Japanese Customs

When journeying to a foreign country it is important that you abide by the culture of that country. What might be considered all right in one country, such as addressing someone you do not know by their first name, would be considered a great insult in another. In Japan, it is particularly important to use the proper form of address when speaking to someone. The following are some forms of addressing an individual while you’re in Japan.

You can never go wrong by using the suffix -san. This is added to the end of a persons name as a sign of respect. The people of Japan are extremely polite, especially when meeting or speaking with someone they are not acquainted with. The word -san is also used as an addressing suffix added to an individual’s family name.

This is equivalent to adding the adding Mr., Ms or Mrs. in front of a person’s first or last name as in the English language. Most people in America would be fine with other people calling you by your first name without adding any honorifics, or using just your first name with an honorific. In Japan that is not the case. The suffix -san just has to be there. It is considered very impolite or vulgar to not use it, and is an insult to not do so. It is also considered impolite to add to your own name or when speaking of yourself to another.

The Japanese do use first names. However, this is only between close friends and other family members. Name suffixes such as -chan and -kun are used with close acquaintances or friends in place of the -san suffix. Should you use these less formal suffixes? As a foreigner you should not, unless you have developed a great deal of skill in the Japanese language. The exception would be if you are told to use the less formal form of address by the individual themselves.

The suffix -chan is widely used among women friends, family members and less so but sometimes among men. Grandmothers use -chan to call to their grandsons. The suffix -kun is most commonly used for children and particular boys, usually while they are still in school. You can almost never go wrong in Japan by being respectful to everyone. One honorific form of addressing a person is -sama, which is used by people of service or lower status to a person of higher status or who is being served. This is one form of address that shows respect.

Another form of respect is the honorific Sensei. This honorific is used towards someone who is considered accomplished or particularly deserving of respect, like a doctor, lawyer, artist, teacher, employer, or political figure. Sensei can be used as a suffix or it can stand alone as a title.