Category Archives: cross-cultural

My Response to Anyone Who Has Ever Said “Okay Boomer”

This is an original tune inspired by the question, “How would I respond to anyone who has ever said or even thought ‘Okay Boomer'”?

As proof that boomers and Millenials can live in harmony, I collaborated with my Millenial b-boy son Grady Sullivan to make this music video.

Lyrics, music, vocals, and acoustic guitar ~ Tim Sullivan

MIDI drums, bass, chorus, and electric guitar ~ Dwight Waldron

Dancer, Grady Sullivan (a.k.a “Ilosophy”)

© Tim Sullivan 2020

What’s the Difference Between “Bashing” and “Self-Critiquing”?

Today I was guilty of sharing a meme on my Facebook feed without checking its veracity. (See above.)

The meme was about A&W’s failed attempt to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by introducing a 1/3 Pounder. Why did it fail? People thought that 1/3 was less than 1/4. 

I was challenged on this by a thoughtful friend. He reasonably questioned if it were true. I honestly didn’t know so I googled it. Lo and behold, it is true. But shame on me for not checking ahead of time.

My friend said the meme was about “bashing America.” It certainly is making fun of us. I don’t take it personally, but I understand why some people might. (Btw, my friend is an intelligent guy.) 

Every country has its flaws. One of ours (America’s) is our non-standardized, inconsistent education system, one that’s influenced by too many factors to list in this post. Suffice it to say that, as a result, we have some of the smartest people in the world and also some of the most ignorant. Indeed, the American bell curve is wide and flat. It’s who we are, one of the consequences of our cherished freedoms: each of us has the freedom to learn and raise our level of intelligence and, conversely, to be as ignorant as we choose to be. The cost of freedom.

The Power of the Self-Critique

At the risk of being pedantic, is critiquing oneself – or one’s own country for that matter – “bashing”? Or is it something else? For what it’s worth, here’s my take.

In my estimation, what makes a person – or country – “great” is the ability to objectively assess one’s own strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly. (If you don’t believe me, ask any world-class athlete.) Only by acknowledging one’s weaknesses can one improve. That is, in my opinion, what makes America truly great: the freedom to self-critique, adjust, and keep moving forward. It helps a lot to keep your sense of humor.

Hence, I believe that only by acknowledging our weaknesses can we keep improving. Conversely, if we pretend everything is hunky-dori, then we are denying ourselves the opportunity to get better. I fear that if we stop moving forward that we are doomed as a country.

Sadly, I am seeing less and less self-reflection these days and lots of defensiveness. I understand where it’s coming from, but I choose to keep my sense of humor and call a spade a spade.

Lots of great things about the U.S., but also lots of room for improvement. Am I alone in thinking this?

(If you google it, you’ll see that numerous articles back the A&W 1/3 Pounder story; here’s one.)

© Tim Sullivan 2020

Reflections on the Election

More political ramblings that I post with some reluctance.

As a builder of bridges, I wanted to share my reflections and suggestions in this tense political climate. Take them for what they are worth, about 2 cents. (Warning: if you are squeamish about naughty words, you might want to skip this post.)

Many of my friends are ecstatic that Trump lost the election. Others are disappointed. It’s no secret that I’m not a Trump fan, so my feeling right now is relief; I needed a break from the insanity. But it doesn’t logically follow that I’m happy about who won. Think of me as a politically homeless animal.

It is my belief that the democrats are in for a big reckoning if they don’t get their shit together. The bad news is that they have only four years to do it. If things don’t changed drastically within the Democratic party, they will be defeated next time by someone smarter and more sinister than Trump.

Off the top of my head, here are some suggestions that the Dems almost certainly won’t follow:

1) Quit being elitist assholes and start working for the people rather than the moneyed interests. Get relief to Americans to help them through the pandemic. Healthcare would be nice, too, at the very least during this pandemic.

2) Reconsider the notion that we will ever “defeat” COVID. We might, but I’m assuming at this juncture that that toothpaste will never get back in the tube. For now, we need to learn to live with COVID. The Japan model has been workable: masks, hand-washing, and social-distancing. It helps a lot not to be overweight and unhealthy. (Exercise and improve your diet for God’s sake!) The economy has slowed for sure, but we’re getting by. What I do know is that we need to get on with our lives. Not in “fear” but with caution. The analogy is driving: Stopping at a red light is analogous to wearing a mask; looking both ways before you cross the street is analogous to washing your hands and social distancing; a vaccine would be an airbag. We have to figure out how to deal with this reality without being paralyzed.

