“The essence of cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing responses than with sending messages. It is more important to release the right response than to send the right message.”
–Edward T. Hall
The Monkey Falls
The Japanese have an expression “Saru mo ki kara ochiru,” literally, “Even monkeys fall from trees. The implication is that anyone can make a mistake, even so-called “experts” in a given field.
Today’s post is a cautionary tale about how this cross-cultural monkey fell from the metaphorical tree we call “twitter” – and crashed and burned in the process.
For the record, I don’t spend much time hanging around twitter and rarely comment, mostly because I don’t care for the medium, as it limits meaningful discourse and tends to breed toxic interactions.
For better and for worse, I made an exception the other day and commented on someone’s tweet. Better because I learned something; worse because…well…you’re about to find out…
My tweets were respectful, and yet I somehow managed to get blocked. Not sure whether to hang my head in shame or wear it as a badge of honor. Mostly I’m disappointed because I was blocked by someone that I followed and respected.
Who gave me permission to go out and play on twitter!?
The author of the tweet in question, a Japanese lady named Yuri, took umbrage with the content of my comments and, as is easy to do on social media, misunderstood what I was trying to say. Or maybe she just disagreed with me, we’ll never know for sure. Here’s how it unfolded.
The Drama Begins…
This is the tweet that started it all:
“Use ‘san’ if you are fluent in Japanese and speaking in Japanese and know how that should be used. If you are speaking English, please stick to English. San does not belong in that language except to brand that race.”
Lots to unpack here. For starters, it is the first time in my forty-three years dealing with Japan that I have ever heard a Japanese person express this sentiment. And without any context provided (other than forbidding the use of “san” when speaking English), calling the use of san a way of “branding race” seemed like a strange claim to make. So I tweeted this response:
“Knowing how you feel about it, out of respect, I’d gladly avoid using “san” in addressing you. However, I know many Japanese people who don’t share your opinion (they add “san” to names when speaking English), proof that Japanese are not monolithic in their thinking.“
Yuri actually “liked” that reply. And silly me, it lulled me into thinking that she understood my point as it was intended: that not all Japanese share her view, that what offends some Japanese people doesn’t necessarily offend others and vice versa. But as our exchange unfolded, it would soon become clear that she was not pleased with my comment. I was already falling from the tree and didn’t even realize it.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t believe everything you think.” While I don’t normally take advice from bumper stickers, this one seemed appropriate for this situation. So rather than blindly “believing everything I think,” I turned to others more qualified to answer the question at hand:
Is “san” racist when uttered in English?
As someone who resides in Japan, I am literally (and happily) surrounded by Japanese people, some of whom happen to also be on social media. I chose LinkedIn to solicit input.
To avoid biasing would-be respondents, I did not share my motivations or the content of Yuri’s tweet when I posted my survey. I kept it simple with three basic questions (see end of post for respondents’ comments):
1) Are you offended if an English speaker puts the suffix “san” after your name when addressing you?
2) Do you consider it racist?
3) Do you ever address non-Japanese (in English) using the suffix “san” (Ex: “Hi, Tim-san!” etc.)
In total, 17 “Japanese people” (an assumption made based on their names, but not verified) responded, some publicly, some privately. All were fluent English speakers, some living in Japan, others living abroad.
Admittedly, this sample size is limited and the survey completely unscientific. But it nevertheless provides interesting insights from the perspective of English-speaking Japanese people, the only opinions that matter to me.
To summarize the responses in the broadest terms, only one of the 17 respondents said that “san” was discriminatory when mixed with English, but even that claim was made within a very narrow context. Another respondent said he was “semi-offended, and a handful of others mentioned that they could see how it might be offensive in certain situations (some of whom even described situations similar to the one that Yuri would eventually clarify in ensuing tweets).
On a side note, I find it interesting, humorous, and culturally significant that, even though my survey was directed at English-speaking Japanese nationals (which I clearly stated upfront), more non-Japanese responded than Japanese! (If this were a game, the non-Japanese would be beating the Japanese by a score of 24 to 17. 😉 )
One response that deserves special mention came from a non-Japanese lady who astutely pointed out: “It’s very strange that a lot of people are commenting ‘I’m not Japanese but… I don’t find it racist. You don’t really have the right to say that at all.'”
This comment made me laugh and also made me want to connect with her, which I did.
I want to make it clear that I truly appreciate every perspective offered. But the number of responses by non-Japanese (nearly all Westerners, myself included) is evidence that generally speaking, we Westerners are not shy about giving our opinions…even if no one is asking for it! 🙂
Meanwhile, Back In the Twitter Jungle…
In Yuri’s next tweet, the context that was missing in her initial tweet suddenly became clear:
“Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’d guess that these are cases in which the Japanese are speaking among expatriates/other Japanese in an expatriate setting, not out of the blue situations in the U.S./non-Japanese contexts when a Japanese is the only person being called SAN.”
