The Great Japanese Name Switcheroo

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.

38 Replies to “The Great Japanese Name Switcheroo”

  1. As long as Japanese people continue to refer to Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as exactly that ( first first, last last ) you can expect things to never change. I have a site about Japanese names and people often mail me questions like that. I wouldn’t stress about it.

    1. I hear you. It’s just one of those “things” that comes with living here.

      It’s not really the ordering of the name that’s the problem, of course. Rather it’s the fact that a lot of Japanese people are quick to dismiss a foreign-looking person’s last name. There’s the perception that Japanese have to be addressed respectfully, but it’s okay to be casual with “foreigners.” I don’t know, but treating someone differently based upon their appearance doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

      1. I changed my name to a typical Japanese name and people rarely say anything about it. I think they just assume I already naturalized. The Japanese are very pragmatic. I hear that despite their lack of foreigners in the country, when one naturalizes, no one questions their “Japanese-ness”. Then again, I do not go to parties with youngsters calling me by my first name. Many Japanese are taught that Americans are value casualness. Which is usually true. I always hated American casualness. Never get past the idea of your boss saying things like “Wussup dude!” So blame the Americans.

        1. I think that’s great that you changed your name to one typically Japanese.

          People have been moving to Japan for centuries and taking Japanese names, only they’ve mostly been Asians, so they don’t stand out as much. Japan’s a vast nation of immigrants, only everybody’s pretending that they’re part of some mythical “pure race.”

          Immigrants often take new names in order to assimilate better into their new countries, and I’d like to see more Westerners do so here. One of these days I’ll get around to changing my name to Suzuki Toyota, and finally fit in.

  2. Love your insight and agree with you. Unfortunately, it seems ingrained and will take at least a full generation to change. Since, addressing new acquaintances, especially in business or school, by their first name is rather unique to North America (one of the least formal of all cultures), it is interesting that they would adopt that. Would they do the same with more formal Europeans, or Mid-East or Central Asians?

    1. Generally, the more Asian you appear, the more “Japanese” you get treated in all respects. That’s insane really, since the notion of “looking Japanese” is completely specious. Well, don’t get me started on that, but let’s just say there are lots of different faces contained within the moniker of “Japanese.” That being said, if you appear vaguely “Japanese” (Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican, American Indian), and have a correspondingly un-Western name (i.e., not “John Smith”), you have a much higher chance of being referred to by your last name. On the other hand, if you look completely Caucasian, expect to be called John, Johnnie, or whatever anyone else feels like calling you at the time.

      I have to say though, a lot of the responsibility (which sounds way better than “blame”) lies with the foreign visitors (and occasionally residents) in Japan. It’s a common complaint that Japanese people will never allow foreigners into “their” society. While that may be true to a degree for any immigrant anywhere, you have to wonder, how hard are we trying to fit in? It’s not uncommon for Asian immigrants to adopt Western names, but how many Westerners do the same? Introducing yourself by your last name is really the least you could do if you want to approach being on equal footing.

      Although I’ve stopped short of changing my name to Suzuki, at least this year I’ve got everyone at my workplace referring to me by last name only, and it works out much better for everyone. It was a bit uncomfortable initially, since when they met me they assumed I a) wanted to be called “Ken”; b) preferred to speak English; and c) ate hot dogs for every meal. The truth is, you’ve really got to tell people, because they just don’t know.

  3. I’m moving over in February to trade in podiatry for english teaching for a while. My surname is Ferguson which made me worry I might end up with some embarrassing situations. I was worried that introducing myself “Ferguson” would be heard as “Fergu-san” thus coming across as arrogant for adding the “san” in reference to myself. I had planned to just introduce myself as “Fergu” leaving the Japanese to refer to me as “Fergu-san” which would have made me giggle inside every time as they basically just pronounce my real first name.

    After reading this however it appears is’s all a moot point now. “Annoru” it is :S

    1. Podiatry, wow. That’s a great field. I also have a strong interest in the study of iPods. Anyway, congratulations on deciding to make the jump to Japan. Your name presents a rather amusing dilemma, and I like the inside joke of getting Japanese people to address you by adding -san to “Fergu.” Very clever.

      A couple of things for you to think about though. One is that, although I find it awkward to ask people to use my last name in social situations, I do make a point of it at work, and everyone is fine with that. On the first day, I just smile and say, “Oh, it’s Seeroi, not Ken,” and it really works out much better. It seems particularly appropriate with young children, who themselves are often addressed by their last names. For them to address a teacher by his first name, (and, frankly, just because he’s white), seems like a bad idea. But maybe that’s just me.

      But back to your name. The Japanese language requires rather subtle distinctions between vowel sounds, and the differences between “Ah,” “Oh,” and “Uh” should be easy to pick up for Japanese speakers. My guess is that your name in English is pronounced closer to “sun” than “san” (as in “sand”). Japanese people would not mistake it if you stressed the “U” sound. Agreed, it’s a bit of a tongue-twister, but hey, we’re used to that. Takadanobaba.

