At first, you might think the Japanese place great importance on addressing others properly. After all, it’s a nation where even elephants get called Zou-san. That’s Mr. Elephant to you.
The reality is that this naming convention works flawlessly until someone who looks “foreign” enters the scene, at which point thousands of years of custom go straight out the window.
I was at a party last Saturday, and found myself talking with two guys a little younger than myself. One guy was tall with great hair, while the other was a bit pudgy and shorter. They didn’t know each other, and so they introduced themselves to one another by their last names, as Japanese typically do when speaking in Japanese. Then they asked my name, and I said “Seeroi.” “Seeroi?” said the guy with great hair. “What’s your first name?” When I told him “Ken,” he then introduced himself by his first name, at which point the pudgy guy followed suit, and for the rest of the night I was “Ken,” while they still referred to each other by their last names. The entire conversation took place in Japanese, but apparently everything changes when you talk to a white guy.
What about my last name? And can I get a “san” up in here?
Until I moved to Japan, I never cared how people addressed me. Ken, Kenneth, Kenny—if it makes you happy, I’m cool with it. I just don’t want to be singled out. I especially don’t want to be singled out because of my race.
In Japanese, I always introduce myself in the Japanese format of last name followed by first name. In which case, I am invariably called by my first name. Sometimes I’ll even say only my last name, as the Japanese do. If so, I’m certain to be asked my first name, and then referred to by it. This happens, oh, ten out of ten times.
When I taught grade school, the students would stand and bow to greet both the Japanese teacher and myself. With a loud voice they’d chant “Good morning Yamaguchi Sensei and . . . Ken.” The lesson was clear: people who look Japanese are addressed by their last names; people who don’t, aren’t. Maybe “racism” is too strong a word, but I have yet to find a “foreigner” who is referred to by their last name, as every other Japanese person is.
So I’ve put this case to Japanese people: if they went to an English-speaking country where everyone was on a first-name basis, such as Ryan or Sam or Abby, Would they want to be called Ms. Tanaka or Mr. Honda? No way, they say. Every Japanese person I’ve mentioned this to has heartily agreed that they wouldn’t want to be singled out. Could they understand why I wouldn’t want to receive differential treatment here in Japan? They certainly could. They told me–That makes complete sense, Ken. Well, they’re consistent if nothing else.
When I request to be called by my last name, I’m always met with the same response. But Ken, we just want to be friendly with you! To which I say, why me? You don’t want to be friendly with anybody else? Your other coworkers, your other roommates—what about them? You want the school kids to be friendly with the English teacher, but not the History teacher or the P.E. teacher? Why do I have to be the friendly one? Like I’m Frosty the effing Snowman or something.
About the only recourse I can think of is to legally change my name to something more Japanese. Maybe if I became Sakamoto Ryouma, then I’d finally be called by my last name. But I know that wouldn’t happen. The first thing they’d ask would be “what was your name before?” And then they’d call me Ken.