With this comment, her original tweet made sense. But she was still annoyed with this monkey, and I got a hint of it in her next tweet:
“For example, in a multicultural company that includes many Japanese, I’ve seen people add “san” to the Japanese names because that’s just the common way names are being said. That is irrelevant to the discrimination I am pointing out. Context and intent are key.”
Without much strategic thought, I tweeted the following with the sole intent of communicating that my experience extended beyond “multi-cultural companies”:
I’ve lived with Japanese for 43 yrs, worked with 100s of J-companies as a cross-cultural educator & live here. I’ve heard san used in many contexts. You’re the 1st Japanese person I’ve ever heard express this opinion. 十人十色. 🙂
(Note: The last four characters in the tweet above literally mean, “Ten people, ten colors” which roughly translates to “Different strokes for different folks,” my lighthearted attempt to acknowledge that we’re all different.)
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this tweet did not sit well with her and I was about to hit the jungle floor. Upon reflection, I should have displayed more humility, tact, and thoughtfulness in my messaging. Completely oblivious and blissfully ignorant, I closed my laptop and took a happy afternoon stroll around town with my wife.
When I got home an hour later, five unhappy tweets awaited me:
“The way you’re categorizing me as “a Japanese person” and my opinion in this category as a majority or minority view is kind of discriminatory; OK? I’m expressing my feelings as a human being. It doesn’t matter if I am Japanese, American or someone who’s lived in Japan for 40 yrs.”
Below is the last tweet I was able to send before she blocked me. I wrote:
“I said knowing “san” offends you, I would not use it with you. That’s respecting you as a human being. It also acknowledges that different Japanese people have different opinions, which acknowledges their humanity. Culture is about tendencies, not absolutes.”
Below are the remainder of her tweets:
“You are talking about being in Japan, not being in the U.S. or in other totally international contexts. The expatriate community in Japan is extremely insular and has its own set of rules or standards or lack thereof. That is why all these problems are happening now.”
It is worth clarifying here that her premise in this tweet is completely wrong. Even though I now live in Japan, I was actually in the U.S. for 32 of the last 43 years, at which time I socialized with many Japanese people and also worked with hundreds of Japanese subsidiaries. Also noteworthy is that I have almost zero exposure to the expatriate community here in Japan, as I live in the boonies and nearly all my friends and associates are Japanese.
Be that as it may, here are the rest of her tweets:
“Maybe because I am talking about my experience in the U.S. or in American contexts? I have gotten various responses from people who said they find it irritating and insensitive. It’s not the most important form of racism but it is there.”
One danger in your argument is that you are categorizing all opinions as equal. Intent and context are key. But if some people find it insensitive and discriminatory in some situations, it is not just another opinion being expressed. That act is wrong in this situation.
Since Yuri did not give me a chance to respond to these mischaracterizations of my intent, allow me to state my case here.
Is “San” Racist?
First, I regret how I engaged with Yuri and genuinely respect her feelings about this issue. I also understand why she would be annoyed, even offended. But I also believe that racializing the act of adding “san” to a Japanese name in the context that she described is an inaccurate characterization. I do believe, however, that it can absolutely be tone-deaf, even discriminatory depending on the intention behind it. (I have encountered some Americans who love Japanese culture and think that using “san” is cool, arguably a silly way to express their fondness for the culture, but also a far cry from outright racism.)
In my defense, it was never my intention to tell Yuri how she should feel about being addressed with “san” in English. The only reason for responding to her tweet in the first place was to offer a counterpoint, namely, that it is dangerous to assume her statement applies to all situations in which non-Japanese address Japanese people in English, and that doing so has the potential to backfire, a point I never got the chance to make.
Before wrapping this up, allow me to address Yuri’s final tweet: first, I am not sure what she meant by “categorizing all opinions as equal,” but I suspect she meant that, within the context she described, her opinion is valid and should be respected. If my interpretation is correct, then I agree with her completely! Context and intent are absolutely key.
In regard to intent, I would only add that never in my 43 years dealing with Japanese people have I ever heard an English speaker utter the honorific “san” with malicious intent. Although I have heard clueless non-Japanese incorrectly put “san” after their own names, which would sort of be like me addressing myself as “honorable Tim.” In these situations, I’ve detected a few soft chuckles from Japanese folks within earshot, most of whom kindly let it slide since they don’t expect non-Japanese to know the rules of their culture. But I digress.
