Japanese Personal Address Terms and Social Identity: Part 1
Daniel Dolan (Principal, Communication Japan)
Personal address terms are a feature of most known languages, often used to show respect when speaking with particular social actors in specific situations. In German, for example, sie typically is used when speaking with persons of higher social ranking or age or with unfamiliar persons, and du is routinely used as a personal address term among friends or social equals. In the United States such distinctions are less common, with first names used to address persons in most situations, or the default and status-neutral you. For example, "Excuse me, are you leaving this table?" is an acceptable question even when speaking with a stranger. However, medical doctors almost always receive doctor when spoken to, university professors in most cases are addressed with professor or doctor, and children speaking politely to adults are taught to use sir or ma'am.
Similarly, students of the Japanese language learn early on that san is the term of address used to show respect in Japan, and at least in the beginning years of study are encouraged to use san when speaking Japanese to anybody in any situation. In fact, however, native Japanese speakers employ a rich galaxy of personal address terms in addition to san, and in many instances of conversation —particularly talk among friends or individuals within a wide interpersonal network —using san will not only sound odd but may not reflect, maintain or produce the desired perception or relationships among speakers. For example, my Japanese wife and her friends with children refer to themselves and each other through identification with the names of their respective sons or daughters rather than with their proper first or family names. Thus among my wife's friends I usually am addressed as Sean-papa (my son's name is Sean). And a typical telephone conversation might begin, "Eri-mama, this is Sean-mama", something that most American parents would find quite strange. In addition, when meeting for the first time somebody known to your spouse, partner or close friend, one often employs the personal address term used by the known party. Due to the existing relationship, it is likely that this term of address will be something other than san. For example, if my wife refers to a friend with the personal address term chan, it might seem most natural and comfortable for me to immediately begin addressing that person in the same way. In effect, I would piggyback on the established personal address term use of my acquaintance.
From this perspective, personal address terms are seldom simple, benign designations such as Mr. or Mrs., but more often are powerful indicators and shapers of social identities of speakers. Even so, personal address term use by speakers of any language has received little attention by language scholars or sociologists, perhaps because empirical data of such use is difficult to gather. However, published use of personal address terms by journalists provides us with a publicly accessible and interesting window on these processes.
In this essay I present the first installment of a two-part exploration of the social identity uses of personal address term in Japan, with a focus on the uses of such terms by the mass media. The essays are written for a general audience, and adapted from my essay published in the Western Journal of Communication, Volume 62, Number 4, 459-473, (1998) titled "Conditional Respect and Criminal Identity: The Use of Personal Address Terms in Japanese Mass Media". For citations, footnotes, complete references and detailed discussion of concepts please refer to the original essay.
Personal Address Terms and Mass Media in Japan
Perhaps more than in many other countries, mass media in Japan tend to have great influence on the perceptions and understanding of issues of most Japanese. This view is supported by the results of a 1977 survey of public attitudes toward mass media in Japan conducted by public television station NHK. This survey revealed that NHK, the most widely watched television station in the country, also was rated the "most trusted institution in Japanese society" over the police and other governmental bodies. In addition, one Japanese study revealed that as early as 1980 the mass media were ranked first in power and influence by a wide range of elites and leaders in business, government, the media, and other prominent public and private sectors. In addition to being a highly trusted and esteemed institution, the mass media in Japan use a similar, codified, and synchronized system of person reference when reporting significant crime stories. Coordination and consensus among mass media, particularly television and newspaper enterprises, can be attributed largely to the existence and activities of kisha (press) clubs.
Almost all mass media reporters in Japan are assigned to cover particular kinds of news such as political, social, or crime stories, and most reporters are assigned by their news bureaus to kisha (kee-sha) clubs associated with various news categories. At kisha clubs, member reporters can receive news announcements from officials belonging to government ministries and law enforcement agencies. As Krauss (1996) observes in his study of NHK, Japan's leading television station, "reporters use the club as something of a ‘home base' and press room," but because kisha clubs are institutionally associated with political and governmental agencies, reporters "often can become prisoners of official handouts and leaked information provided by their sources" (p. 109). He adds that a frequent complaint about kisha clubs is that "the constant interaction among reporters of different papers is one of the prime causes of the conformity of the Japanese press and the lack of differentiation in the news of the major dailies" (p. 127). Farley (1996) argues that because of the kisha club tenet that "no scoop is everybody's happiness . . . the major papers consistently feature the same stories and sometimes even the same headlines" (p. 137). The extent to which kisha clubs foster coordination and consensus among television and newspaper reporters is suggested most vividly in a description of these club environments by Altman (1996), who reveals that in the small overcrowded room, desks of reporters from competing news organizations are situated side by side, leaving no room for privacy. Over the years reporters have tended to cooperate with one another, discussing what the news is and building a consensus over what to report for the day. The relationship is so collegial that, according to one reporter at the Shakaito Club, when someone oversleeps or is absent during important briefings, colleagues from rival news organizations will cover for the absent one, later providing the news material needed to file a report. (p. 167)
However, former NHK News Division Director N. Ikeda (personal communication, July 8, 1998) explained that cooperation among reporters belonging to the same kisha club is in practice restricted to routine news stories. He agreed that participation among mass media reporters in kisha clubs is widespread, with most unseasoned or unambitious reporters spending most of their time at the clubs and with even star reporters visiting at least one kisha club every day. But he argued that reporters gain respect from their peers by finding interesting news, and particularly a big "scoop," from non-kisha club sources, even if such stories are far outnumbered by those dispensed via official news briefings at kisha clubs.