3) The DNC needs to find a better candidate next time, preferably younger and savvier than what has been forced on the electorate the past two cycles. I can’t see Kamala winning a presidential election, but I hope she proves me wrong and performs beyond my expectations. (I’d gladly vote for Yang, but short of that, I’ve got nothing.)

4) Don’t start any fucking wars – unless someone outright attacks us.

5) Plug the loopholes that Trump exploited and exposed in pushing (shattering?) the limits of Presidential power. Our system of checks-and-balances desperately needs to be reinforced moving forward.

6) The “woke” crowd needs to sleep on their wokeness and stop being so goddamn sanctimonious. Quit canceling people and looking for petty reasons to be offended. I can only imagine how many people the woke crowd pushed toward voting for Trump.

7) Hillary and Bill need to ride off into the sunset. Their time has passed. Oh, and take Nancy Pelosi with you.

8) Quit treating fellow Americans as enemies – this goes for both sides.

9) If your guy won, stop gloating, it’s toxic and counterproductive.

10) Be kind. If you can’t do that, then at least be tolerant.

© Tim Sullivan 2020

No Time to Gloat

Since starting this blog I have managed to avoid political posts. Due to the historical election that just took place, I am making an exception.

Many folks on the left are celebrating President-elect Biden’s win. I, on the other hand, am NOT happy, as he wasn’t my candidate of choice. But I am relieved he won. Still so much work to do to improve conditions in my country. Only time will tell if we can fix our broken system.

As a cross-cultural anthropologist, I am fascinated by human behavior, specifically the motivations behind it. To that point, here’s a conversation that I observed yesterday on my Facebook feed that got me thinking.

A Facebook connection who voted for Joe Biden said to a mutual friend (who voted for Trump) that he was “baffled” by the mutual friend’s support for Trump. The mutual friend responded by saying that he found the remark “condescending.”

I can’t speak to the intentions of the person who made the “baffled” remark. But I can say that I share the sentiment, and also that it has nothing to do with condescension, certainly in my case. 

It’s not because I look down on our mutual friend. On the contrary, it’s because I believe he is everything that Trump isn’t: kind, compassionate, honest, mature, generous, selfless and patriotic. I also believe that if I was ever in trouble and my Trump-voting friend could help me in some way, that he would. I can’t say any of those things about Trump. Hence, “I’m baffled” that he could vote for someone so different from himself.

But alas, we humans are complicated creatures. To his credit, my friend admitted that he thinks Trump is a “pompous ass,” but also that he believes Trump is the “lesser of two evils.” I obviously disagree. But I somewhat understand the reasons behind his rationalization, some valid, and some that I just don’t buy (although I believe my friend believes it’s true).

Where We Agree and Disagree

We agree that Biden was not a good candidate. Not a big fan of Kamala, either. But I am rooting for both of them! I don’t believe that “business-as-usual-neoliberalism” is the way to go. The country needs a new direction that works for the people, not corporations and the elites. But I digress.

We also agree that certain elements on the left are intolerant of free speech. However, unlike my friend, I believe (actually I know) that “the left” is not monolithic, and that certain minority elements of the left are the most vocal and therefore may appear to represent all of us. It’s time to dispel the myth that only two extreme camps of thinking exist: diversity exists on both the left and right.

Left and Right Stereotyping is Bullshit

I consider myself an “old school liberal.” In concrete terms, I believe in free speech, even when it is uncomfortable. I am, in principle, against cancel culture. Case in point: back in the day, the KKK applied for a permit to march in Skokie, IL, a town with a high population of Jewish folks (some of whom were childhood friends). Many people tried to stop them and I believe they were wrong for trying. The only thing I hate more than the KKK is the suppression of free speech. Fun fact: Guess who defended the KKK’s right to march? Jewish lawyers in the ACLU. Old school.

My friend is a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment. I personally have never owned a gun, but I also support the right of responsible citizens to exercise that right. So do many of my friends “on the left.”

That said, my position is nuanced. I believe my gun-owning friends, all responsible people who respect their guns as tools and are trained to use them, should absolutely have the right to own and carry a gun. I also believe in common-sense gun control to minimize guns getting in the hands of irresponsible people. Some say that this is a “slippery slope” issue, but I also believe it’s a discussion that we need to have. I’ve got no concrete answers on how to achieve that goal, but I believe in the ability of people to solve problems without locking into hardened, extreme positions.