At the risk of pedantically splitting linguistic hairs, I’d be remiss not to mention why I hesitate to racialize behavior in this context. As pointed out by one of the Japanese respondents (see below), “racism” is a loaded word, one that implies a mixture of ignorance and malicious intent, at least in my mind. More importantly, I take issue with calling Japanese nationals a “race” since it is simply not true. Putting aside that race is an artificial human construct that doesn’t exist in nature (there is only one race, the human race), even within the false “race mythos” that humans invented, Asians are considered a race, not Japanese. Japan is a country and culture, and this is an important distinction to make since “racism” too often gets tangled up with the more generic (and equally abhorable) concept of “discrimination.” In this context, it seems more meaningful to view this kind of discrimination through the lens of culture and/or nationality. Not that it makes it any better.
It is not my place as a non-Japanese person to tell Japanese people whether or not they should be offended by the use of “san” in the context described – or any context for that matter. This is why I put the question to Japanese nationals.
But it is my place as an interculturalist to point out that it is dangerous to assume all Japanese in all English-speaking situations are offended by the use of “san,” since I know some Japanese people who are offended when “san” is not used. (See comments below.)
Hence, the key takeaways for me from this unfortunate twitter exchange are:
1) Accusing people of racism has a place, but it does not necessarily apply to all kinds of discriminatory behaviors; sometimes discrimination is targeted at different cultures, nationalities, genders, religions, etc. (It goes without saying, all forms of discrimination are unacceptable and deplorable.)
2) Sometimes what appears to be malicious discriminatory behavior is simply clueless people with good intentions being tone-deaf, a less egregious offense than outright racism, certainly in my book. But as the last respondent (below) pointed out, using “san” can be both tone-deaf and discriminatory in certain situations, even when the speaker’s intentions are noble.
3) It is dangerous to paint any group of people with a single brush and, in this case, to assume that Yuri’s tweet forbidding the use of “san” in all English-speaking situations (as implied in her original tweet) represents the opinions of all Japanese people.
4) More likely than not, Yuri’s opinion is held by a small minority of Japanese people in very specific kinds of situations.
5) Based on points #3 and #4, it makes sense that we should all strive to be more sensitive and, before making assumptions, ask Japanese people (and anyone for that matter) how they would like to be addressed, then follow their wishes accordingly.
My final point is that twitter is the worst medium imaginable to have a meaningful conversation. I’ve no doubt that if I sat face-to-face across from Yuri and discussed this over a cup of tea that we would get along fine, reach an understanding, maybe even become good friends. But alas, social media – especially twitter – prevents the intimacy inherent in face-to-face engagements and creates just the right conditions for misunderstandings, dehumanization of others, and monkeys falling from trees.
This monkey is kind of slow, but I think I’ve finally learned my lesson.
The silver lining in my “fall from twitter” is that Yuri uncovered one of my many blind spots and, for this reason, I am genuinely grateful.
Last but not least, a big shoutout to all the survey respondents; your answers were enlightening. Thank you for your help and guidance!
SURVEY QUESTIONS (AS STATED IN MY LINKEDIN POST)
I have a few sincere questions for my JAPANESE LinkedIn contacts who speak fluent English…
1) Are you offended if an English speaker puts the suffix “san” after your name when addressing you?
2) Do you consider it racist?
3) Do you ever address non-Japanese (in English) using the suffix “san” (Ex: “Hi, Tim-san!” etc.)
Japanese Responses (for privacy concerns, initials are provided in lieu of names):
1) K. K.
“Hi Tim-san. 1) Not at all. 2) No at all. 3) Not really… but didn’t I just do that? Well, I think I do that to those who are in Japan and very familiar with Japanese culture. I vaguely remember I was doing that to my colleagues when I was working in Japan. I’ve never done that since I left Japan, until just now :)”
(K.K. then followed up the above comment with the following):
Tim-san, I understand you wondered if there could be any offensive case and started this post but it hasn’t found any. Only a possible negative example I could think of is, in the environment where everyone calls each other by first name, if you keep calling a Japanese by last name +san while calling everyone else by first name, the special treatment might not be appreciated despite your intention. Respect and social inclusion sometimes contradict. I wouldn’t be offended by that, though. There has been a guy who kept calling me “Takahashi” without Mr. or –san (and it’s not even my name!) but I still wasn’t offended but amused.
2) J. O.
“…I’ve recently started doing an internship at a German company in Tokyo and I found it quite interesting that when the Japanese employees are on call with the Headquarters in Germany, they tend to call the German employees “xx-san” and the German employees would respect that and reply with “xx-san”, even though I assume in the headquarters they call each other by their first names. I just thought I would share this as yes, Japanese people do call their colleagues “xx-san” even if the colleagues are not in Japan (or maybe never even been to Japan).”
3) K. M.
Not at all, but prefer (to be called) by my first name, Kiyoshi without the suffix. I don’t address non-Japanese using the suffix “san”.
4) N. A.
1) It’s respectful and appreciated but not necessary 2) Not racist 3) I don’t! Because not many people may be familiar with it.
5) C. M.
