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The Pitfalls of Addressing Foreigners in the Workplace

Honorifics are an interesting part of Japanese culture, and they can be more than a little confusing! For foreigners in Japan, using honorifics correctly can be difficult, and perhaps more troubling than correct usage is understanding the meanings when they are used in reference to yourself.

By 7 min read 15

Imagine the scenario: It’s your first day as a newly-appointed teacher at an elementary school in rural Japan. You’re there bright and early. It’s always good to show enthusiasm after all, especially when starting out in a new job, and you want to leave plenty of time to introduce yourself to fellow teachers and students before the formalities begin.

You’ve done your homework too: When addressing a stranger, use the person’s surname and attach ‘-san‘ to the end. It’s like saying Mr. or Mrs. in English. Furthermore, in the office and other formal environments, it’s considered impolite to leave the suffix off the end of the surname. Well, that’s the same back home. You can almost hear the booming voice of your school teacher from many years ago…

Smith! For goodness’ sake boy, stop slouching and sit up straight!

Yeah, there’s a definite authoritarian tone to addressing somebody by their surname alone. Definitely won’t be making that mistake.

But that’s not all. Unlike many western cultures, in Japan people generally don’t call one-another by their first name. Doing so can be a mark of disrespect, unless you’re very close to the other person and in the right sort of casual environment, so you’ve read. Mental note then: first names are best avoided.

You’re almost lost in thought considering all the cultural tips you’ve studied ready for your life here, when all of a sudden, you’re face-to-face with somebody you recognise.

That’s right! You recall their face from the list of staff members sent to you in advance. It’s none other than the main English teacher at the school, your partner for the next year, Mr. Sato. Along with him, the head teacher Mr. Kurosawa.

“John, right? It’s good to finally meet you. I’m the school’s head teacher, Kurosawa. This is your co-worker Sato-san, by the way.” Greets a pleasant Mr. Kurosawa.

“We’re so glad you could join us.” Adds Mr. Sato.

“Kurosawa-san, Sato-san. What a pleasure to meet you both.” You hasten, pleased with your efforts at introducing yourself in Japanese.

While walking to the school building with them, you can’t help but wonder…

What a nice fellow, you think. But what was all that I read about not using first names, especially when meeting the first time..?

Not long after, you’re in the staff meeting and Mr. Kurosawa is introducing you to the rest of the faculty.

“…And this is Smith-san. He’ll be joining us all the way from his home country of Australia. Please everyone, make him feel at home.”

Ah, good. My first proper introduction. Surname-san, you smile knowingly. But why did Mr. Kurosawa introduce me as Smith-san this time..?

Content, you’re off to meet your homeroom class. On the way, you bump into a stocky sort of guy. He must the gym teacher! What was his name again… Ah yes!

“Tanaka-san, I presume? Nice to meet you”, you venture.

“Ohh, Ohh. You already know my name, John! Can I call you John? I’ve always wanted to visit Australia. Hold a Koala and such, you know!?” Responds an overeager Mr. Tanaka.

Surprised, but cheery, you make smalltalk before continuing on to your classroom, pondering a little. It’s great that everyone is being so friendly to me, but I thought referring to someone by their first name was rude..? Are they looking down on me..?

Just before you reach the homeroom, a tall, lanky figure floats out in front. Spectacles gleaming in the glow of the morning sunlight, you almost mistake her for a ghost. Wearing a long, white lab coat, it’s Miss. Nakamura, the science teacher.

“Greetings, Smith-san. My name is Nakamura. It looks like we’ll be sharing a desk in the staff room this year.” she chats.

“Nice to meet you Nakamura-san.” you respond, beamingly happily. “I’m looking forward to working together”.

Finally, somebody who has addressed me properly! She didn’t add -san to her own name, because it’s an honorific designed to be polite. But she called me Smith-san!

The door to your homeroom rolls open and you’re inside being introduced to a class of wide-eyed, fidgety students.

“Everyone, let’s give John-sensei a warm welcome. He’ll be here helping me teach English for the next year”. Remarks Mr. Sato.

Did he just introduce me to my class of students by my first name..? But he added -sensei to the end, so that makes it okay, right? But shouldn’t it be Smith-sensei?

Rather puzzled and somewhat deflated, you try to smother the thoughts buzzing around in your mind and focus on greeting the class with a dashing, friendly smile. First impressions are key, after all!


