I noticed that many Japanese businessmen tend to address the colleagues they are traveling with, or even introduce themselves as ◯◯◯さん. This would clearly be a faux-pas in a Japanese-only meeting, yet it almost seems like the norm in international meetings.

Is this a social engineering hack to get the foreigners to call them さん? Or do they think this is less confusing this way? Is it a way to help the foreigners figure out that the strange sound they heard before the "san" is a name? Is there some "How to do business with gaijins" book that this practice is spreading from?

I've tried asking my Japanese friends, but no one could come up with a convincing answer...

  • 2
    In your first sentence, do you actually mean to say "introduce themselves" instead of "introduce them" with "them" referring to their colleagues?
    – user4032
    May 30, 2014 at 23:00
  • 1
    Sorry, that sentence came out a big vague. I meant that they call their colleagues -san (such as "Suzuki-san"). And when they initially introduce themselves they also say "Hello, my name is Tanaka-san".
    – Tamas K
    Jun 1, 2014 at 10:18

2 Answers 2


I think you need to describe the circumstances in more detail (eg Japanese company overseas with local staff?) but it sounds like these Japanese business men are trying to create an environment in which all can work together cohesively and all feel comfortable. Possibly they recognise that the non-Japanese all address each other on first name basis. While they don't really feel comfortable doing the same they have noticed that, at home, foreigners are quite comfortable being addressed "first-name-san", and are also quite comfortable addressing their Japanese colleagues as "family name-san" and, as a result, have decided to encourage the same practice where you are.

I would say it is an improvement on a situation where (for example) all male-staff from the Japanese HO are Mr but everybody else is first-name. However, I also remember a story where the branch head overseas issued an edict that all Japanese staff were to be addressed "family-name-san" instead of Mr..... Unfortunately, the existing practice was already too ingrained and the edict was retracted. What was probably done with the best of intentions had the reverse effect.

  • I've seen it happen in various circumstances, but most typical is when a group travels from a Japanese company, from the Japanese offices to visit a customer or supplier abroad, or when a group of foreigners from a foreign company visit a Japanese company's HQ.
    – Tamas K
    May 29, 2014 at 15:20
  • It is not a custom I've heard of but it does not sound too extraordinary in itself. If these people all come from the same company then it may just be their recommended practice. You should ask them next time - I am sure it will help break down any remaining distance.
    – Tim
    May 30, 2014 at 12:48

"(family-name)さん" is the most basic way of addressing your colleagues even in the most domestic Japanese companies.

Following is the general rule. More detailed explanation can be seen here. Of course you can start calling people virtually in any way once you gain closer relationships, so consider this as the safest way to avoid troubles with anyone you're not familiar with.

  • If you want to address or mention someone inside your company,
    • "(family-name)(title)" for your seniors: 田中[社長]{しゃちょう}, 木村[部長]{ぶちょう}。 Only using "(title)" is appropriate if not ambiguous: 社長, 部長。
    • "(family-name)さん" for someone at the same position as you: 山田さん
    • "(family-name)さん" for your people: 佐藤さん。 "(family-name)くん" is sometimes used (even for females), although disputed.
  • However if you want to mention someone inside your company to someone outside your company,
    • "(family-name)" without any titles or -さん, regardless of the position: 田中, 山田, 佐藤. Even when you're with your president, don't mention him as 田中社長. If you want to add their titles, use "(title)の(family-name)": 社長の田中, 部下の佐藤。
  • If you want to address or mention someone outside your company,
    • "(family-name)さん" in general, and "(family-name)(title)" possible: [御社]{おんしゃ}の鈴木さん, 鈴木社長

Introducing oneself as "私は(family-name)さんです" sounds very strange to me. Maybe your speculation (social-hack to make foreigners use "(family-name)さん" form) is correct.

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