World Communication Association
Making a World of Difference

Hidden rules behind the title

Studying the culture that accompanies language

Tatchan Kazuo Akasaka


“I am Japanese. I have one actual name, but I can be addressed in many ways. If I were to count them there would be five or more. What is the reason for all these?” In the Japanese context the form of address used varies according to who the other person is.

I had a long life as a college professor. During that time I was called sensei (professor). Though I am now retired many people still seem to want to address me as sensei. Though I am not an actual teacher any longer, it is easier for people to continue with the same title rather than going to the trouble of changing it.

Looking in a Japanese dictionary we find that sensei means “Born first; one who excels in learning. The person one is studying under, or the title one uses for that person. One who is in the position of instructor or mentor, such as a teacher, doctor or lawyer”. At any rate there are many people in Japan who are addressed as sensei.

My grandchildren call me by my nickname “Tatchan”. While I was at high school my appearance became gaunt and pallid, and my elder brother was worried that I was on the verge of malnutrition, so he did his own study of fortune telling based on the writing or pronunciation of my name and changed it to “Tatsuaki”. I have been called “Tatsuaki” ever since.

At that time I was called “Tatchan” by my classmates. Strangely enough I heard from my elder brother that he doesn’t remember naming me “Tatsuaki”. What kind of impression of Japan would foreigners receive if they heard that that was my name?

I was quite surprised to hear the story that when my grand daughter was asked by her teacher at school “Try asking your grandfather (ojiichan) about this” she responded with “Who is ojiichan?”. This was because we had never told the grandchildren how grandparents are normally addressed!

When I started work I was told by the head office “We need your real name on official documents”, so I reluctantly had to use it.

As I liked “Tatchan” I had my students call me that way. They were hesitant at first, but it didn’t take them long to begin calling me “Tatchan”.

At a lecture for teachers I asked a young teacher sitting in the audience how he would like to be addressed. With a face expressing some bewilderment he replied “Yamagata is OK”, so I asked him a question beginning with “Yamagata…” (omitting any title) and a sense of unease drifted through the air.

The young teacher, being asked a question with his title omitted, was rather put out. Using a person’s name without including a title is indeed not an acceptable manner of conduct in Japanese society. There is a tacit understanding that it is customary to call someone “san”, “sensei” or whatever. This is in fact an “unseen rule” of Japanese society.

Titles are important in work-places in Japan. Titles such as “President” and “Section Head” are always used. If the Company President’s name was “Miyagi” for example, how would it be if his staff called him “Miyagi san”? No doubt a most embarrassing atmosphere would ensue. Because they were not showing respect by using his official title, the President himself would have the idea that all was not well. Complicated hidden rules are jumbled together within Japanese society.

The following incident is illustrative. It concerns a visit by Kiyotada Tazaki who was a lecturer for NHK Educational Television Elementary English conversation. When I was introducing an American friend called John, I was surprised that Tazaki sensei began “John san……”, thus appending san to his name. In America it would have been better to omit the title and simply say “John!”, but Tazaki sensei was thinking to himself “this is Japan”.

What to call the other person would seem to be not very significant, but Japanese society is quite particular about it.

In July, at a congress in New Zealand, I am presenting a research paper on the subject “Addressing Japanese people: how to get it right”. In this paper I am going to say how it is not just a question of studying and becoming fluent in the Japanese language, but also studying the culture in which it is deeply rooted. If you ignore the rules and conventions which Japanese people treasure it is indeed difficult to communicate effectively.

Well, however this develops I am looking forward to it!

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