      Alternately, you could pronounce the “son” with an “O” sound (as in “own”). That would be a fairly easy solution. Ultimately, though, I suspect the first part of your name–“Fur”–may prove more troubling than the ending, since Japanese lacks a decent “R” sound, rendering your name into something like “Faa-ge-son.” That being the case, I would advise you to apply for a legal name change now, before you get here, and avoid the problem altogether. Something like Honda or Suzuki would be good.

    2. …and when I was teaching, my pupils called me Jona-san, even though Jonathan is pronounced much nearer to jonafun.

  4. “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.”

    You should generate a new word starting with “xeno”, in my humble opinion. Xenophobia sounds incorrect, too.
    Ah, if only I knew enough ancient Greek to translate “astonishment” it would be enough, I think.

    How does it sound to you “xenoastonishment”? =/

    1. Xenostonishment. Love it. Rolls right off the tongue. Like, “When I walked in and started speaking Japanese, the waitress at the izakaya was xenostonished.” Gotta make that part of my daily vocabulary.

  5. Necromancy comment!

    Just imagine how confused they are when both of your names are English last names. I swear, it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion as they try to figure out how to deal with the problem… he’s not supposed to be Gizmo-san… he’s supposed to be… supposed to be….

    KA BOOM.

    1. Maybe that’s the solution. I’m just going to change my name to Seeroi Seeroi. Now let’s see them just try to call me by my first name.

  6. “…And can I get a “san” up in here?”
    Hilarious stuff there! – Just started reading your blog today by the way (10+ posts and counting… – will definitely be back). But for now, back to this post…

    1. Thanks a bunch. I woke up this morning and went outside to the vending machine for a can of coffee. Then I came back in and ate a banana and turned on the PC and saw your comment. And I was like, Man, I got this delicious banana and this can of coffee and somebody actually likes the crazy stuff I write—can this day possibly get any better? And well, okay, no it couldn’t, but it was still a pretty great day. Thanks a lot for writing in.

      1. I read your reply, and thought about replying to it… but then I was reading something about a girl whose eyes were so blue, and something about thighs. I lost track is all I’m saying.

        Starting to sound a wee bit like you aren’t I? Guess its what a good writer does to you. Will quite possibly be dropping a few comments mostly with quotes from the posts I’ll be reading at the time. Feel free to ignore them, and just keep being awesome.

        1. Probably want to be careful about sounding too much like me. I feel sorry for my students half the time, all repeating the crazy stuff I say, like: “Today I go home and eat apple.” When I hear the whole class saying it back to me, I’m like, Yeah, well, eh, close enough. Then I go home and eat apple too, followed by drink many beer.

  7. How’s things, I have noticed that occasionally this site displays an 403 server error message. I figured that you would like to know. All the best

    1. Things is good. Except when I get server errors, and then things is not so good. But thanks for letting me know. I may have to switch my hosting company next year.

  8. I asked someone here about the whole first name thing and she was confused as to why I thought it was strange. She said her friends all call her by her first name, so she said asking a friend to use your last name would be just as rude here as it would be in your home country. As with many other Japanese cultural peculiarities, take it as a compliment that they think you’re more friendly than their peers. She did concede that Japanese people introducing themselves by their first names to foreigners was weird though.

    1. Yeah, I know, this is just one of those small things. It’s not so much with friends, you know, but with people you don’t know.

      The thing is, when a group of Japanese people meet, they’ll introduce themselves by last names, unless they perceive that a “foreigner” is present, and then they may try to use English and first names. It’s like some Schrödinger’s cat experiment. Anyway, the most notable exceptions are young women and weird old guys, who will sometimes adopt some cute variation of their first name. But other than that, I have many friends that I’ve known for years who I’ve never once called by their first names.

      As an aside, funny story . . . last week I watched a graduation ceremony where the school Principal gave a speech in Japanese and told the story of Mother Theresa to the school kids, as a moral lesson. After first mentioning Mother Theresa, he proceeded to reference her throughout the remainder of the speech as “Mother,” as in “We should strive to be like Mother and be kind, like Mother was.” It was a bit amusing.

  9. Well, so far, although they do call me by my first name, they always add the san, and after a while they start adding chan and making my name shorter. I actually prefer to be called by my first name, I would probably not react to my last name, because I have never been called by my last name.

    1. I must add that they freak out when I’m filling a form and I tell them that I have two last names. They just don’t know what to do.

      1. Okay, now two last names, now that’s brilliance. From now on, I’m introducing myself as Seeroi Seeroi. We’ll see who’s got the last laugh then.

  10. Excuse my comment on an old post!

    I have to agree for the most part – there are a lot of Japanese quick to jump straight into addressing you by your first name (meaninwhile talking to their colleagues and every other Japanese in their room using last-name and “san”). Having worked in 2 major Japanese companies I have mostly been asked which name I would prefer to be called by (first or last – and usually followed by “san”. However, I have also had people I’ve met for the first time tell me “first-name is more friendly, so I will use that” or my personal favourite (whilst calling out the roll) “Foreigners like it when we don’t use “san” on them, eh? (外人は呼び捨ての方がいいよね?)”.