Honorifics are an interesting part of Japanese culture, and they can be more than a little confusing! The concept is simple though: you add a suffix to the end of names to address or refer to people. The general idea being that the use of a suffix raises the person up – honouring them, so to speak – and doing so is deemed to be polite. There are many types of honorifics though, with varying meanings.

But for foreigners in Japan, using honorifics correctly can be difficult, and perhaps more troubling than correct usage is understanding the meanings when they are used in reference to yourself. The above story illustrates the sort of emotions an enthusiastic foreigner might experience when interacting with fellow staff members at a workplace in Japan. Particularly in this story, the protagonist is left feeling confused and somewhat hurt not being addressed in the same way that his colleagues would address one another.

There can be many reasons for this, but the most common one is actually the simplest and most positive. Choosing not to add -san to a name shows an affinity to the person. Close friends, especially those who have known each other since childhood and grew up together, often call one-another by their first names. This is limited to casual settings though, and even close friends would default to addressing one-another by surname-san in formal office settings where other people are present. In contrast, adding -san shows politeness but is also somewhat stand-offish and cold.

So, in the case of foreigners working with Japanese colleagues, not adding -san to a name is often an attempt to show respect for western traditions and, partly by default, also brings about a warmer, closer relationship quite naturally. Another variation is using -san with the foreigner’s first name instead of the surname. In fact, adding -san to many words, including ‘gaijin-san’ (Mr. Foreigner), is a mark of politeness and respect. Similarly, the suffix -sensei is used for teachers and other learned or skillful people.

There are situations however, where omission of -san is a mark of rudeness or authority. A company boss, for example, will often speak down to subordinates by omitting -san from their names (as well as modifying other speech patterns). The technique can also be used in a rude way. Perhaps unwittingly where the listener does not perceive the speaker to be in authority, or where the speaker intends to insult the listener. This is called yobisute – literally ‘throwing away the calling’ – and is not welcome. Most foreigners will likely commit this fallacy at some point without knowing it, and usually the listener will not point it out. Rest assured however, that it is noticed.

The trickiest situation as a foreigner however is dealing with somebody who means well, but unwittingly seems to undermine your authority. While those around you are busy addressing one another with -san politely, you are addressed by your first name alone. It stands out in business situations, and while being called affectionally by your first name can have positive effects, it can often be inappropriate. In some cases it can result in the foreigner feeling as though they are nothing more than a company mascot, singled out for their ‘uniqueness’, or it may mistakenly give a client the impression that you are very low in the pecking order of the organisation. In such cases, it’s best to voice your concerns with colleagues and request they address you in the way you prefer. Often they will be very surprised to hear that you felt uncomfortable at all!

That about wraps up this basic post on addressing people. What experiences have you had in Japan when addressing people? Were there situations where you felt uncomfortable or caused somebody else to feel uncomfortable?

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  • Agreed, it is very confusing for all concerned. I think the key is to honestly ask yourself the intent of the speaker. Often, it is as this article explained, not meant to be discriminatory or disrespectful. However, I find myself checking in on this article a few times to remind myself of this!

    And, it can be funny if your name ends in a sound similar to “san” – for example, “Robertson,” which becomes, “Robertson-san,” a bit unwieldy.

  • simplydenny says:

    Relationship-related article especially based on cultural matter like this is usually pretty interesting. I do love to observe how people interact with each other. In my case, I don’t mind being addressed by my surname-san or first name-san. In Indonesia we’re pretty flexible with this kind of culture. But still, I think not every person can be comfortable with my situation.

    It is true that if you don’t feel comfortable when your co-workers addressing you less formal than you thought, you should confirm it in the first place by telling the person who will introduce you to the others. It is like when you creating an earthenware. Shape it while it’s wet. Don’t try to shape it after it’s dry or it will crack. Which is in this case, it will caused uncomfortable situation if you decided to change how they should addressing you a little later.

  • Larry Cooper says:

    As portrayed in this scenario, the practices seem all over the map. Long-time friends often refer to me as Larry-san, but that’s not universal. Some of the casualness toward “westerners” may be because Japanese people have heard that we prefer that. Some of our Japanese friends seem to prefer to be called by their given names (Hikari-san, Toshi-san) and just about everyone does. Of course, this is in the U.S., not Japan.

