First names in Japanese honorifics?
August 9, 2010 6:09 PM   Subscribe

In Japanese society, it is really that awkward when someone asks you to call them by their first name (given name)?

This shows up a lot in anime. One character will say to the other, "Hey, you can call me FirstName." The other character is absolutely shocked and sometimes has trouble even saying the name. Is this an accurate example of how honorifics work, or is it just your normal anime-style overexaggeration?
posted by reductiondesign to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No it's an exaggeration.
posted by gomichild at 6:12 PM on August 9, 2010

On the other hand, it is really, really uncommon to call people by their given name here. It's usually 'family-name-san" and that's about it. Most Japanese teachers I work with call our JHS students by their family names (usually with a -kun or-chan ending).
posted by Ghidorah at 6:35 PM on August 9, 2010

I did my thesis research in a Japanese lab with 20 students all in their early 20's like me, and knowing the custom I called them by their family names with proper honorifics. As the year progressed and I became better acquainted with them, several had asked me to use their proper names. Kind of a "oh please, we're friends! call me (name)" and it was just an "oh, ok :), nice :)" but not a huge shock to anyone. In general, I think there are a lot of socially awkward people in japanese anime making their first friend or talking to a huge crush.
posted by lizbunny at 7:11 PM on August 9, 2010

On top of it being an exaggeration, Japanese people also know that this isn't the norm according to visiting Americans, too. My brother lives in Tokyo (has for the last few years) and although he's just about the most antisocial person you'll ever meet and doesn't have anybody who he'd call a close friend, apparently most of his colleagues call him "Sam-u" (which I find incredibly cute).

I think that the anime cliche might have some basis in truth for kids and the socially awkward, but it's the same level of truth as, say, the American movie cliche of some nerd having a gathering of friends at a house with no parents and before he knows it, the entire school has shown up with beer. It happens, but not every time.
posted by Mizu at 7:40 PM on August 9, 2010

data point:
it's MUCH more likely that a Japanese person will call a foreigner by their first name (without first being invited) (and for it to be "acceptable"), than it is for it to be acceptable for a foreigner to call a Japanese person by their first name (with or without honorifics) (in Japan) (in my experience). I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I think it has something to do with the speaker adapting the addressee's customs, and the likelihood that a first name is easier to pronounce/ shorter/ more familiar than a last name. Nevertheless, it can be frustrating.
posted by segatakai at 8:53 PM on August 9, 2010

"(with or without honorifics)"
should have come after
"(without first being invited)"
posted by segatakai at 8:57 PM on August 9, 2010

the point of the addendum being that it is basically unheard of for a Japanese person to be addressed (whether by first name or last) (whether by foreigner or by Japanese) without -san, -kun, -chan, -sensei, etc, but somehow (see above about addressee's customs) when the addressee is a foreigner, the rules become much more free to interpretation.
posted by segatakai at 9:07 PM on August 9, 2010

I would say "no" and "it depends."

When I would introduce my Japanese husband to my Japanese friends and coworkers in Japan, he'd insist that they'd just call him by his given name. No one was ever shocked by this request, but they did have a hard time not appending "san" to his name, purely out of habit.

The depends part comes from whatever relationship might exist/develop between the addresser and addressee, mostly if there is a difference in "power," i.e. boss/employee, teacher/student, etc. In those cases I feel that it would be more unusual or even unheard-of for either side to drop the honorific.
posted by ultrapotato at 9:23 PM on August 9, 2010

Yes, segatakai, that's true. The aforementioned brother rolls with whatever people choose to call him, but he never ever presumes to call anybody anything without an honorific. Apparently there was a woman who asked him to call her by her first name, and although this was kind of a big deal, it wasn't the sort of stuttering blushing omg ~moment~ like it seems to always be in anime.

Also there's this weird tendency in anime to show foreigners who are ignorant of honorific etiquette, even if the character is otherwise fluent and not too much of a ridiculous caricature. I've always found this odd, considering how much it's hammered into people who are learning the language in a normal educational capacity, or for business.

Back to the original question, however, I suspect that the emphasis put on moments when characters ask one another to call them WhateverName is just a function of narrative style. Scenes like that are always really good for showing changes in character dynamics, so why not milk it for every storytelling drop? It's a wonderful structure to build off of.
posted by Mizu at 9:23 PM on August 9, 2010

Yes, like Ghidorah points out, it's very uncommon for people to call each other by their first names (without honorifics) here. By the time you're in junior high, you're calling your classmates by their last names (in this case with or without honorifics) unless you've known them since kindergarten or some such age. Calling someone by their first name, or last name even, without an honorific is called "yobisute" and not considered a good thing.

The exception about first-name calling is if you have a super-common family name, like Sato or Tanaka. Then, because there will often be at least another person with your same last name in your class or grade or workplace, people will end up calling you by your first name or a nickname. This was me; I used to be a Suzuki. So I got called by my first name more often than most, I imagine, because people still called me "first name-san" even as an adult at the workplace.

But your question reminded me of a situation where I really felt that I was brought up as a Japanese person by my parents even though I grew up in the States... when I was attending university in Canada, an elderly professor who was really kind to me and who I really respected asked me to call him by his first name, and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't. I don't know if it was the age difference, or the fact that he was one of my sensei, or because I respected him a lot, or what, but I couldn't do it and just sort of apologetically kept calling him "Professor Lastname."

