How I Feel About Non-Japanese Name Usage in Japan

-By Caoimhín Ó Laoghaire

Most Japanese adults do not know how to address others or introduce themselves properly in English. They introduce themselves by last name only, for example, ” Hello, I am Bush” or “Nice to meet you, my name is Johnson.”   This does not seem to be a big issue on its face, but we have to keep in mind that a non-Japanese that has not lived here might not recognize they have been presented with only a last name.  Mistakenly believing the friendly Japanese person introduced himself American style by first name, the non-Japanese may commit a big faux paux the next time they meet addressing an important contact by last name only minus any honorific title.  This would be exceedingly rude in most countries of the world.   I have made it my personal mission to painstakingly retrain the Japanese population.

An overwhelming majority of AETs, ALTs and foreign teachers in schools have adopted the practice of using their first names only with elementary and secondary school students.   Or I should say, others have adopted this practice for them.   I believe there are several reasons for this being the standard practice.   Some Japanese believe western culture is much less rigid and formal and all foreigners prefer to be called by first name.   More than two decades ago when the JET programme began to provide foreign ALTs to the school, the idea was to foster friendship between the young people of each other’s countries.  Thus, the upper age limit for employment for JET ALT positions was only 27  years old.  Finally, the least pleasant theory is it is a subtile means by the host schools to separate and keep the foreign teachers in guest/visitor station throughout their assignment.   This is a form of microagression or microinvalidation that is either unintentional or intentional.  It depends on the perpetrator, I guess.

In recent years, the JET programme participants have been cut back and it is not uncommon to have a foreign teacher as old as 50 or 55 teaching in the school.  Nowadays, many school districts with budget constraints are relying on staffing and dispatch companies to supply their foreign teachers.  I worked at a junior high school with 5 other English teachers.  At age 45, I was the oldest English teacher in the school.  In a school environment, I do not feel comfortable reinforcing to children younger than my own to address me by first name and address the other teachers in the room with me by their family name and title.  Although by definition, Assistant Language Teacher is in an inferior role in the classroom, it is best in my opinion that youngsters learn to address all adults using the proper respect.  In this role, my preference is Mr. O’Leary or オレーリー先生.

I make an extra effort to illustrate examples of name etiquette as it used in western countries.  In my home country, the United States, first names are very common and perfectly acceptable in many organizations.   For example, in the USA,  I worked for Lowe’s Corporation which is a large company that operates home improvement centers nationwide.  At Lowe’s, first names are used by the newest employee all the way up to the CEO.  This is not unusual at all as it emphasizes the importance, value and equality of each team member.  Everyone uses first names.  However, it would be very awkward if some were referred to as Mr, Ms and others were referred to only by first name.  The key point is to use forms of address in kind and never be unequal to anyone when addressing them.  Like, Japan, last names only would also be extremely abrasive and rude.

Last year, I began to work for two different companies in Japan.  I work for Watami, a food processing center and also at an upscale bakery.  At Watami, at age 48 I am one one of the youngest on my team.  Workers there have their last names stenciled on our uniforms and are referred to as Tateyama-san, Mori-san etc.  In kind they address me as Ore-ri-san.  This is standard practice.  There are two old farts though aged 59 and 60 respectively who refer to me as just Ore-ri.   I find this increasingly annoying.  However, these are very kind, helpful decent men who would never intentionally disrespect anyone.  I sometimes tell them, “Oh, by the way, Ore-ri is my family name.”  It doesn’t sink in to their wrinkled brains.  Last names should never be used in Japan without the honorific suffix san.  It is crude and rude.    I have invited them to call me Kevin or as they would say Kebun.  For some reason, although only I would be referred to by first name, I do not feel slighted.  It does not grate on my ears to be called in a friendly way by my first name without the honorific suffix san.

In contrast, when I go to work at the bakery, I am one of the oldest workers.  The young ladies 20, 22 and some in the 30s refer to me as just Kevin.  I like this.  It is friendly and similar to how they would address their English conversation teacher if they were studying at a school.  Surprisingly, I found that last names are used exclusively even among the youngest workers.  Even though I am the odd man out in address, it is fine because I feel their warmth and sincerity.

In the case of both the schools and the companies where last names are commonplance, there is good reason I become oversensitive.  If someone does what they call 呼び捨て which means to drop the honorific to my last name, I feel the disrespect is being extended to my family.  I consider myself to be a humble person, but I am fiercely protective of my family and would never tolerate anyone disrespecting them.  When I was working with the schools in the same community my children attended school, I found it awkward confusing to try to justify to my daughter why only her parent was referred to by first name.  A well raised child is taught to refer to adults by last name and title.  The disparity can have a subtile effect on the child and they may find that having a non-Japanese parent is an embarrassment and nusiance.  This was occasionally the case with my son during his school days.  What do non-Japanese residents like myself really want?  The answer is when on the job, when doing our part living responsible lives in the community, we do not want to be treated differently.  We want to blend in.  We do not want our spouses and our children to be treated with less dignity because they have a non-Japanese spouse or parent.

My typical training pattern for self-introductions I instruct my student is this, “Hello, My name is Hiroyuki Tanaka.”  The well raised individual would likely respond with, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Tanaka.”   At this point, Mr. Tanaka might say, “Please call me Hiro.”  This is gives Tanaka-san the opportunity to offer the gift of friendship and informality by inviting another to refer to him by first name.   The rule of thumb is not to be presumptuous and wait until invited before using someone’s first name.

To live in a global environment takes a certain degree of patience and temperment.  Etiquette  slips are often forgiven across cultures.  When unfamiliar with which is correct, refer back to your own culture and Amy Vanderbuilt’s Book of Etiquette.  You would be surprised to find our cultures are very similar.  If you are on your best manners expected in your home country, you will be pretty close when traveling abroad.   Like the name of this blog, remember, It is not about our differences….It is about our similarities.

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3 comments

  1. Can’t say I feel any differently than you, Kevin.

    I work with several people who are often referred to by their first names. And while it is meant to be more casual, it indeed becomes a seed of disrespect sown in the minds of our students. I see a MERKED difference in how they are treated and how I am treated. simply because I do not violate their cultural norms, and they are NOT ALLOWED to disrespect me by doing so, either.

    Foreigner English instructors in Japanese schools are, for the most part, lip service to the English education “curriculum” and we are marginalized and pidgeon-holed at every possible occasion.

    To say we come in at a disadvantage would be an understatement.

    1. Yes, you know how I am. I give them a pass if they misunderstand American cultural norms as I am in their country but get irriated when they voilate their own.

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