Here’s where my friend and I disagree the most on this issue: he believes that Biden will take away his guns. I would counter by pointing to exhibit A: for eight years that’s what they said about Obama and it never happened. I can’t envision a scenario in which Biden would try to take away people’s guns, simply because there is absolutely no way to get that Genie back in the bottle. Mark my words: everyone will get to keep their guns.

Gloating Is For Sore Winners

There are many other issues that separate my Trump-voting friend and me, but these are the big ones. If Americans ever needed to put aside their differences and embrace each other, this is the time to do it. Admittedly, this may be pie-in-the-sky musings by an old-school liberal boomer, but that’s where my head is at today. I can’t control what others will do, but I CAN control myself. I wish the best for friends, family, and fellow Americans who thought Trump was a better choice. Hopefully enough people on both sides will choose to put country over party. If not, our country is in deep shit.

Call me naive, but I am keeping hope alive…

© Tim Sullivan 2020

Deferential Foreigner or Maniacal Participant in a Game of Chicken?

Every day my Japanese wife and I take a one-hour stroll around our hometown of Atami. In some parts of town, the sidewalks are so narrow that there’s barely enough room for two (much less three) people heading in opposite directions to pass each other.

As a guest in this country, I feel obligated to yield the sidewalk to the natives. For this reason, I always preemptively step into the street to give the other person the right of way. Problem is, more often than not, the on-coming pedestrian ALSO steps into the street, even though that person clearly saw that I stepped into the street first! And I can’t help but wonder: Are they f*cking with me? lol.

This happens so often that it has become a running joke with my dear wife. I am embarrassed to admit that when this happens, it flips a demonic switch in my brain and suddenly the thoughtful, deferential foreigner morphs into a maniacal participant in a game of chicken. Who will step back onto the sidewalk first?

Sadly, this never ends well, as I come to my senses and jump back onto the narrow sidewalk just in time to avoid a collision. Cluck, cluck, cluck.

This has happened so often that I’ve learned to laugh it off and move on. And yet, I continue to yield the right of way to my Japanese hosts. My hope is that someday I will succeed or, at the very least, win a game of chicken. 😉

© Tim Sullivan 2020

上を向いて歩こう (Sukiyaki Song)

For the last few months, I’ve been learning animation software (Toonly), new songs on the guitar, and I even invested in digital recording equipment to make home recordings. This project combines these three hobbies.

This song is a cover of the old Japanese classic (made in 1961) “Ue wo Muite Arukō”, sung by the late Sakamoto Kyu who, sadly, perished in a plane crash 35 years ago.

I’m playing guitar and vocals. My friend (remotely) did the harmonies, all the other instruments, as well as the mix. I like how it turned out, hope you do too. Enjoy!

English Translation

I look up when I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Remembering those spring days
But I am all alone tonight

I look up when I walk
Counting the stars with tearful eyes
Remembering those summer days
But I am all alone tonight

Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies above the sky

I look up when I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I am all alone

Remembering those autumn days
But I am all alone tonight

Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I am all alone

Is It “Racist” to Use the Japanese Suffix “San” with English?


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.

In Conclusion

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!



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. 

17) T.H.

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

I Support Your Right to Be Offended


“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die” ~ Buddha

“You find it offensive, I find it funny, that’s why I’m happier than you”                               ~ Ricky Gervais

I recently posted an article titled, Sticks & Stones: Being Offended is a Choice.

Well, someone on Twitter named Lisa was not happy with my post and sent me a note with two questions and the hashtag “gaslighting.” So props to Lisa for inspiring this article!

Lisa is, by her own admission, offended by the word “gaijin” (translated as “foreigner,” literally, “outside person”). She also appears to be offended that I am not offended by the same word. So I decided to respond to her thought-provoking questions.

Before doing so, I want to acknowledge Lisa’s humanity upfront: social media makes it easy to dehumanize others, certainly those who disagree with you – and especially those who accuse you of “gaslighting”! 🙂 But just as being called “gaijin” doesn’t offend me, neither do accusations of gaslighting. It is just a word used by a stranger.

So I will resist the unhealthy urge to dehumanize, and instead write this response based on the premise that Lisa is a kindhearted person with the same kinds of problems, struggles, and daily pressures that we all go through, especially during these tough pandemic times. Just as important, I will assume that we share important common ground – that we both support social justice causes. I also want to assure Lisa that, even though she likely thinks I am a horrible person, my beliefs come from a good place and I have absolutely no intention of “gaslighting” anyone.