  • Eija Niskanen says:

    I hate it when Japanese talk about foreigners by their first names in TV documentary programs. They have some NHK doc about an 80-year old Norwegian and they talk about his daily activities by his FIRST NAME!!! In Europe we don’t use first names so easily. We are not America!

    • Stian Haugland says:

      I’m Norwegian and I’ve never referred to someone by their surname. That includes friends, family, colleagues and even my boss. We all just casually use our first names to each other. Even when I was at the job interview my boss just said his first name and that was it. So I think at least in Scandinavia we are very relaxed about using names.

    • Mf2014 says:

      I think this has to do with how one is raised. I am American and would never call an older person by their first name. I was taught otherwise. I do notice a trend to do this with the younger generation and it just isn’t proper.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Yours is a perfect example of the difference in values between cultures (which is often overlooked in the Japan vs. Overseas framing of the world), and a strong argument for discussion to create mutual understanding.

      • Eija Niskanen says:

        Exactly. Many Japanese know that Americans go easily by first-name basis, so they assume all foreigners do the same. Many Europeans don’t.

        • Jason says:

          Americans will default to first names in casual, but in formal business situations, schools, and with doctors, I use appropriate titles. “Mr., Dr., etc.” Don’t claim to be so accustomed to what Americans do if you haven’t lived here. Most news reports will reference people by their full name, and the NY Times refers to people as “Mr. or Mrs.”. Also, it is very common to refer to someone as sir or ma’am when they are older, and is widely used in the South to address every stranger.

  • Sébastien Guillaume Shimomichi says:

    This was an interesting read. I have also experienced this working at a domestic firm in Tokyo. At my job I have had Japanese co-workers address me in numerous different ways. Surname-san, First name-san, First name-chan (this was only with a worker I was close with and I was called this when we were alone at the office). Aside from ~chan, I had co-workers in different departments in the company call me by my surname to establish some distance due to our different position. People in my department, however, addressed me by First name-san since day one. I was perplexed by this because it gave me the impression that I was being looked down upon. A few months later I spoke to my boss about how addressing me by my first name made me feel uncomfortable. He was utterly shocked and explained that they did so to bring in a sense of unity between the Japanese workers and I. It is after I spoke to my boss that workers in my department called me by my surname.

    I think that if you plan to invest your time into a company you should speak how you prefer being called by your surname. It may sound as if you are complaining but, it is better than feeling under-appreciated. While being addressed by your last name may cause distance between you and your co-workers, it will be essential that they do so whenever you find yourself with meetings with clients… You most certainly do not want clients to get the impression you’re a mere mascot of the company… or maybe I’m wrong about all this. Who knows. 😛

    • Gakuranman says:

      I enjoyed reading about your experiences. They echo my own quite strongly. Personally I would be okay with firstname-san (but not so much with firstname without a suffix, in the office), but this is exact the point I was trying to make – there is no one-size-fits-all solution!
      Everyone will have different ideas about how to address people from other cultures and often this is misinformed or neglects to show attention to individual preferences on the matter. Your approach to discuss the issue was a great way to deal with it.

      I’m curious to ask though – did your co-workers treat you any differently after changing to surname-san? For example, were they more stand-offish or cold, or did they maintain the same level of closeness but just change the way they addressed you?

      • Anthony Joh says:

        Interesting. I’m totally the opposite. When people call me Anthony-san it sounds weird, almost too formal.

        Growing up in Canada probably has a lot to do with it as the closer you are to your friends the less formal the conversation is between you. In fact I probably never called any of my close friends by their actual names, it was always a nick name that I’d given them.

  • Bry says:

    Interesting read!

    • Gakuranman says:

      Cheers! Any experiences to share yourself (they don’t necessarily have to be related to Japan).

      • MK8 says:

        Very interesting discussion! I wonder how my situation is assessed by others.
        I actually moved to Tokyo just 1.5 month ago to do research. My team consists of around 30 people, with only one other foreigner. While all my teammembers are older and generally addressed as ‘sensei’, I have been called ‘First name-san’ from the first day. My other foreign colleague is only adressed to as ‘First name’. While she has worked there for around 6 months, she does not speak Japanese. I on the other hand, already studied Japanese in my homecountry and was at least able to introduce myself in Japanese. Addressing me as ‘First name-san’ is, for me, a sort of acknowledgement for my efforts. Ofcourse, time will tell if this may change when we will get to know each other better.



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