To San or Not to San in Japan


Everybody knows about the Japanese “san”, which you attach when communicating with Japanese colleagues. So, when you also refer to non-Japanese colleagues in the same email, do you then also use ~san? If not, do you think they read the email as ‘he does not respect us equally’? Just asking to point out one of the small oddities about this piece of etiquette.

For those who do not know me, I am a German living in Japan, speaking to some level English and Japanese.

The setting

Last week, I had a conference call with a customer, and was once more irritated whether I should use “san” or not. It’s simple, you think? Well.. maybe not.

To decide whether one should address a customer with lastname-san, the language is an important criteria. When speaking Japanese, one should of course address the customer with ~san, or even more honorific extensions like ~sama. What about conversations in English then? I think these depend on the occasion. A German talking with someone in France, talking in English, is unlikely to use ~san. But a German talking with a customer in Japan in English is likely to use ~san.

In my case, things were more complicated in that conference call: I talk regularly with half of the customers on the call, and only in English - it’s the smallest common denominator among us from Germany, India and Australia. Addressing is then also simply with ‘you’ and the first name. I don’t have a sales job, I work together with customers on technical issues. We mostly see each other as ‘just people on the same level, trying to solve something’, so we just use first names.

Then, there was the other half of the customer contacts on the call, Japanese, with whom I rarely communicate. Theoretically I could speak with them in Japanese, but considering also the other people, we all communicate in English. Now, when I address the Japanese customers, even though I speak English, I have somewhere in my mind the urge to ’express respect’ - so I use ~san with them. Also, despite us speaking English, I just feel like it’s more appropriate to stick with their last name.

Also colleagues were on the call. In conversations with English speaking colleagues, ‘you’ and first name is used. In conversations with colleagues in Japanese, last name is used, and ~san. I even to not know the first name of some Japanese colleagues, this is how rarely we use the first name.

Now, communication in Japanese with colleagues and customers is different again: of course, you address the customer with the last name, and ~san. As for the colleagues: we from the same company now more count as ‘one family/group’, and while we still refer to each other with our last name, we do not use ~san.

The twist

So there we were, people from 2 companies on the call. Many had not yet been in contact, so a round of self introductions was in order. I was reading the list with the confcall attendees, and one by one asking the person to introduce. Easy enough, right? But we had 2 groups from the customer: the native Japanese, and the ones from other countries. As per above background, I was reading the name of the next attendee on the list, and then asking to self introduce. For the ones from Japanese, I should have used the last name and ~san, I mixed that up for one person, noticed, and corrected myself. Then, for one of the customers with whom I speak only English, I plainly used the first name for addressing - and he came right back on me asking “uh, not ?”. :) Also, for half of my Japanese colleagues I ended up using ~san, when as per “let’s use English addressing”, I should have used the first name. Just, also for by boss that would have felt awkward.

My conclusion for now

When communicating in languages, you might for learning trying to compute and construct single sentences, but in a working environment the language becomes just a tool - you need to concentrate on the contents and rely to some degree on your instincts for addressing people with the right level.

If you have a better recipe for dealing with these situations, please share :)

How I get addressed in Japan

Meeting attendees list

Friends mostly address me as クリス, which is the phonetic expression of “Chris”.

Japanese speaking colleagues mostly use クリス-san, sometimes also ホルン-san (ホルン is the phonetic expression of my family name), that variant is then the same as Japanese coworkers use to address each other in business setting: familyname-san. I do not even know the first name of many colleagues.

As for Japanese speaking customers, there is a wide variety: from Horn-san, over ホルン-san, and クリス-san. Funny detail: most japanese surnames are expressed with 2 full-width characters, for example 山田. My name with 4 Roman-style letters is mostly expressed in half-width characters, “Horn”. So when my name appears in lists of meeting attendees, it’s width matches exactly up to the width of Japanese names.

Is it easier in German?

In German, we have basically 2 layers to “express honorific layers” to the other party when speaking. When meeting a customer for the first time, as a service provider one uses the higher level. Again, me working as a specialist together with the customer to solve issues, we quickly dropped to the more familiar layer. Nothing wrong with that - just when talking directly with them, and having for example their boss entering the conversation, we have the situation of staying at the familiar level with the long-known-person, and having to talk high level with the boss - that is awkward.

Last modified on 2020-10-06