I would also be remiss not to mention that I strongly support Lisa’s right – or anyone’s right for that matter – to be offended by whatever they want to be offended by. Far be it from me to tell people how they should feel about any given issue. But in return, I only ask that people respect my right not to be offended.

So without further ado, onto Lisa’s two questions!

  1. “I choose to be offended. So the fault is all mine?”
  2. “If I pretend there’s no problem, it will all go away, in every situation?”

Let’s unpack those questions separately:

Is the fault all Lisa’s for letting the word “gaijin” offend her?

Putting aside that this discussion has nothing to do with “fault” (a word I will replace with “responsibility”), my short answer is “yes,” people are ultimately responsible for how they choose to respond to the world around them. But I write this with caveats. Not knowing the inner workings of Lisa’s heart, I can’t say for sure that being offended is “all her responsibility”; she might or might not be in control of her own faculties and emotions, I have no way of knowing. If she isn’t, then I truly empathize and feel compassion toward her.

The other caveat is that if Lisa happens to be part of an oppressed group (which I personally am not), then I certainly understand and empathize with why she might be offended.

With those disclaimers out of the way, assuming Lisa doesn’t have a mental or emotional disorder and is not a member of an oppressed group, I believe it is absolutely her responsibility (not “fault”) for letting – or not letting – the words of others control her emotions.  How she chooses to feel about it affects her and her alone. She doesn’t have to let this occupy precious emotional bandwidth in her head. It is her choice.

My hope is that more people like Lisa learn to be kinder to themselves, acknowledge their self-worth as a human being, and not let the words of others adversely affect their peace of mind.

If Lisa “pretends” there’s no problem, will it all go away, in every situation?

“Pretend” is a framing that I reject. As someone who has been dealing with Japanese folks for over four decades, being called “gaijin” never struck me as a big deal – even when it was used in a pejorative way. I don’t pretend it will “go away in every situation,” I just let it go and move on with my life. It’s not my responsibility to “fix” Japanese culture, nor does it help to fret about it.

Conversely, I would counter with this question to Lisa: Will the problem be solved by getting offended? With her (or me) angrily condemning the use of the word?  Any rational person knows the answer. Lisa seems capable of rational thought, so I believe she knows the answer.

I will give Lisa this, though – the word “gaijin” is certainly a symptom of a much deeper problem in Japan. As someone trained in root-cause analysis and problem solving, I learned early on that problems are not solved by attacking symptoms.

And so it goes for attacking the word “gaijin”; whether or not Lisa chooses to view the word as a problem (even though it’s a symptom), again, being offended by it will solve nothing. But it will continue to eat at her soul if she chooses to let it. For Lisa’s sake, I hope she doesn’t.

It is worth mentioning here that, in my forty-three years dealing with the Japanese people, most I have encountered don’t consciously use gaijin in a malicious, pejorative way – they simply don’t know any better. As for the ones who use it pejoratively? I feel sorry for them but choose not to let them occupy that precious emotional bandwidth in my head.

How do I deal with being called “gaijin”?

By showing Japanese people my humanity through relationship-building, not complaining about it on Twitter or getting upset about it in the analog world for that matter.

When the timing is right, I have been known to educate Japanese friends that certain sensitive non-Japanese are offended by the word “gaijin” and therefore they should consider not using it. Most of the time this approach works. But I also make sure they understand that the word doesn’t bother me personally because, well, it doesn’t. I reserve the right not to be offended!

Am I Saying that Japan doesn’t have problems with discrimination?

Absolutely not! As I mentioned, the word “gaijin” is a symptom of a much deeper problem in Japan, one that can’t be solved by letting the word “gaijin” offend you. All that each of us can really hope to do as individuals is win over Japanese converts one by one and, by doing so, help broaden their thinking through love and compassion – a much more effective approach than lecturing to a room of empty seats, an apt analogy since Japanese who need to hear the message the most don’t speak English and, consequently, will never watch our English twitter wars from the sidelines.

What To Do About All This?

In addition to my limited contribution to the intercultural cause via human-to-human contact, I choose to direct my social-justice energies in more meaningful ways by prioritizing and strategically picking my battles. And a much more important battle right now is, in my estimation, dealing with the discriminatory practices of the Japanese government applying a double-standard policy that allows Japanese citizens into Japan during this pandemic while excluding foreign residents from enjoying the same privilege. This is a concrete problem worth addressing, as the policy not only hurts foreigners, it also hurts Japan, a country I love very much.

Am I offended by the Japan-entry double-standard? No. But I am annoyed as hell about it since I will have to cancel my upcoming trip to Hawaii!

