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Tanaka-san or Tex? What to Call Japanese

Is it better to call Japanese colleagues by their last names, their first names, or by English nicknames? Dear Mr. Tanaka? Dear Tanaka-san? Dear Tetsuji? Dear Tex?

In Japanese business settings, people usually call each other by their last names plus the suffix –san. In more conservative companies, people are often addressed by their titles rather than their names, such as bucho-san for a department head. Seldom would first names be used in business in Japan.

For many non-Japanese it can seem stiff to call people by their last names. For many Japanese, however, being called by a first name is what feels uncomfortable and overly familiar.

On the other hand, some Japanese who have more international experience may embrace the use of first names. Others may even have adopted a nickname, a shortening of a first name or an English name that they find appealing. You may even encounter Japanese going by, for example, Romeo, Doc, or Duke.

Since preferences vary, ask the people you are dealing with what they want to be called. If you can’t, then use the last name and either Mr./Ms. or –san unless you are asked to use first names or nicknames. You can never go wrong using a last name. Also, if you receive email from a Japanese person whose name is not obviously male or female, the use of –san is convenient because it is unisex.

Meanwhile, non-Japanese may find themselves called by their first names plus –san. This is a kind of hybrid that Japanese may use when dealing with non-Japanese. First names are easier to remember, and Japanese know that in many cultures, using a first name conveys a warm connection. At the same time, using –san connotes respect. Take it as a compliment!

Japanese business etiquette training and seminars are a specialty of Japan Intercultural Consulting. Please contact us for more information on how we can help you prepare for successful interactions with Japanese clients, customers, and business partners.