People who are younger than I am might feel differently about this, however.
posted by misozaki at 9:29 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I consulted at [large Japanese company]'s Silicon Valley office, the custom was that Japanese citizens living & working here went by their first names, while short-term visitors from Japan were "lastname-san" almost exclusively. Those visitors would also refer to those living here by "lastname-san" even as the rest of us called them by their first names.
posted by judith at 10:27 PM on August 9, 2010

People who are younger than I am might feel differently about this, however.

I've worked at several companies here in Japan -- among them one very Japanese company and one Japanese branch of an American company. At the Japanese company it was the norm -- as it is in society at large here -- to call people by their last name, affixing -san or -kun (or nothing) depending on the relative status of the speaker. Among my coworkers I was referred to by my first name only, and since I was one of the youngest in the company I generally did not have any suffix attached. Outside of the company, however, I introduced myself by my last name, and generally was referred to by my last name in meetings and such.

In my current (American) company, on the other hand, all of the regular staff are on a first-name basis, with -san attached for managers and sempai (and the occasional -chan for a coworker of similar age). For temp staff we keep the Japanese custom, and for all outsiders we go by last names (some of the non-Japanese-speaking American managers may be different). This applies to both Japanese and non-Japanese employees. For my first few weeks, I was prone to calling everyone "◎◎-san" when speaking Japanese, which got amused reactions from coworkers who were used to being called simply "◎". I'm still not used to it, to be honest, but that's probably a good habit to have.

In short, nominal references are a combination of organizational culture and societal norms. Although there are many, many exceptions, in Japan one defaults to "Lastname-san," and one can get a surprised or chagrined response if they make a mistake. Part of the reaction from the character in the anime you watched, though obviously hyperbolic, is likely due to the fact that someone very used to referring to someone one way would be a bit surprised and uneasy about referring to that same person in a new, more familiar manner. There is no real equivalent in Western society that I can think of, except perhaps du/Sie in German or tu/Lei in Italian.
posted by armage at 11:49 PM on August 9, 2010

The only times I (as a Caucasian living in Japan) have had it be awkward when someone asked me to call them by their first name was when a woman asked me to call her Mami (ie: mommy) and a guy asked me to call him Knob. However as others have said, it's pretty common for Japanese to introduce themselves to foreigners with their first name.

The awkwardness in Japanese Anime/Manga is because it indicates a dramatic shift in personal intimacy/comfort. It's equivalent to getting a long warm hug from someone you just met. Generally used as a literary device to get two characters close to each other without tons and tons of expository time.
posted by Ookseer at 12:01 AM on August 10, 2010

I just arrived in a rural town in Japan and after a few days I noticed that the office uses a mixture of first names and last names. The bureau chief and two older women are called by their last names. Me, a part-timer my age, and a junior employee who opens up the office in the morning are referred to with our first names. The part-timer is female and insists on a nickname, Momo-chan. Everyone else is "-san". Also, as described above, the rules may have relaxed for me because I'm a foreigner who will work with young kids and they want to be friendly. It's complicated to describe, but given everyone's social status and the warmhearted, small office it makes sense.
posted by shii at 12:15 AM on August 10, 2010

I didn't mention that the bureau chief is actually called "lastname-kachou" or "kachou-san", except at enkais when he temporarily becomes "lastname-san". That deserves two or three other explanations I won't get into here. Suffice to say that even though the atmosphere here is as friendly as armage's American company, there is a deep respect embedded in the names we use.
posted by shii at 12:22 AM on August 10, 2010

it's MUCH more likely that a Japanese person will call a foreigner by their first name (without first being invited) (and for it to be "acceptable"), than it is for it to be acceptable for a foreigner to call a Japanese person by their first name (with or without honorifics) (in Japan) (in my experience). I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I think it has something to do with the speaker adapting the addressee's customs, and the likelihood that a first name is easier to pronounce/ shorter/ more familiar than a last name.

I was trying to quote an academic paper by a Japanese chap the other day, and I discovered he had english-language papers with different name-orderings - some Aaaa Bbbb, some Bbbb Aaaa, some A. Bbbb. Sometimes the capitalisation is different - A. BBBB. I also know that some countries put the family name first - but that some academics in those countries rearrange their name to match western naming schemes. What's more, my citation-management software takes the format "Lastname, Firstname" and rearranges things automatically depending on the selected citation style. And even then, I'm only using the romanized version of his name.

I guess what I'm saying is: I find it understandable that names might get confused in communications between people who usually follow incompatible conventions.

I've also heard that no computer system handles names properly because no universal assumptions about names are valid.
posted by Mike1024 at 1:31 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

On the other hand, Mike1024, it's incredibly common for Japanese teachers of English (including those who've lived/studied overseas) to call native English teachers things like Bob-sensei. Even when, in the past, I've indicated (when asked) that I would like to be called by my family name, many teachers continue to call me by my first name, even when my name, when listed on schedules, is my family name. The disparity, especially among people who really should know the difference in cultural norms, is a little jarring.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:50 AM on August 10, 2010

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