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What’s in a Name: Honorifics, Titles and Nicknames in Japan

How do Japanese people address each other at school and work?

By 4 min read

Do you have a nickname? Do you like it? Today some elementary schools in Japan are telling students not to call their classmates by nicknames. Some schools go far as to have all students call each other by last names with the gender-neutral honorifics.

This is to stop bullying between students, and while I’m all for schools wanting to create a safe environment, I can’t help feeling bad for kids. It’s a feeling shared by many Japanese adults nostalgic for their school days. Calling someone by their nickname is an expression of one’s affection for the person, and by all means, kids should have the right to do so.

There’s something very intimate about calling people by their first names or nicknames in Japan.

Perhaps this is more so in Japan, where the age difference puts so many restrictions on addressing others and the language we use. In fact, as an adult, I rarely get called by my first name or use the tameguchi (タメぐち) form (informal speech in Japanese) unless I’m with my old friends from school.

I might still use tameguchi with people of the same age, but I find it hard to get another step closer and call them by their first names.

There’s something very intimate about calling people by their first names or nicknames in Japan because Japanese people use various honorific titles when addressing others. Still, it’s because of this system that addressing someone by their nickname or first name becomes a sign of a close relationship.

So let’s look at how Japanese people address others in different stages of life, from elementary school to when they are out of school.

Elementary school (ages 6-12)

Photo:
English class at an elementary school in Japan.

Teachers generally call students by last names and use the honorific さん (san) for girls and くん (kun) for boys. Kids call each other by first names, nicknames or last names with or without the honorifics.

Back when I was in elementary school, I called my girl classmates in three ways:

  • by their first names without any suffix, calledて, or yobisute
  • by their first names with the suffix ちゃん (chan), mainly used for young girls or as part of nicknames
  • by their nicknames

As for boys, it was the same except that I would use the suffix “kun” instead. I was more likely to call my boy classmates by their last names with the suffix “kun.” Looking back, I believe that I had the most freedom in elementary school when deciding what to call my peers.

Middle school (ages 13-15)

Photo:
Teachers address junior high students by “san” or “kun.”

Teachers address students by last names with “san” for girls and “kun” for boys or call them by last names without the honorifics. (this was the case in my school) Students call each other by first names, nicknames or last names with or without the honorifics, and they become more sensitive to how they call each other as adolescence kicks in.

Calling each other by their first names without any honorifics hints that they are in a relationship, but it seems utterly natural if they are simply close friends. Because of this, middle school is where we can see the “confusion” among kids who can’t help speculating about the kind of relationship their peers have, based on how they address each other.

Middle school students start addressing seniors with the title senpai (せんぱい), which means “ahead” in schools. Senpai is almost always someone older than you, but you can also call someone senpai if they have more years of experience than you, whether your work or hobby.

High school and college (ages 16 or older)

Photo:
Japanese Junior High School Students in the classroom.

In high school, teachers address students by last names with “san” for girls and “kun” for boys or call them by last names without the honorifics.

This is the same as in middle school, but the big difference is that the use of “san” and “kun” (after last names) dramatically increases among students in high school and college.

I think this happens for two reasons:

  1. Students are old enough to know that they don’t need to get along with everyone, and thus they develop friendships in small groups.
  2. Students distinguish their close friends from mere classmates or peers, and they don’t bother to think about how to address the latter. There’s always the honorific “san” they can safely use to stay polite.

As with students in middle schools, high school and college students might also call seniors “senpai.”

Out of school (workplace)

You’ll want to be more formal at work.

By default, everyone addresses each other by the last name with the suffix “san.” Some companies might refer to employees by their last names with job titles (e.g., Sasaki buchoちょう—division manager).

Calling someone by the first name or nickname is usually considered inappropriate, especially when everyone working there is Japanese. However, at this point in life, many Japanese people draw a clear line between public (primarily work-related) and private (family and friends) lives, so it’s just one less worry in life that they don’t need to think about how to address others in public.

Instead, they follow the universal rule of calling someone by their last name with the suffix “san.”

How do you address your Japanese friends or colleagues? Does it tell anything about your relationship with them? Let us know in the comments!

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