An example of the tricky dance of switching between English and Japanese for business

Most of my clients are of nationalities other than Japanese but some of them have Japanese colleagues. Because I’m also Japanese, there’s a funny tap dance that we do with our salutations when we start working together.

Let’s say my client is Jane, her colleague is Taro (first name) Tanaka (last name), and I’ve been assigned to work on a project with him. In case you don’t know, I’m Tomomi (first name) Sasaki (last name).

Jane: Hi Tomomi, meet Taro.
Me: Hello, Taro-san!
Taro: Hello, Tomomi-san.

When Japanese people speak to each other in an English language business environment, it’s typical to use “first name + san“. First names without the honorific are too intimate. (Although, if it were the international branch of a Japanese company — i.e. Japanese culture dominant organization — it would probably be “last name + san“.)

Taro might refer to me as Tomomi (as a shorthand) in an internal conversation with Jane but as the vendor, I will not be calling or referring to him as Taro. If he had some kind of English-friendly nickname, I might use it without the san to refer to him (again, as a shorthand) but probably not to his face.

Next, let’s say there was a meeting between Taro and myself to kick off the project. Since it’s just the two of us, the meeting is in Japanese.

Taro: I’m Tanaka. {self intro} 
Me: I’m Sasaki. {self intro}
Taro: Have you reviewed the brief, Sasaki-san?
Me: Yes. We’re excited to work on this project with you, Tanaka-san.

Taro will introduce himself first because he organized this meeting. He can call me Tomomi-san (continuing the pattern previously established in English) or Sasaki-san (which would be the only option if this were a 100% Japanese interaction).

I need to follow his cue: in this case, switch to Takana-san. It would be inconsiderate to call him Taro-san right after he called me Sasaki-san, which is more polite.

Note that during this meeting, and in any future Japanese conversation with Taro, I will refer to Jane as Jane-san. That one’s not a strict rule but a pet peeve of mine that some Japanese people discard honorific conventions for non-Japanese names. The context of language should take priority.

Let’s say that after this meeting, he sends over some files. The e-mail is in Japanese. If the previous meeting had been a remote one, this is where the transition becomes clunky.

Taro: Sasakiさん
Me: 田中さま

Because at this point, he wouldn’t know the kanji characters for my name. He needs to fudge things by using the alphabetical “Sasaki” with the honorific in Japanese or in English – so, either Sasakiさん or Sasaki-san.

Sasaki is a common name that’s normally spelled 佐々木 but that doesn’t make it cool to guess. My name could be 笹木 or 佐佐木 and then there would have to be an uncomfortable song and dance of apology and forgiveness. Ugh.

Of course, if we had met in person, this would be a non-issue. Because, business cards! Maybe that’s why we love our cards so much. To check how our names are spelled…

My response would be easy because Taro’s e-mail signature would include his full name in Japanese. I would also switch from san to the more polite sama, since this is written communication.

Fwiw, it’s not common to add sama in alphabet after someone’s name. I’m not sure why.

In the next message in the thread, he will also have seen how my name is spelled and we’re finally on track to a “normal” Japanese business salutation.

Ichiro: 佐々木さま
Me: 田中さま

This photo was taken on October 12, 2007 in Aomori Prefecture. It’s a nice salmon from Towadako without much relation to this post but damn, I miss readily available fresh fish.