1) No 2) No way 3) I use “san” when the person started the conversation with “Hi Matsui san” or “ C-san” When the message is written in English, why do I need to be bothered by how they call me? What I don’t like is : “Hello sir” “Hello Mrs. M and use weird kanji guessing towards my name (FYI: my name is written in Hiragana) I wonder who actually can feel offended and feel it’s racist. It may be more like “culture appropriation” rather than “racism” ?
6) T. M.
1) NO, not at all. I even think it would be better use “san” rather than keep receiving “Mr.” or “Sir” 2) NO using Japanese by some non-Japanese make such people as “racist”, then, I am also racist since I am using English which is not my first language. 3) Yes, I do that since I sometimes not sure whether someone I am addressing is male or female so I use my “Japanese” card to avoid such situation. Besides, I would avoid being “sexist”.
7) N. T.
1) I am not offended, but I may feel that I have not gained the trust depending on the time spent and (business) relationship if I/we keep having -san in the group. 2) I do not think so for “-san”. Though I see some power game for words such as “-kun” & “-chan” depending on the situation and relationship within the business scene. 3) I may depend on the case. Though, I rather feel awkward that we tend to use First+san combo for non-Japanese, but we do not for Japanese (Last+san).
8) K. T.
1) I’m semi-offended but not as much as you think every Japanese does. Mr. T is good enough for me. 2) no, I don’t. 3) no, I don’t (many Japanese do)
9) T. K.
1) No, 2) No, 3) Yes
10) T. P.
My answers will all depend on the context. If an English speaker I’m not familiar with is talking to me in Japanese and addressing me without “san”, I will probably be offended, or at least feel like “hey, do I know you?” However, if the same person is talking to me in English, it really doesn’t matter if s/he addresses me with or without “san”. Do I consider them (English speakers who use “san”) racist? Racist is a loaded word – I wouldn’t call them that, but again, depending on the context, I may describe some of those people as rude, condescending, show-off, or know-it-all. But remember the big fat underline on “depending on the context”. As for if I use “san” when addressing non-Japanese, I would do so if that person addresses me using “san”. Then again, I may not do so. Just to throw off bystander interculturalist who may be observing me. 😉 😉
11) H. U.
I think native Japanese speakers wouldn’t consider it as racist since “san” is used with respect. I think it would be racist if you insist to use it towards a Japanese American/Asian American that doesn’t speak Japanese. I’ve heard Japanese Americans that never learned Japanese complain how people expect them to speak Japanese. I also have Asian friends that had other people try to speak Japanese to them even though they aren’t Japanese.
12) K. A.
I certainly do not feel offended nor racist when someone adds a “san” to my last name. However, question 3 is case by case. If we take a meeting with a large group of Japanese folks, I certainly do not want “Tim” to feel out of place, or not deserving of an honorific title.
13) S. H.
1) Not at all. 2) Not at all. It would be a respectful act and prove that the person is familiar with Japanese culture. 3) No, I don’t. It sounds weird to insert Japanese word in English.
14) K. S.
1) Yes, in an international-Japanese context people call me (Given name)-san or (Family name)-san, and that is normal for me. I do not feel offended. 2) I would never consider this as racism, but rather as a respectfulness towards my culture and politeness towards me. But maybe, having lived always in an international environment and due to my personality, I do not see myself as a victim. 3) Yes, but only in a Japanese context, either by the first or family name depending on the familiarity I have with that person. For me the suffix “-san” is like Mr, Ms, Mrs. Yes, if we would now expand this to a transgender discussion, I would feel with “- san” more comfortable as it goes with all genders. If I may ask: what was the trigger of your questions? Kind regards from Germany to Japan.
15) H. H.
Hi, I’m not a direct contact but your post came up because we both know (name omitted)-san, and I wanted to respond as a datapoint for a Japanese female who is fluent in English language & culture. I’m not offended when people address me with san, I don’t think it’s racist, I think they are being overtly cautious & polite, I do wonder why they do so as often it’s not consistent. When I speak in English, I would never add san to address. I appreciate you seeking Japanese people’s views. Cheers, (name withheld)
16) A. F.
Adding “-san” at the end of a Japanese name is a sign or gesture of respect.
1) Semi-offended, if it’s from a cold contact on LinkedIn where English is obviously the primarily language for communication — for the same reason you wouldn’t just call a business contact senor or señorita by their looks or last name. 2) It’s presumptuous. They should get to know the other person before deciding what to call them. 3) Only if the language used to communicate is Japanese — then I’d use whatever convention that’s appropriate in that culture or language, unless the other person says otherwise.
(Note: As a follow-up to T.H.’s above response, I posed the following question: “Thank you for your perspective, I really appreciate it. Just to clarify, do you think it is racist/discriminatory, or simply tone-deaf? Or both?) T.H.’s response:
“I think it’s both. They may not have any bad intentions but the effect is discriminatory.”
© Tim Sullivan 2020