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Back in February, a friend of mine who had recently divorced ran into her ex-husband. They were together for five years and were, naturally, on ちゃん付け (chanzuke) terms.

ちゃん付け is when you are close enough to a woman that you attach ちゃん (chan) to the end of her name instead of さん (san), which is often translated as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” but is really just an honorific suffix. ちゃん sounds more cute.

Anyway, my friend told me she was a bit surprised when her ex called her by her 名字 (myōji, family name) followed by さん. Taking the cue, she did the same, and the brief encounter began and ended with mutual respect.

“もうちゃん付けで呼び合わなくなって本当に離婚したんだと思った” (Mō chanzuke de yobiawanaku natte, hontō ni rikon shita-n da to omotta, Now that we don’t use “chan” with each other, it felt like I really got divorced), my friend told me. It was truly a defining moment for her, and she’s still trying to sort out her feelings.

It seems that the older a Japanese person gets, the more sensitive they are to such honorifics. In kindergarten, it was a no-brainer: Children are known primarily by their first names with ちゃん attached to them. As soon as they hit elementary school, though, the 名字 takes precedence. And when the 先生 (sensei, teacher) does roll call, they’ll use さん. From then on, kids will follow that example. As they get closer to one another, though, they’ll start swapping さん for ちゃん or a simple 呼び捨て (yobisute), which is when you skip the honorific entirely. Oh, and the boys will use 君 (kun), which has the feel of “little soldier.”

This informal system lasts throughout school but, when you get past graduation, only your oldest friends still use ちゃん as a term of endearment. My late grandmother called me かおりちゃん (Kaori-chan) well into adulthood, and I loved hearing her say it.

As cute as it sounds, ちゃん is also full of potential landmines. For example, 年上の方をちゃん付けで呼ぶのは失礼 (toshiue no kata o chanzuke de yobu no wa shitsurei, referring to an older person with “chan” is disrespectful). If you’re in a position of authority, using ちゃん with your juniors can sound condescending and may even be interpreted as a form of パワハラ (pawa hara, power harassment). Referring to a celebrity or media figure with ちゃん, whether on social media or in daily conversation, can also be problematic depending on your audience. It suggests that you’re on familiar terms with the celebrity in question, and gloating about it.

そう言えば (Sō ieba, Speaking of which), when environmental activist Greta Thunberg made headlines in Japan last year, the media was conflicted over what to call her. The traditional approach was to refer to her, a 16-year-old at the time, by her first name with ちゃん. However, that approach was ditched and the more formal グレタさん (Gureta-san) was adopted. The さん indicated respect, while ちゃん conveyed a familiarity that the press covering her didn’t have.

However, the press didn’t hesitate to add さん when it came to reporting on 大坂なおみ (Ōsaka Naomi, Naomi Osaka) winning the U.S. Open this year. 大坂さんは22歳の日本人でしたから (Ōsaka-san wa niju ni-sai no Nihon-jin deshita kara, After all, Ms. Osaka was a 22-year-old Japanese citizen [she’s 23 now]). Though there were some who felt this was too よそよそしい (yosoyosohii, aloof) as Osaka’s fans often refer to her as “なおみちゃん” (Naomi-chan), a phenomenon that prompted columnist Takashi Odajima to fume about the lack of social awareness in modern Japanese society.

Odajima rightly pointed out that Osaka is not the only female athlete to suffer from the peculiar reductiveness brought on by the use of ちゃん. Former figure skater Mao Asada was referred to as “真央ちゃん” (Mao-chan) in the media, former table tennis champ Ai Fukuhara was “愛ちゃん” (Ai-chan) and ski jumper Sara Takanashi was “沙羅ちゃん” (Sara-chan). Odajima wrote that Japan has turned into a nation of grandparents that need to view young female athletes like children.

Men under 20 years old don’t escape this infantilization, either. Professional golfer Ryo Ishikawa was referred to as “遼君” (Ryō-kun) from the time he debuted at 16. It was a nickname that stuck with him for four years, though now he goes by ハニカミ王子 (hanikami ōji, the bashful prince), which omits his name altogether.

So, when do you know you can move to ちゃん付け? Err on the side of caution and wait till you’re married! Seriously, every situation is different. A former boss of mine was a woman who asked to be called “理子ちゃん” (Michiko-chan) at work. She claimed this would make her feel younger, and was good for office ambience. We tried, but the “ちゃん” didn’t quite stick, so we settled on “理子さん” (Michiko-san), her first name with the proper honorific. After that, the office brightened up and 理子さん seemed years younger and more modern. The power of names should not be taken lightly.

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