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 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 by his first name, “Kotaro,” instead of his last name, “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 it would completely change the dynamic of our relationship. If I crossed the line and 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 last name + san.
The Herbivore Man
At my previous company there was a Japanese man who was the same age as Tohko and I. When I first saw him, two words instantly popped into my mind:
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. Instead of addressing me by 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. I could only imagine the reaction this herbivore man would have if I suddenly addressed him by his first name (minus ‘san’). He would probably go into instant shock and stop talking. Maybe he would even block me post-meeting, since I so quickly intruded into his personal space by addressing him by first name alone. The herbivore man does not take sudden intimacy well.
In other words, calling Japanese people by their first name alone is a huge penetration into their personal space.
The Foreigner Exception
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 “last name +san” is an insult and degrading. When I was a teacher in Japan, all of the students addressed the Japanese teachers as “last name + sensei.” I was always “Mary-Sensei.” Never Last Name + 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. Japanese people address me by my first name 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 first name+san is their hybrid way to be casual like a westerner, yet keep that Japanese distance they value.
The Westernized Japanese
My hyper-westernized Japanese friend Tohko had more western friends than Japanese ones. In fact, she was so westernized that Japanese people didn’t even recognize her as one of their own.
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 last name + san. The English/Western dynamic already elevates our relationship to a whole new level.
The thought of calling Manami or Tohko by their last name is incomprehensible 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.