I have met the parents of a close Japanese friend two times in my life and have never been sure how I should address them. Both times I've asked the friend beforehand but never got a satisfactory answer.

One friend said I could just call her parents お母さん・お父さん; the other friend said that her parents would find it rudely over-familiar if I were to call them that.

Both times I suggested last-name+さん but both friends felt this would be weird/confusing as there would be many people with the same last-name present.

I feel first-name+さん or あなた would sound rude...

So the question is: How should you address a friend's parents when meeting them for the first time?

Thank you!

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    「初対面で」ですよね・・・。う~~~む・・・多分、自分がその友達とどのくらい親しいかにもよるんじゃないかと・・・あと、その親の「社会的地位」にも結構気を遣います~ – user1016 May 12 '13 at 9:32
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    なるほど~。やはり、一概に「こうです」と、簡単に答えられる質問ではないですね・・・。ありがとうございます^^; – Robin May 12 '13 at 11:31
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    一見簡単そうに見えて実は難しい質問だと思います^^だからとても良い質問だと思うので、すぐupvoteしました^^ 幼稚園~小学生くらいの子なら「太郎くんのお母さん」「ユミちゃんのお母さん」と言うと思います。(または、「ゆみちゃんの/太郎君のおばちゃん・おじちゃん」や、単に「おばちゃん・おじちゃん」。でもこれは関西だけかもしれません。関東弁だと「おばさん」「おじさん」・・・?)もう少し大人になると「ユミちゃん/由美子さんのお母さん」「鈴木さん/鈴木君のお母さん」とか、場合によって「お母さん」とか。「(~~さん・君の)お母様」って言う時もあります。(でも付き合ってる彼女のお父さんに急に「お父さん・お父様」だけ使うと「お前にお父さんと言われる筋合いはない!」って怒る人もたまにいるそうですし・・・^^;) – user1016 May 12 '13 at 12:21
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    なるほど!詳しいご説明ありがとうございます!!大変勉強になりました(^^) >>「お前にお父さんと言われる筋合いはない!」 Haha, this is exactly what one friend say her father would say! – Robin May 12 '13 at 12:57
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    www いえ、日本語ばかりですみません!(「太郎くんのおばさん/おば様」「山田さんのおばさん/おば様」も使うんですけど、よく考えたら変な日本語ですよね。その人は、太郎くん/山田さんの「伯母さん」じゃなくて、「お母さん」なのに・・・。) – user1016 May 12 '13 at 16:09

It is usual to call them last-name+の+お母さん and last-name+の+お父さん (that means, you refer to your friend by the last-name). It is widespread to call people by their function unless you got closely acquainted with them. Both referencing and addressing the same.

お母さん・お父さん basically means "my mother / my father", either in direct or figurative sense. (Update: At least, when used for addressing.)

last-name+さん is ambiguous.

last-name+first-name+さん is unambiguous, but it is worse than calling by function, because it looks like you are forgetting or neglecting that function (and being a parent to your friend is good enough to be not neglected).

first-name+さん is very familiar and unceremonious, neglecting the difference in age and status.

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    Thanks for answering! I never considered how ~のお父さん・お母さん could be a 'function' in that sense so you've opened my eyes :) – Robin May 12 '13 at 11:44
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    Maybe 'function' is not a right word here, but I hope you get the sense. I mean, there are many kinds of addressing in use like 'fish dealer+さん', 'customer+さん', 'head of department+さん', 'parents of (pupil's last name)+さん' and so on. – firtree May 12 '13 at 12:04
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    I understand what you meant, I'd just never thought of being someone's parent in that sense! Your answer also seems to line up with what Chocolateさん has said. Thanks again ^^ – Robin May 12 '13 at 13:03
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    "お母さん・お父さん basically means "my mother / my father", either in direct or figurative sense". This is not entirely precise. It's often used to mean "your/his/her/their mother/father". The problem arises when the person referred to is also the person adressed。 – dainichi May 14 '13 at 2:37
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    @dainichi Yes it is not precise, but close enough to provoke such answers as 「お前にお父さんと言われit is 筋合いはない!」 mentioned by Chocolate. Though your remark is good, I'll add it to the answer. Thanks! – firtree May 14 '13 at 8:37

This is very good question and I have faced the same issue with my parents-in-law and other family members of friends' families. Chocolate has given us an invaluable answer but to add context, I think the simplest rule to follow is "When in Rome..." or 「郷に入っては郷に従え」, and it does not make any difference whether you are in Kanto or Kansai:

In other words, listen carefully to see how the parents are addressed within the circumstances and follow suit. Typically in a friend's parents' house their role is that of お母さん and お父さん and that is how all visitors address them. If you visit with a group then wait to see how the group address them and follow suit. (One friend's parents, who I have known for over 20 years sometimes call each other Momma & Poppa even though it is long after their children have grown up. I think I should even follow suit here but somehow my western sensibility does not like this and I struggle to address them when they are together.)

When I first met my own parents-in-law I was also unsure how to address them but I noticed my wife called them お母さん&お父さん and between themselves they used their given names. When we introduced our parents just before we got married this concern became minor and I quickly adapted to calling my parents-in-law お母さん&お父さん when talking to them in Japanese (in front of my own parents) but using their own names talking English.

An easy way to see this naming in action is on Japanese TV when some celebrity is exploring a town and walks into the shop of a family business - they often show little hesitation about sayng お母さん&お父さん and as suggested above, are really just addressing them by their function (in the same way that in the office one might refer to the boss as 課長 when talking about them and to their face.

(BTW: When in these situations I think it is good idea to look at the person in the eye as you address them for the first and be prepared to gauge their reaction and react accordingly.)

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    This was really helpful, thanks! Yeah, I think I'm going to go with the 郷に入っては郷に従え approach and start paying more attention to how people around me/on TV do it :) – Robin May 13 '13 at 15:10

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