Friday, May 25, 2007


As reported, I had a great time yesterday with my quilting friends, Mrs. Furui, Mrs. Harada, Mrs. Ochiai, Mrs. Suga, Mrs. Yamaguchi. Don't you think it strange that I refer to them by the title Mrs. and their last name? Sometimes I do.

I've known most of these ladies for 15 years or more. (Met all of them when our kids were in kindergarten.) I consider them some of my best friends. Yet, with the exception of Mrs. Suga, I rarely call any of them by their first names and have to think even now to recall them. With other friends too, I use last names though I have one English class where both first and last names are used. I don't know why we differenciate. All of my friends, neighbors, aquaintances call me Tanya. The only reason why I can think that we call Mrs. Suga by her first name sometimes is because she has relatives she visits in the States. Seems an odd reason...

The title Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms. seems so formal to me. If I were in the States, I'd be using those titles with my mother's friends! But in Japan using last names and the proper title is the norm. The term most commonly used is san. Watanabe-san. This title is used for men and women regardless of their marital status. In very formal Japanese and on printed matter the title is sama. Watanabe-sama. For children, girls have the title chan added to their first name or a nickname and boys have the title kun. I have heard the term kun used for adults too when a person is obviously of lower rank, for example a company manager might add the title kun to an office worker, male or female. Is this getting confusing?

Another interesting thing about names in Japan is that even within a family, names are not always used. The youngest child will be called by name, but all the other children will be referred to as big-brother or big sister. I had a missionary friend for whom this custom really infuriated! "The poor kids don't even have names!" But I think this custom unconsciously instills responsibility or obligation in the older children for the younger children.

I don't often hear husbands and wives referring to each other by name either. The wife will sometimes talk about her husband using only their last name without a respectful title. And maybe the most common is just to call the husband "Papa" like all the kids do. It's a big joke that husbands just call their wives "Hey!"

In my own family Tetsu and I call each other by our first names. (I'm such a bad Japanese wife I don't even put on the respectful title like I'm supposed to.) He is just Tetsu. Tetsu usually calls me by my nickname and puts a chan at the end. (Like a child?) We never adopted the custom of calling the kids by rank and they were just Takumi and Leiya. (Takumi was cheated out of the respectful title too!)

As an aside, Takumi stopped calling Tetsu, Dad, sometime at the end of elementary school. He became Tetsu-san. And a year or so later I became Tanya-san. In due course Leiya too began referring to us as Tetsu-san and Tanya-san. This causes a lot of raised eyebrows both in Japan and with my American family. "You shouldn't let your kids call you by your first name!" But Tetsu and I don't mind and I tell people at least my kids put the respectful title on at the end!


Nancy said...

When you have made references to Mrs. This or Mrs. That, I have assumed that these women were considerably older than you; I had no idea they were your contemporaries! I liked reading this explanation.

quiltpixie said...

Its interesting how names are used differently worldwide... When I was young every adult in Canada was mrs or Mrs ____ unless they were family then they were aunt or uncle and their first name. A very few, very clse friends of my parents might become honourific aunts and uncles, but very very few... now one generation later my child speaks and calls most adults by their first names. The spot that hasn't changed is schools -- the teachers are still Mr or Mrs ___ .

Some of it I think is that a lot of women (myself included) have gone to the title Ms. and it is not a title which is said. This means that in spoken language I'm not Mrs. ___ nor Miss ____, rather I am my fist and last name when being more formal. So someone speaking of me, or to me, would have a reason to use my full name -- it would just be rude to assign some sort of maritial status to me.Its also becuase its seldom clear what someone's marticial status is, so using Miss or Mrs in spaken language has become "dangerous" -- its making assumtions.

Connie said...

My friend here in the states who's from Japan explained this to me so I am familiar with parts of it, but I didn't know all of what you wrote. I find it so interesting. I think I like our relaxed customs here in the states although the formality in Japan seems to fit with all the other formal customs there. Make sense?

Mrs. Goodneedle said...

Fascinating insight, as always. I, like Nancy, assumed these ladies were a generation older than you for precisely the reason you explained in your post. I live to learn. Thank you.

atet said...

It is interesting how we even use names differently. I know I had the hardest time learning to call my in-laws by their first names -- and I married into the family! I was raised to call all of my friends parents by Mr. or Mrs. and last name -- and I still do it. Even when some have asked me to use their first names. I know this is supposed to become less of an imperative as an adult (you know --welcome to the club, we all have first names) but I still have problems with it!

Love the bazaar quilt and that lovely apron. Those fabrics are just yummy and I would be just as tempted to start one for myself!

Shelina said...

Thank you for the interesting lesson. The Indian languages I know of, and Spanish, both have a formal and an informal way of addressing people - not just with names, but in regular speaking. There is a social order, which seems more lost in America. My mother always spoke to my father with the formal words, and my mother always spoke to my mother and us in the informal. Once they had an argument and she talked to him in the informal. She said if she could talk to God in the informal, she should certainly be able to talk to her husband in the informal. He wouldn't hear of it.

When I was asking her about her aunts and uncles for my genealogy, she always used bai for women and bhai for men. I had to take them out for tree, because I think it would get confusing what the name actually is. But it is awkward to call them by their names without the proper titles. Most genealogy programs can't handle the titles that come after the first name, without a comma.

I think most people here don't like being called Mr. or Mrs. because it makes them feel old. Being older and wiser is no longer a good hting.

ruth said...

Titles are really interesting and I enjoyed reading about titles in Japan. One of my big surprises on moving to Africa was that strangers will call me Mama or Lady (depending on if they are black or coloured) as a sign of respect/politeness, and some of my husband's students refer to me as Mrs his first name. Apparently in some African cultures it's rude to use a woman's name directly.

Happy Valley Quilter said...

What an interesting post. I was already somewhat familiar with the Japanese titles since my DH spent 2 years in Tokyo and my DD (18 y.o. now) studied Japanese in high school and spent six weeks there last summer. DH and I insist that our children use respectful names when addressing or speaking of adults.

Beautiful quilts, by the way!