🇯🇵 Language and Relationships: Japanese Politeness Markers

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Previously, we explored the perceptions of “inside and outside the home” in Japanese culture — and how it impacts the language. Today, I’d  like to go over another example of the array of politeness within the  language: the many politeness markers that both can reflect and  impact relationships.

Japanese politeness markers are suffixes put after a person’s name: for example, the most famous one is “san”  (さん). In English, we have titles such as  “misses” and “mister.”  In English, we have only two options: either it is a formal situation  where we use the title,  or it is informal, and we don’t use it. We  don’t have variations beyond the two groups, for example “extra formal”  “more or less friendly” “very friendly,” etc.

In  Japanese, we do have far more variations and corresponding methods for each one, therefore the way people address each other is particularly  important. This precision will define and even reveal your relationship  status. When we meet someone, we tend to use the suffix “san” at  first, but as the relationship evolves, so will the marker. For  example, using a very friendly suffix feels intimate, and thus is often  used to reveal a special relationship, whether romantic or friendly. Its  intentional use between individuals truly highlights that degree of  intimacy that has been achieved over time.

Some  people will use certain familiar suffixes on purpose, when they want to  appear closer to a person, perhaps even bragging about it. It also is  used as a way to show domination in certain situations, pointing to a  hierarchy if one is using a formal suffix and the other a familiar  suffix.

This is why there is one  question that is systematically asked by journalists when a celebrity  announces their wedding in a press conference: “How do you call each other?” (お互いをどうやって呼び合あっていますか? otagai wo douyatte yobiatte imasuka?). It gives a glimpse into the type of relationship the couple has, or where they are in their relationship for example.

Let’s take a look at what the suffixes are.

We have three main suffixes which express different levels of politeness:

– sama (様): the most formal, used in business or customer service  (or letters, emails)

– san  (さん): this is medium polite, used in polite and also in friendly and casual situations

– chan/kun (ちゃん/君): very familiar, used with very close friends or children. “Chan” is usually used with girls/women and boys, and “kun” with boys/men, although not 100% of the time, and can depend on the situation and have other uses too. 

– no suffix:  extremely familiar and used mostly with family and intimate relationships. However, if the surname is used without suffix, it will  be in a work environment. As it is very familiar, if used inappropriately it will be very rude.

These  three suffixes above can all be paired with either the last name or the  name, and this fact will also change the level of politeness. It adds  three more layers of degree of politeness. For example, if we take my  name, people can call me: “Keiser-sama”, “Yuki-sama”, “Keiser-san”, “Yuki-san”, “Keiser-chan”, “Yuki-chan”, as well as with no suffix, “Keiser,” or “Yuki.” That makes eight different ways to clearly establish the level of a relationship.

Most acquaintances and friends in Japan call me “Keiser-san” or “Yuki-san”, and very few “best friends” call me “Yuki-chan.” No one except my family calls me “Yuki” without any suffix (unless someone wants to be rude!). One of the few friends who call me “Yuki-chan” now, actually started with “Keiser-san”  as I had met her in a professional situation. Over the years, we became  friendly, but we still called each other the same way, because we were  not yet hanging out socially. After many years, we started to socialize  outside the professional field. When I moved to the US and that we  decided to become pen pals, we said “let’s call each other with ‘chan’ ok!?” That’s how one day we started to use “chan.” It was when we both officially recognized the moment when our relationship transitioned into a real friendship. And by using this new suffix, I personally felt instantly closer, it felt obvious. Whereas with my European friends, I wouldn’t be able to say a particular date we became suddenly closer, it is more gradual as we don’t have these suffixes. 

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