December 2009

This is by way of a lead-in to a post on identity and labels I have percolating.

Japanese manners of address are fascinating, because they contain so much information. Usually, a person is addressed with some combination of name and descriptive suffix.

The suffixes express relationships (and, incidentally, power dynamics), with examples (and rough meanings) like san (Ms/Mr), sensei (teacher), senpai (senior), oniisan (older brother), chan (cute wee thing), or kun (little buddy.)

There's also a solid hierarchy of formality → intimacy. From least to most intimate:

  1. Family name, suffix (Wilson-san)
  2. Given name, suffix (Matt-san)
  3. Given name (Matt)
  4. "you" (あなた, anata)

Anata is usually reserved for the closest of intimate partners – spouses or lovers. Given names with no prefix are for romantic partners and, perhaps, very close friends. Family names with a suffix are the default, first names with a suffix for good friends. (English obviously has parallels with use of titles, given names etc.; Japanese just makes it a little more apparent.)

The thing I find most interesting about all of this is that the more intimate the form of address, the less information is carried.

The more intimate the situation or relationship, the less cultural notions of identity seem to matter.

If you don't know someone well, you address them in a way that makes explicit your mutual status, and in terms of their family. If you know them a little better, you still define them by status, but no longer by their family. (Names also carry cultural implications – "a good family," "a noble name" etc.) And in the most intimate situations, there are no labels, no carried meaning, nothing more than the other person's self.

Christina commented:

The way different languages denote relationships is interesting - in Maori when you do your mihi, you introduce yourself by referring to your tribe first, then your extended family, your immediate family, and finally yourself. And now that I think about it, that's a completely different matter (it implies that the group is more important and carries more information than the individual).

And that's a long way of saying I'll be interested to see where you go with this :)