Calling people in Japan by their titles, not names

Posted on September 24, 2006 | evankirby

Continuing the theme of social standing, another interesting facet of Japanese society is how people are called only by their title even when away from work or even after quitting their job!
For example, each office in a company generally has one 課長 (kachou, section chief). When subordinate staff talk to or about him, they will call him 課長, instead of his name. This is generally true even if they meet for drinks after work, or some other relaxed setting. And a 校長先生 (kouchou sensei, school principal) will always be called 校長先生, long after he quits the job to tend to his flowers.

Foreigners working as English teachers in Japan experience this sometimes, when people who they’ve never taught refer to them directly as 先生 (sensei, teacher). Women who are obviously married (whether because of wedding ring, or just attitude) will often be called 奥さん (okusan, literally "wife"), almost the Japanese equivalent of “madam”, by shop staff and salesmen. Other people in a store will be called お客様 (okyakusama, customer) to their faces, as in 「お客様、こちらの窓口でお願いします。」 (“Okyakusama, kochira no madoguchi de onegai shimasu”, “Sir/Madam, I’ll help you at this window").

It can often seem somewhat cold to a native English speaker to call a person by their job title rather than name, especially after you’ve become friends with them. But in Japan, it’s what’s expected of you. The good thing is, it means you don’t have to remember everybody’s name, as long as you can remember their title!

Social standing and language in Japan

Posted on September 21, 2006 | evankirby

In Japan, it’s very important to know a person’s social standing, as it affects the language you use when you talk to that person. This is why Japanese people often ask how old someone is when they first meet, especially if the two people are quite close in age – until they know who is older and who is younger, they don’t know what form of Keigo they should use, so it’s hard to carry on a conversation!

This social structure is extremely rigid, and begat the very formalized 先輩 (senpai, senior) and 後輩 (kouhai, junior) relationships. Senpai-kouhai relationships can perhaps be seen best in sports. In high school baseball teams, for instance, the 1st-year students must do everything for the 3rd-year students, including getting them drinks and snacks, cleaning up after games or practice, and washing uniforms. This is done regardless of baseball ability. When the 1st years themselves become 3rd years, they of course expect the same thing of the new 1st years. This relationship is perhaps not so rare, as it is also seen in British public schools, among other places. However, in Japan this relationship will continue as long as the two people know each other. Even long after high school graduation, the former 1st year will always be considered kouhai by his senior/senpai. And he will defer to his senpai accordingly, often even calling the person “Senpai” in daily life.