Most people associate Japanese culture with a traditional etiquette and formality that people adhere to strictly in both professional and social spheres. When doing business in Japan it’s important to understand that etiquette is an important instrument that can convey hierarchical structures and respect. Understanding business and social etiquette in Japan can be challenging, however, and many people who visit Japan are intrigued by the multitude of extremes and exceptions in Japanese etiquette.
One part of Japanese etiquette revolves around Japanese naming conventions. The Japanese language is comprised of an array of formal and informal terms that are used to address each other. In Japanese business people tend to prefer to be addressed with their last name. Most Japanese names end with the suffix ‘-san’ which is a rather neutral option and stands for Mr. or Ms.
The Japanese naming system is however much more elaborate and uses different suffixes to indicate the status of a person in addition to this. It is also commonplace in business to add the job title after someone’s name to show their authority and seniority. In this case the suffix ‘-san’ would then be replaced with the job title or profession of that person. For example, a head of department named Takahashi is referred to as Buchō or Takahashi-buchō.
Intercultural awareness training courses like Doing Business in Japan can help anyone working with Japanese counterparts to not only learn the words that are added to names in Japan but also to understand the meaning and values that people in Japan attach to them. Understanding these honorific naming conventions will help you to build trusting relationships with your Japanese counterparts.
Japanese naming conventions expand beyond business to the family sphere as well. Older family members can address younger family members with their name alone. Younger family members will address their elders with a referential suffix that will reveal how close they are to the person they are addressing. When addressing people outside their family, Japanese use a different word for mother, brother, sister etc which creates an even stronger sense of family in Japanese culture.
Family is a core value in Japanese culture and strongly impacts Japanese naming conventions, but attitudes towards family are changing as Japanese society becomes influenced by American and European trends. One area of Japanese naming conventions which are being influenced by these changes is marriage. A recent article in the Guardian suggests that an increasing number of women are refusing to change their family name. Traditionally the head of the Japanese family is always the man. Couples have to agree on one surname when they get married as Japanese society does not allow couples to have different or double surnames.
An increasing number of Japanese women have recently started to challenge the status quo and are fighting to keep their surname. To some this is an astonishing insight as it seems to contradict the emphasis on strict Japanese etiquette and family traditions which are so important in Japanese culture. Some fear that this new trend could negatively impact the unique concept of family and its associated traditions in Japanese culture.
Although new trends are challenging traditional Japanese culture it will take a considerable amount of time before they become completely commonplace and significantly change a whole set of elaborate etiquette. Anyone doing business in Japan will certainly find that the traditional business etiquette will prevail for some time to come. However an understanding of how Japanese society is changing and being influenced by new approaches and attitudes will help anyone doing business in Japan to respond appropriately and not make false assumptions. Taking an intercultural training course like Doing Business in Japan will ensure you are up to speed on all of the recent trends as well as traditional customs in Japanese society that impact business and social spheres enabling you to effectively respond to and harness unique aspects of Japanese culture.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011