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The Intimacy of Names in Japan

The Intimacy of Names in Japan

I’ve been watching a few cheesy Japanese romance dramas (my guilty pleasure) and I noticed something bewildering: when a young Japanese couple starts dating and starts addressing each other by first name instead of last name, the dynamic of their relationship completely changes.  In one particular drama, the boyfriend told his new girlfriend that she should call him “Kotaro” instead of “Taniguchi-san.”  She blushed and said she wasn’t ready to take their relationship that far.

Watching these dramas also reminded me of the Japanese advertisement that made headlines a few years back.  In this ad, a Japanese mom/housewife is shaken to the core when her husband calls her by her first name.  Most men call their Japanese wives “okaasan” (mother) and never by their first name.

This weird take on Japanese names and intimacy made me reflect on my own  situations with Japanese people and our relationships.

Close Friends, But Still My Boss

Takada-san and I sat next to each other at the office.  She was my boss.  Despite discussing our hopes and dreams to each other, going out drinking at old Shanghai bars, working late nights at the office and even having her attend my wedding last year, I still call her Takada-san.

Her first name is Yuko, but I have yet to call her that–and probably never will.  If I called Takada-san by her first name (Yuko), it would completely change the dynamic of our relationship.  I knew we were close friends, but if I called her by first name alone would she think I was being rude and uncouth?  Would I be disrespecting her as a former employer, and as an elder to myself?

So I play it safe and call her Takada-san.  Even with my host-moms in Nagano and Niigata, I don’t risk it.  I still address them as lastname + san.

The Herbivore Man

At my previous company there was a Japanese man who was the same age as Tohko and I.  When Takada-san introduced me to him she gave me a wink that said: how about him, eh?  Instead of love at first sight, all I could think of when I saw him was:

Herbivore man.

He dressed better than me.  His hair was beautiful.  He spoke softly and gently.  He was like a delicate wildflower about to be blown away by a summer gust of wind.

“Ishi-san,” I bowed slightly.  “Hajimemashite.”

He did likewise, but instead of using last name+ san like I did, he called me Mary-san (I’ll explain why later).

Ishi-san and I, along with Tohko, hung out a few times in Shanghai.  We went on the company trip together to Jeju Island and had a good time.  He was a nice guy and, in my mind, the epitome of a modern Japanese man.  Beautiful, delicate, and subdued.

When I visited Tokyo two years ago, he took the two hour train from Yokohama to come and see me for dinner.  When he visited LA last year, I drove up from San Diego and took him around to see the LA sights (as a fan of La La Land, he was touched seeing Griffith Observatory in person).

As we chatted over dinner in LA, it hit me:

Holy shit.  What is this guy’s first name?

I am embarrassed to admit this, but I had to look him up on Facebook to remember his first name.  When I saw his first name, I simply could not fathom ever calling him by it.  In fact, he was so Japanese in his thinking that, if I ever did call him by his first name (minus ‘san’), he would probably feel like our relationship attained a whole new level of intimacy and probabaly fall out of his chair in shock (especially considering he’s a herbivore man)

In other words, calling Japanese people by their first name alone is a huge penetration into their personal space.

The Foreigner Exception

Yea. That’s me.

I think I mentioned that all Japanese people, including Takada-san and Ishi-san, call me Mary-san.  In my many years in Japan, no one has ever addressed me as “last name-san.”

One of my favorite bloggers wrote a scathing blog post against the Japanese, saying their inability to call foreigners “lastname +san” is an insult and degrading.  When I was a teacher in Japan, all of the students addressed the Japanese teachers as “lastname + sensei.”  I was always “Mary-Sensei-.”  I’ve never heard of a western Japanese teacher being addressed as lastname+sensei.

I believe Japanese people are aware that, in western cultures, we address each other by our first names (especially in the USA).  We like to keep it casual.  I think Japanese people address me as Mary because it’s ‘normal’ for my culture, but to call me ‘Mary’ without a ‘san’ attached would denote too much intimacy for their comfort.  The firstname+san is their hybrid way to be casual like a westerner, yet keep that Japanese distance they value.

The Westernized Japanese

Tohko had more western friends than Japanese ones.  In fact, she was so westernized that Japanese people often ask her what country she’s from.

When I first met Tohko, our conversation was so casual (and conducted halfway in English) that the thought of calling her ‘san’ didn’t even pass my mind.  Our relationship started out in English–a language without all the Japanese formality–so we addressed each other merely as Tohko and Mary.

In the USA I met another good Japanese friend, Manami.  From day one I called her Manami and she addressed me as Mary–and it’s because our conversation started out in English.  If we were in Japan and met for the first time, I probably would have bowed, introduced myself, and called her lastname + san.  The English/Western dynamic already elevates our relationship to a whole new level.

The thought of calling her, or Tohko, lastname+san is super weird to me.

And Finally, From Acquaintance to Good Friend

When I first met my Japanese friend K, I thought he was one year older than me.  It was tricky to figure out what to call him, because while he was older than me the two of us didn’t have any other professional relationship to set the boundary.  He wasn’t my coworker and he wasn’t my classmate.  I decided to call him by his first name followed by “san” to play it safe.  K-san.  Firstname + san is usually used for someone you’re acquaintances with, but still not quite close to yet.

I kept this up for about two months until, finally, K could take it no more.

“Mary,” K rolled his eyes.  “We’re close friends now.  It’s weird having you call me K-san.  Just call me K.”

