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Say my name - correctly, if you wouldn't mind

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Say my name - correctly, if you wouldn't mind

In Japanese business, do you call your business partners by their first name? Last name? Both? Let's dive into naming rules in Japan

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Published on 16 Apr, 12:00

Names are an important part of who we are as people. In daily life, saying someone's name incorrectly could be a serious faux pas.

In a hierarchical society like Japan that still places a high value on positioning and titles, ensuring that you are not unintentionally insulting your business partner will mean a smooth start to your business endeavours.

Let's look at some fundamentals when it comes to addressing people in Japan.

Do you know what I do for a living?
Do you know what I do for a living?

Proper titles

If you have ever been to Japan, you'll notice that staff of a certain company, industry, or job description all wear the same type of uniform. Uniformity is very important in Japan; this extends to greeting individuals with the proper title as well. A few titles that might be important to keep in mind include:

  • sensei for teachers, lawyers, and doctors.
  • okyaku for guests (such as in a hotel)
  • maneija for manager

If you happen to know the position of the person you are addressing or speaking to, be sure to address them with the proper title. But what if you don't know if he's the president or the manager, or if he's a professor or a teacher? Here are a few other ways to address people!

Suffixes in business

If you forget everything else, remember add -san after someone's name when you address them! It is the usual phrase that people use to show respect, for most strangers, coworkers and clients. Aside from that, don't forget about these unique Japanese suffixes:

  • -sama for showing a high level of respect (e.g. secretary to the president, addressing an important client)

(e.g. Okyaku-sama would be a respectful way to address the client)

  • -chan/-kun are terms of endearment for either junior members of staff or personal friends. -chan is usually reserved for referring to women, and -kun for men.
Depending on the recipient, these terms could be considered at best top-down and, at worst, demeaning, so they are to be used with caution. I recommend only using these if you happen to personally know the individual well, and also not within the work environment

(e.g. 'Satomi-chan' (woman) or 'Kevin-kun' (man) might be how a senior member of staff might refer to a junior during an after-hours event.)

In a country where showing respect is the ultimate way of building relationships, one of the more surefire ways to gain favour is to understand the title of the partner you're speaking to, and to use it when addressing that person.

So, what do you like to go by?
So, what do you like to go by?

Family name/ Last name

As a foreigner with a 'cute' name for Japanese (Kevin Chan), the ways I've been referred to has run the gamut from 'Kevin-chan' (as a joke) to 'Kevin-sensei' (when I was teaching to 'Chan-san' as a manager.

Unlike the common practice in Canada, where I'm from, Japanese don't usually refer to each other by their first name in the business workplace, unless you're working in a more international environment that has adopted that practice.

You will likely be referred to be your family/last name, followed by a suffix, which in the business place will likely be -san. As I mentioned, if your manager does call you -chan/-kun, it may be a product of their upbringing (particularly if they are an older individual) and not intentionally trying to put you down.

If you're concerned, pay attention to how the manager addresses the rest of the staff in your department; if you're the only -kun in the office, that may be a reason to be a bit more suspicious of his intentions.

When you're navigating working in Japan as a foreigner, bear in mind that family/last name comes first in the writing order on documents as well

This is particularly important when reading off of business cards, but especially when you are speaking in English, it's important to remember not to address your coworkers by their family name without the appropriate suffix.

Please, Mr. Chan is my father. Call me Kevin.
Please, Mr. Chan is my father. Call me Kevin.

First names

As a foreigner, I found the easiest way to sidestep this potential cultural landmine by speaking in English and addressing all my coworkers simply by their first names.

It is important to explicitly explain to your Japanese coworkers that what might be 'natural' or 'normal' for them is not for you and that if they expect you to follow the convention of the land, they need to explain it to you.

In my experience, my coworkers have been more than ready to not only tell me what the appropriate names are but also why that is the case.

One particularly responsive HR personnel who I spoke with even went as far as to email me a list in romanji (Japanese names spelled out in romanized characters) for my reference, a gesture for which I was touched and grateful.

Like the song goes, all we're asking for it a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t
Like the song goes, all we're asking for it a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t

A name can be a sensitive issue for many people, and I think it's certainly worth the effort to make sure you're not unintentionally insulting your coworkers on the first day at the job.

Demonstrating the appropriate level of respect for your coworkers by addressing them properly will go a long way for yourself as well, as it's a very simple gesture that will show them that you are willing to make an effort to contribute to the group, which will go a long way to making your working experience a positive one.

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Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.

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