Do I let it eat at my soul? No. In spite of this blatantly discriminatory practice, I still count my blessings and consider myself extremely lucky to live here. I choose hope over anger since campaigns are under way as I type this to convince the Japanese government to open its borders to foreign residents again, actions I am happy to be part of since tangible results seem plausible.

Turning the Battleship Around in the Water

For Japanese people to completely open their hearts, minds, and borders, it will take generations, an evolution that is impeded by complex factors that include the inherently insular nature of an island nation that, in its two-thousand-plus year history, was never invaded by a foreign power. It doesn’t help having a baked-in mythology that casts the Japanese people as a “unique race.”

Many more cultural factors feed into the Japanese mindset, of course, a topic well beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that Japan has much cultural inertia to overcome to evolve into a more globally minded culture, far beyond the meager influence of any tweet or blog post or indignant response that a foreigner has to the word “gaijin.”

In short, good luck getting the entire Japanese populace to stop using “gaijin.” Not gonna happen in our lifetime. For this reason, it is not a hill I choose to die on. But that’s just me.

In the meantime, I’ll keep making Japanese friends, spreading goodwill, and make whatever small contribution I can in urging the Japanese government to allow foreigners with resident visas into the country during this pandemic. This is the most productive way to direct my focus right now – and it makes me really happy to do so. 🙂

In closing, it is my sincere hope that the Lisas of the world can learn to look past the hurtful words (intended or not) of others, acknowledge their own self-worth, and find the inner peace not to let the utterances of strangers offend them.


© Tim Sullivan 2020

The Eulogy That Altered My Path In Life


Around 2003 when I lived in the Chicago area, a 29-year-old Japanese acquaintance died in his sleep leaving behind a grief-stricken wife and beautiful 3-year-old daughter.

We attended his funeral. As is the custom in Japan, a Buddhist monk conducted the ceremony and delivered the eulogy. I remember wondering what the monk could possibly say to console family and friends. I’ll never forget his words:

“There are different ways to measure a man’s life. One way is to count the number of years he lived; 29 years is a very short time to be on this earth. But it doesn’t tell you how widely and deeply the man lived. Some people live more VOLUME of life in 29 years than others do in 100. Tomorrow is promised to no one. But we can all choose to live our lives widely and deeply.”

Rarely has someone’s words inspired me to reflect and change my thinking in such a profound way. This did. After that experience, we decided as a family to move to Hawaii and completely change our lifestyle. Last year we moved once again to Japan.

17 years later, I’m still living life widely and deeply.

Has anyone else ever had such a moment that inspired a dramatic change of direction?

© Tim Sullivan 2020

Sticks & Stones: Being Offended Is A Choice



As this article states, many non-Japanese folks living in Japan get offended by the word “gaijin” (translated as “foreigner,” literally, “outside person.”)

I have a different take.

Context matters when someone calls me “gaijin” – or in Hawaii, for that matter, where the equivalent word is “haole.”

I am of the mind that being offended is a choice. Granted, if I were a member of an oppressed group, I would likely feel differently, and I respect that. But I have never in my life been oppressed.

Japan has its problems with discrimination for sure. But I believe that, in the larger scheme of things, the positives of being a foreigner here greatly outweigh the negatives, certainly in my case. Truth is, I believe it’s a lot tougher to be JAPANESE in Japan since, unlike me, they have to live in Japan’s social pressure cooker every day. I don’t envy my Japanese friends and am thankful I am not held to the same strict standards.

Admittedly, I’ve been blessed to have developed close relationships with many wonderful Japanese people over the years, friendships that now span four decades. These are people I love and who love me back. They have called me “gaijin” in good fun, sometimes out of linguistic habit, but they never made me feel disrespected, and for that reason, I always chose (and still choose) not to be offended. Ditto for Hawaii, where I’ve been called “haole” countless times, almost always said in a lighthearted way by local friends.

Have other Japanese called me gaijin with derogatory intent? Of course. Have Hawaii locals called me “haole” with malicious intent? Of course. Still, I choose not to be offended; I chalk it up to ignorance and move on with my life.

Don’t misunderstand: I have no intention of offending people, so I will gladly avoid terms that hurt others. But some folks make a career out of finding reasons to be offended. That’s not how I roll. Life is too short to cast yourself as a victim for every perceived slight. Instead, I choose to focus on what I’m thankful for.

And you know what? I’m a pretty happy guy.


Confidential response to Lisa…see the next post.


© Tim Sullivan 2020