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Japanese Etiquette That Westerners Won’t Understand

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For outsiders looking in at a country’s etiquette rules, it can be easy to get culture shock. That’s especially true when, like Japan, the country is famous for the complexity of its social rules. Japanese culture prizes harmony and social order, and that focus is reflected in its social customs.

Honor-bound: Honorifics are phrases meant to clarify a person’s social standing, like Dr., Mr. or Miss. Japanese honorifics, a set of suffixes added to names to convey relative social standing, can be confusing to outsiders.

But most common honorifics are actually pretty easy to explain, even to people who don’t know anything about the system to start.

-san is the most common honorific, an honorific used between peers that has the same connotations as “Mr.” or Mrs.” Schoolchildren and co-workers typically refer to each other with -san. -sama is more formal, generally used for social superiors or a person whom the speaker admires. It’s also used for oneself if you want to be a smart-alec (meaning something like ‘my honourable self’).

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-kun is typically used for people talking to someone of a lower rank than them, or a man the speaker is emotionally attached to. -chan is a suffix used for someone the speaker thinks is cute, like a child or a pet. -tan is an even more cute version of -chan. -kun, -chan, or -tan can be used with equals if you’re close to them, but they shouldn’t be used for superiors.

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Senpai (“earlier colleague”) is used for peers in higher grades at school, and anyone with more experience at work, school, or a club. the equivalent of “senior.” This is used for classmates in higher grades and all people with more experience than yourself either at work, club, or in any kind of group. Kōhai (“later colleague”) is the opposite, but it’s not generally used as a suffix, as the speaker risks sounding condescending.

Serious Business: Offering business cards (meishi) is a serious ritual in Japan, and the market for business cards in the country is over ¥420 billion. Everyone carries business cards, and most businesspeople order cards three times a year. It’s a serious faux-pas to get caught at a business meeting without one.

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