It only took seven years (yes, seven years), but I was able to address a non-westernized Japanese person by first name alone.  It made me realize that opening up to a Japanese person–and achieving that first-name-basis relationship–was not impossible.

17 thoughts on “The Intimacy of Names in Japan

  1. I just got an email in English today. The first two lines were:

    Dear Mr. John Smith,

    Hello John-San.

    I think that fits perfectly into what you’re saying here!

  2. Fascinating. I called all the Japanese women I played volleyball with by their first names, and I thought they called each other by their first names as well, but now I am wondering if they were using last names and I just missed it.

    Or maybe they just figured, “When in Rome…”

    I’m kind of horrified by calling your wife “Mother.” Undoubtedly due to Mike Pence.

    1. I think your volleyball colleagues definitely had the “when in Rome” approach to names. I think most Japanese that move/live in the USA don’t mind the first-name basis and adopt it quickly to assimilate.

      Hahaha you made me laugh out loud with your Mike Pence comment! Yeah if my husband called me ‘mom’ instead of my name (even after I get married) I would flip ouuuut!

  3. Very interesting. And you made me realise that I called all my Japanese classmates in Beijing by their first name, without san or anything. We talked in Chinese so I guess it was fine for them, as they never seemed shocked or uncomfortable.

    Formal language in interpersonal relations makes me very nervous, I’m glad I’m not Japanese or Korean, haha. We have a formal version of “you” in Spanish and I only use it with super old people or with the CEO of my previous company…

    1. Yeah, that’s also why I love Chinese (no formalities!). I feel like my mind is running in a million directions when I speak Japanese.

      It’s just a hunch, but I think Japanese people feel kind of liberated when they’re abroad and aren’t tied down by cultural norms. I think they love studying abroad in China/USA/EU/AU and just throwing first names around 🙂

    2. I wonder if Latin America is more formal than Spain. I was taught to use usted with all adult strangers (especially in a professional or business context) and anyone who looks older than me.

      1. It probably is. Latin Americans make fun of Spanish because we are always cursing, so probably they use the formal address more often too! In Spain the theory is also to use usted with people you don’t know or who are older, but many people dislike it (i.e. if I used usted with a 40-something year old woman, she might assume I think she is very old and be offended. However if this woman worked in a government building and I was there trying to get information or get something done, I would use usted anyway).

  4. Fascinating. I had no idea. Yes, I had to google herbivore men as well. But the name thing! Wow. The Japanese are so old school! Hahahhaha. It sounds like a cheeky way to address your mate. Maybe I’ll try it at work and see how it goes 😉

    But the name thing, yeah, automatically creates distance, doesn’t it? When I was teaching in the States it was SO weird to be referred to as my Ms. Cox. It’s the name of my father’s adopted father so it has zero significance if you know what I mean.

    The age thing though and how to address people. I’ve gotten to the point where most folks are younger. Oh dear! So that makes it easier! And the ones who are older are obviously older! xo

    1. Haha yes, spreading the knowledge of herbivore men!!! (the real reason birth rates are low in Japan, maybe? ahahaha).

      Do they call you Ms. Cox in Thailand and Cambodia? Or do they use the Thai/Cambodian words for teacher? In China I heard they call teachers “name+laoshi,” which means teacher.

      I would be SO weirded out to be called Ms. last name (maybe that’s an American habit? haha, try to keep things as friendly as possible?). If I were a college teacher, I would be that professor who says “hey, just call me Mary.”

      Haha yeah getting older in Asia means you don’t have to worry about honorifics anymore. I noticed that the elderly in Japan were the most refreshing to talk to, because they were so old they just didn’t give a fck–you know? The young people who talked to me were worried about how weird it would look to talk to me (a foreigner), how to address me, what we should talk about, etc.. While the older people would plop down next to me on a tatami mat and be like, “so yeah, you bombed us during WW2, but it’s still cool meeting you. Want to hear my war stories?” I enjoyed those conversations MUCH more than talking to a young person who only wants to ask me if I can use chopsticks or eat sushi.

      What I don’t like about getting older is getting called the ‘older honorific’ names… Like in China, kids call young ladies older than them ‘jiejie’ (older sister), but last time I went to China they called me ‘ayi’ (auntie). Eeesh. That one hurt. 😉

  5. Yeah its true, foreigners rarely get called by their last name, and when they do, its done in a begrudgingly manner.. -san has been used on me a few times, but didnt have the same feel to it as when they address each other. I dont like to beat around the bush as to why. I personally think they just see foreigners as outsiders and look down on them; that is they are not worthy of the honorifics etc.

    1. I notice that Japanese people at government offices or some other place that has to do regulatory paperwork will call you “last name+san” because they have no relationship to you and they just look at the paperwork. When it comes to the workplace or even friends, they always just use “first name+san.”

      I agree, the Japanese won’t admit it, but they do look down on foreigners and don’t want to treat them the same. It used to make me upset, but now I just shrug my shoulders and say “whelp, that’s Japan. Shoganai.”

  6. This is very beautifully explained. The nuances in the relationship are captured perfectly. Thank you for this.

    But how about the other way around? What do you call an ex-lover whom you used to address by his first name? Or a childhood friend you called first name-chan that you haven’t seen in 20 years?

    Do you revert to a more formal naming system?

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think once you drop the ‘last-name’ and ‘san’ bit, it stays like that forever. It’s a rite of passage, which is why it’s such a big deal for a friendship to get to the ‘first-name’ basis in Japan. I think even for an ex-lover you’d still call them by their first name.

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