Sunday, August 10, 2014

Drop it Like it's Hot: Honorifics

One thing that I really love about Japanese culture is way honorifics can define your relationship with another person. The U.S. has honorifics that incur respect and distance from the speaker by describing a person (Mr. or Ms.), their job status (Dr., Fr., Stg, Lt., etc.) or, in the case of women, their marital status (Miss or Mrs.). However, Japan has many honorifics with contradicting rules that make them both confusing and fun.

Two Rules of Honorifics
Never describe yourself with an honorific, and always use an honorific when addressing or referring to others.

Common Honorifics

San is a general suffix used between equals of any age and gender, and in both formal and informal contexts. San is the most recognizable suffix due to the movie “Karate Kid,” when Mr. Miyagi addresses Daniel as “Daniel-san.” Basically, when it doubt, use san!

Sama is the super respectful version of san used to address customers, guests, and those of high ranks. Letters I receive in the mail refer to me as Gabi-sama, but I've never been addressed as such in person.

Chan is an endearing suffix used for babies, young children, grandparents, cute animals, lovers, young women and close friends who have known each other for a long time. Technically, chan is a gender-neutral suffix but since it’s an endearing suffix, most men prefer not to be addressed as chan in public. I am sometimes addressed by my young male co-workers as Gabi-chan. In a previous post, I stated that I sometimes used the suffix to playfully insult a male student who purposefully butchers my name. I also use the suffix to embarrass two young male co-workers. Their names, Ryuuichi and Makoto, change to Ryuu-chan and Mako-chan respectfully. 
Kun is used when addressing or referring to male children or male teenagers, or among male friends. It can also be used to address women as well, but I have never heard it. The use of kun instead of san is generally used if it flows better with the name.

The Most Important Suffix for My Job

Sensei is used to address doctors, teachers and other authority figures. It can also be used to address someone of has mastered a certain skill, which includes artist, novelist, martial artist, etc. During the new OkiJETs workshop, inconveniently held on my birthday last year, we were told that our co-workers may not address us with the honorifics san or sensei since we were neither Japanese nor part of the “system.” I was a little confused but assumed that dropping the honorific may be common for Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) who understand that these honorifics don’t exist in our countries. However, until recently, I was always dressed with the sensei suffix. 

Yobisute (Dropping the Honorific)

Even though the unofficial rules for honorifics state that an honorific must be used when addressing or referring to someone, yobisute or "dropping the honorific" can be used if the person is a family member, a spouse or a close friend. The first instance of dropping the honorific with a person marks an important point in a friendship. I was a bit confused when I was first yobisute'd by my trouble buddy because up until then I had only addressed him with the sensei suffix. After that, I played around with his name using either san or kun and reserving sensei in front of the students. Eventually I asked which suffix to use, and he told me that I could use whichever one I liked or to yobisute

As time went on, I noticed that more co-workers began to drop the honorific, not out of disrespect, but out of closeness. It felt great to be included and I really feel at ease at my workplace. It's funny how something so simple as a honorific can completely change your dynamics. That being said, students will never be allowed to yobisute me. Some have tried, but I am very quick to correct them when it occurs. They should always address me as either Gabi-sensei or Ms. Gabi. No exceptions!

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