Japanese Honorifics

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Oct 30 13:19:01 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times, October 30, 2003
Japanese Workers Told From on High: Drop the Formality


    HIROSHIMA, Japan The change in policy came directly from the Tokyo
headquarters of Elpida Memory, a semiconductor maker, but it had nothing
to do with computer chips. The 1,366 workers at Elpida's factory here were
told to stop addressing each other by their titles and simply to add the
suffix -san to their names. Yukio Sakamoto, the president and chief
executive in Tokyo, believes that using titles like "department chief"
impedes decision-making and innovation.

"To call someone `president' is to deify him," said Mr. Sakamoto, who was
influenced by the 28 years he worked at Texas Instruments. "It's part of
Japan's hierarchical society.  Now that has no meaning. If you have
ability, you can rise to the top and show your ability." Many Japanese
companies, traditionally divided rigidly by age and seniority, have
dropped the use of titles to create a more open and, they hope,
competitive culture.

The long economic slump has forced companies to abandon seniority in favor
of performance, upsetting the traditional order. This has led to confusion
in the use of titles as well as honorific language, experts say. The shift
also mirrors profound changes in Japanese society, experts say.
Equality-minded parents no longer emphasize honorific language to their
children, and most schools no longer expect children to use honorific
language to their teachers. As a result, young Japanese have a poor
command of honorific language and do not feel compelled to use it.

"There's confusion and embarrassment," said Rika Oshima, the 43-year-old
president of Speaking Essay, a school that instructs new employees on the
use of honorific language.  "Junior staffers aren't strict about using
respectful forms to their bosses, whereas bosses want their staffers to
use respectful forms to them, but bosses cannot say that." What is clear
is that the use of honorific language, called keigo, to elevate a person
or humble oneself, has especially fallen out of use among young Japanese.

Japanese, perhaps more than any other language, has long taken account of
social standing. While French speakers must decide between the familiar
"tu" and the formal "vous" in addressing someone in the second person, in
Japanese, there are many ways to say I or you, calibrated by age,
circumstance, gender, social position and other factors. Verb endings,
adjectives and entire words also shift according to the situation.
Mistakes have been deadly. In 1975, two workers, Kunihiro Fukuda, 30, and
Tomohiko Okabe, 27, were having a drink in a Tokyo bar, according to
magazine reports at the time.  Although Mr. Okabe was younger, he had
entered the company first and had taken to addressing his colleague in a
manner usually reserved for someone younger, calling him Fukuda instead of
Fukuda-san. Mr. Fukuda protested.  But Mr. Okabe said, "What's wrong if a
senior guy calls his junior in this way?" Enraged, Mr. Fukuda grabbed his
colleague by the neck and beat him to death, the magazines reported.

These days, companies hope the use of -san less cumbersome than the longer
titles traditionally used will allow workers to exchange ideas more freely
and make decisions more quickly. In 2001, 59 percent of companies with
more than 3,000 employees had adopted such a policy, compared with 34
percent in 1995, according to the Institute of Labor Administration of
Japan. Mr. Sakamoto, 56, made the change last December, immediately after
becoming the chief executive of Elpida, a company owned by NEC and

"It's easier to talk now," said Kazuyoshi Iizuka, a 32-year-old employee
at the Tokyo headquarters. Mr. Sakamoto said he also discouraged the use
of honorific language that Japanese have traditionally used toward an
older person, a boss, a customer, a stranger. Mr. Sakamoto decided that
the factory here would adopt the new policy on Sept. 1. The factory's
president, Takehiko Kubota, 59, who describes himself as "old-fashioned,"
sent an e-mail message on Sept. 5 explaining the policy to his staff.

"I think a free and frank atmosphere existed already here, so I don't know
if this policy will be significant," he said. "But by adopting this
policy, it might give birth to something new.  If we don't try, we won't
find out." Naoko Okamoto, Mr. Kubota's 26-year-old secretary, said that
now "there is less distance and human relations have improved."

At companies emphasizing performance, it is not unusual for younger bosses
to supervise older workers. That
has created uncomfortable moments. Kazuo Aizawa, a 39-year-old division
chief, added the suffix -kun, usually
used to address someone younger, to his workers' names. But he could not
bring himself to do so with a
worker who was a year older.

Fumio Inoue, a professor of linguistics at Tokyo University of Foreign
Studies, said honorifics began with the
nobility a millennium ago. At first, they were strictly based on social
hierarchy, but after World War II and the
democratization of Japanese society, they began to be used according to
the level of intimacy between

For many older Japanese, the decline of the honorific form amounted to
losing the deep beauty of their
language and the coarsening of the social culture.

"In the past, Japanese children were taught well at home to elevate men
and their elders," said Mr. Kubota, the
factory manager. "Here in Hiroshima, because we are in the country, some
of the old ways remain. But in
Tokyo, it's chaos."

In Tokyo, at Taiyo General, a futures trading company, Hideki Matama, the
51-year-old deputy general
manager of personnel, said training for new employees included honorific

To him, the decline of honorific language symbolized Japan's shift away
from an older generation concerned
with its place in companies or society, to a younger one focused on
personal satisfaction.

"At company seminars, I often get questions whether weekends are off, or
whether women have maternity
leave," he said.

"One time, when I asked one boy about his dreams, he said, `Good marriage,
good home and children.' Can you
believe that?"

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