanese colleagues, even when the conversation is predominantly in English. Hiroko Hoshi, a Japanese worker at an American multinational, commented on this habit. Hoshi spent 13 years studying and working in the U.S. before returning to Japan 17 years ago.

“In an English environment, I would never call my foreign boss ‘John-san.’ John is ‘John,’ but I would call my Japanese boss ‘Taro-san.’ Of course, in Japanese, I would call him ‘Sato-san,’ ” she explains.

Some interviewees pointed out that there are benefits to being called by your first name, providing it is by choice.

“As I have a common family name, being called by my first name makes me feel more like the individual I am,” says 42-year-old Heather Suzuki, an Australian whose spouse is Japanese. “I’m more offended when I’m treated differently for no reason in a professional setting, independent of how I’m addressed.”

Michelle Zacharias, a freelance artist in her 40s originally from Canada, questions the practice of using first names for foreign-sounding individuals in public places such as banks and medical clinics.

“When asked to call me by my last name, some (Japanese) people say that they do not know how to pronounce my name. I point out that it is written in katakana, a phonetic writing system. Then they say that they do not know which is my first name and which is my last name. Everybody of a certain age knows the Beatles song ‘Michelle,’ and Michelle was a character in ‘Full House,’ a TV show that was very popular in Japan!” Zacharias says, shaking her head.

When it comes to relationships on a more personal level, the paradox is that Japanese friends’ attempts at showing intimacy toward their foreign friends by using first names may have the opposite effect, making them feel marginalized.

“I am part of a large social group where all members are called by their family names followed by ‘san,’ and I am both the only foreigner and the only person referred to by given name, with the exception of a handful of members who are referred to by nickname,” reports Canadian Melissa Noguchi, a freelance editor who has lived in Japan for 15 years. “In this case, I see the struggle among my friends to call me by my (Japanese) surname. I know it’s meant as a sign of affection, but it often makes me feel more like a pet than an equal member of the group.”

(Incidentally, speaking of pets, while dropping suffixes is common for foreigners’ names, pets’ names are often followed by the affectionate diminutive “chan.”)

American Greg O’Keefe, a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department at Kyushu University, has been conducting research on the lives of long-term foreign residents in Japan, with the average respondent having spent 20 years here. The results suggest that these long-termers eventually tend to find ways to cope with these kinds of situations.

“When it comes to ‘othering,’ many respondents had individual ways of dealing with such situations, and these would be different than many new arrivals, i.e., under 10 years. Some use humor, some use preventative language,” reports O’Keefe, who has spent two decades in Japan himself.

Rather than treating all foreign nationals as a monolithic entity, Japanese would do well to remember they are dealing with individuals with their own unique characteristics, suggests Shinji Iwamasa, a Japanese associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Shirayuri University. “It’s a complex issue, because every person has their own cultural ideals.”

What’s in a name? Quite a bit, it would seem. At the end of the day, it is surely the individual’s prerogative to be addressed in a way that feels comfortable to them. If you’re happy, then good for you, but if you’re not, take back your “rose” and rename it.

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