In addition to the impact of kisha clubs on the content and style of mass media news in Japan, news organizations familiarize beginning reporters with the appropriate use of language in reporting stories, norms for which are standardized across the profession. These guidelines are printed in various reference sources and, according to Ikeda, are widely consulted by news editors. One such guide, titled Kisha Handbook (Reporter's Handbook), provides detailed suggestions regarding all aspects of reporting, including ethical issues and a lengthy section on the appropriate use of personal address terms. The publication assigns personal address terms conventionally used by mass media to two general categories.
One category of personal address terms given by the guidelines in the Reporter's Handbook includes titles. Practitioners--a loose group of specialists ranging from university professors and physicians to artists and hair stylists--are referred to by mass media with family name + sensei. Athletes are often referred to with family name + senshu (athlete) or by first or family name alone, or with a nickname. A second category is honorifics, which include san (sahn) and shi (shee). A sub-category is terms of endearment for children, generally chan (chahn) and kun (kun). Children below primary school age usually are referred to by mass media with first name + chan. From primary school age until college age boys are usually referred to with first or family name + kun, and girls with first name + chan until junior high school age, from which time first or family name + san is preferred. To add to this complexity, reporters often use first name + chan to refer to both girls and boys below junior high school age who are kidnapped or involved in other misfortune. Apparently, reporters or editors believe that using chan to refer to boys in such cases generates sympathy for the victim and a higher sense of drama.
The Handbook also discusses terms of address to be used for persons suspected or accused of committing crimes. In such cases, persons under twenty years of age are to be referred to as shonen (show-nen) (minor), with no family or first name revealed. This is the form used by the mass media in Japan to refer to the 14-year-old boy who in 1997 confessed to the murders of two children in the city of Kobe. Adults suspected of committing a crime are to be referred to as yogisha (yoh-gee-shaw) (suspect), and individuals formally accused through the legal system of committing a crime should be called hikoku (hee-koh-ku) (accused). The Handbook adds that the family and first names of adults may be given with the terms yogisha or hikoku if the news is sufficiently sensational or if the individual is a well-known public figure.
Conditional Respect by Mass Media
Given the linguistic standardization of mass media reporting resulting from the kisha club system, the Reporter's Handbook, and from ritualistic features of the Japanese language, the implications of systematized use of personal address terms by mass media reporters in Japan are significant. For example, for a reporter to use family name + san in reference to an adult is to ascribe to the person a general but important social identity. The individual is to be considered a normal, contributing, respected member of adult society. As Bromley (1993) observes, unless presented with contrary evidence individuals normally ascribe to others the characteristics expected of the social position they apparently occupy. He calls this kind of attribution a "convenient assumption" that facilitates social processes (p. 226). In this sense, family name + san is a communicative default mode in Japan: After high school age receiving this respectful form of address in most social interactions is considered a fundamental right. In practice, however, this respect is conditional, because in most instances of reporting about a person associated with criminal activity, mass media reporters will publicly divest an individual of the personal address term san and in place use yogisha, hikoku, or family name alone. The effect is to banish the person, at least temporarily, from functioning citizenry.
In addition to consistent and coordinated employment by mass media, Japanese personal address terms are associated by sentence structure with a person's name in the closest way possible (e.g., family name + hikoku). For this reason, personal address terms used by mass media in Japan can function in especially powerful ways to identify the person as a particular kind of social actor: young or old, junior or senior, or inside or outside the normal life of a community. Thus, public trust of mass media, institutionalized and coordinated practices of mass media and shared understanding among community members of the meanings of particular personal address term use by mass media constitute the foundation for the practice of conditional respect. In the second essay of this two-part work I illustrate the practice of conditional respect by analyzing two specific cases of criminal identity management by mass media in Japan.
- Altman, K. K. (1996). Television and political turmoil: Japan's summer of 1993. In S. J. Pharr & E. S. Krauss (Eds.), Media and politics in Japan (pp. 165-186). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Bromley, D. B. (1993). Reputation, image, and impression management. Chichester, England: John Wiley.
- Farley, M. (1996). Japan's press and the politics of scandal. In S. J. Pharr & E. S. Krauss (Eds.), Media and politics in Japan (pp. 133-163). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Krauss, E. S. (1996). Portraying the state: NHK television news and politics. In S. J. Pharr & E. S. Krauss (Eds.), Media and politics in Japan (pp. 89-129). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Kyodotsushinsha (Ed.). (1994). Kisha handbook [Reporter's handbook] 7th ed., Dai-Nippon Publishing Company Tokyo.