    I don’t suppose you have any insight into where such a mindset would come from having worked in the education industry…? Perhaps it is just one of the seven wonders (read “bizarre mysteries”) of the world?

  11. Very old post, but I’m going to comment anyway.

    Two years ago, when I studied for a brief period at Nagasaki University, I had the exact same problem. Everyone would be addressed by their last name, with honorifics except me. Things like “I’m with Tanaka-kun, Kumiko-chan and Annemarie” happened on regular basis. (Though senpai used first names for some kouhai as well, so the name thing wasn’t that uncommon, I guess). It felt especially strange when the only one adding a honnorifc to my name was another exchange student. xD

    But now, I’m living as an ALT in Iwate, and people always ask me how they should call me. I usually go with my first name, since it’s what I’m used to, and my last name gets so weird in Japanese that I have trouble recognizing it as me when they do use it. They always at -san, or -sensei and all my students call me sensei too, and treat me pretty much how they would treat Japanese teachers (except they’re kind of afraid to talk to me…) (And of course, it depends on which school I am at).

    Also, I’ve been reading your blog during my downtime at the BOE and I love it. Great insights and lots of fun posts! Makes me think I should have gone to Tokyo instead, but then again no one speaks English here which is a plus to me, and Tokyo is way too big for my liking.

  12. I worked at Yokota Air Base in Fussa, Tokyo for 3 years as a firefighter in the military. All the Japanese Firefighters I worked with referred to me as “Scopel San”, my last name. I always took it as sign that I wasn’t liked or an outsider. But after reading your blog, I realize it’s a sign of respect! Even my one of my best Japanese friends refers to me as “Scopel Chan!” I’m back here on vacation after being gone for 4 years and your blog just keeps hitting on things I never noticed about the country. Awesome work Seeroi San. Keep it up man.

    1. Thanks much. I really appreciate that.

      I’m currently reading a series of autobiographies in Japanese. Helen Keller’s referred to as “Helen.” Martin Luther King? “Martin” All the Japanese people? By their last names. Yeah, it’s kind of annoying. But hey, at least they’re consistent.

      All Japanese children read these books, and the message seems pretty clear: we call “foreign” people by their first names. Because they’re, well, you know…

      Well, what? In Japan, it’s completely okay to treat people differently depending upon whether they look “Japanese,” “foreign,” are women, are young, old, handicapped. Everybody gets different treatment. Not exactly the nation of equality, but whatever.

      So it’s relatively rare for “foreigners” to be called by their last names. I do view it as a sign of respect, and it reflects well on your Japanese colleagues. Perhaps the military is more accustomed to calling people by their last names. Although I have to wonder, Do you have a first name that’s slightly unusual? (i.e., not “Dave.”) And also, do you look non-European? In Japan, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Other can all expect different treatment, based upon the shade of their skin and shape of their eyes and noses. Not that that’s not true other places, of course.

  13. I use a Japanese surname because I’m married to a Japanese. When a colleague addressed me by my first name (I’m in my sixties) I asked him to call me like all the Japanese in the meeting. He said, “But foreign surnames are so hard to pronounce!” !!!!!!!

    1. (Third try)

      Another phenomenon which every foreigner in Japan has to grapple with.

      After a few years in Japan I starting working in earnest as a salary-man. Since I already knew the naming convention thing I made sure to introduce myself with my last name and insisted on -san being added. It was surprisingly easy to make it stick. Well there was one “joker” in that company who I had to reprimand after he researched my first name and insisted on calling me with it and without -san. Some people are just that stupid.

      In my current (new) Japanese company I am stationed in Germany and my colleagues obviously have more intercultural competence than the average Japanese. So again, it was very easy to get to an appropriate understanding of naming conventions.

      The problem here I think lies in how Japanese learn English and everything about “gaikoku”. If you are told, that all foreigners exclusively call themselves by their first names and that that is the proper thing to do, you do it too of course.
      And to hell with “gaikoku” consisting of 200 or countries in the world and accompanying differences or such boring things as not being “othered” in adult society …

  14. I worked at a gym in japan as a swimming teacher and lifeguard for a year and a half. From day one everyone there only called me by me last name + “san”. So this phenomenon isn’t that set in stone. It probably depends on the environment. I was the only foreigner at that gym but I still got called by my last name by everyone. Seniors, juniors, customers. It was pretty refreshing.

    1. Sometimes I wonder if it depends on how easily your first name can be pronounced and remembered relative to your last. It takes a painfully visible effort for people to call me anything other than Ken.

      I’ll add that just this week a Japanese lady came to our workplace. She introduced herself by last name to everyone in turn. And then she got to me…and used her first name. So that was pretty confusing.

  15. One time in my japanese class in Japanese university, the teacher always called this one Taiwanese student by his last name and “san”. I always wondered why only he got to be called by his last name. I wondered if it was because he was asian, but then the teacher called the Korean students by their first names!! I honestly think there’s no logic to it.

  16. Worked in Japanese law firms for many years. Japanese lawyers can get called “[familyname]-sensei” but foreign lawyers never get the “sensei” part added. I never got a straight answer as to why that was. What do you think it is?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *