Herald Tribune asahi
Japanese People Do Not Know Japan
Name and honorific title
Regarding the first article in this fourth series (available at, Ms. Esashi, who is in charge of English media group of Asahi Shimbun, received feedback from her foreign friend who said that she thought it is unique that Japanese people's name has meanings.
My daughter Akiko was born on November 2, which is in autumn in Japan. When spoken, "aki" means autumn and "ko" means a child in Japanese. Her name is written 亜生子 in kanji; 亜 (A) has a meaning of one's successor, and亜生子 (Akiko) means a child who lives in Asia. 亜子 (Ako) is short for亜生子 and is a nickname expressing the parent's attachment to the child. In this way, names of Japanese people have several meanings and manner of expression in writing, and reflect parents' deep affection for their children.
Each expression in kanji (亜生子), in hiragana (あきこ) and in katakana (アキコ) conveys different impressions. In addition, the Japanese language has many honorific titles. People use various combinations of name and honorific titles such as 亜生子様 (Akiko-sama), あきこさん (Akiko-san) and アコちゃん (Ako-chan) depending on place and circumstances. Sometimes they say アコ (Ako) without an honorific title. Japanese judge the situation and relations between the speaker and other persons by honorific titles that the speaker uses or does not use.
Meaning of honorifics
Japanese language has a rather complex variety of honorific forms, which includes honorific titles. Japanese honorifics not only indicate politeness, and which are thus equivalent to メpleaseモ or "sir" in English, or clear-cut hierarchical relationships, but also indicate the speaker's respect, affection, or diffidence toward the person being addressed.
Japanese honorifics have several types: an honorific locution expressing the speaker's humility ("humilifics"), honorific language, and courteous language.
Japanese people understand the speaker's position, values, circumstances and personal relationship to themselves through the type and words he uses. For example, when we listen to a person speaking on the phone, we can understand the relationship between the two parties involved and the speaker's awareness of the other party. This shows that Japanese people express their awareness through honorifics.
What I want to emphasize is that a spirit of respect for seniority and social harmony underlies the honorific usage in Japanese language. Honorifics are also an expression of the Japanese people's reverence, humility, and feelings of awe and veneration to all things in creation. However, I regret from the bottom of my heart that usage of honorifics has become increasingly tentative and even adults these days use expressions like a teenager without giving thought to their social position and situation. I feel this is due to shortcomings in postwar education and at the same time to the fact Japanese people do not recognize the virtues of their own country and culture.
Abbreviation and coinage
Japanese people create new words by an abbreviation of some word or phrase, like my daughter's nickname as I wrote at the beginning of this article. This coinage function is another characteristic of the Japanese language, since each Japanese character has its own meaning. Take裏原 (Ura-hara) as an example. Ura-hara means "a back street of Harajuku", Tokyo, which is full of shops and culture for the youth.
This place name was newly coined from 裏 (Ura) which means a back street and原 (Hara) which is short for Harajuku (原宿). The vocabulary of Japanese steadily increases via such abbreviations and coinages.
However, a new word like 裏原 (Ura-hara) sometimes has homophones like 裏腹 (Ura-hara) which means "opposite".
Although the difference between them is very obvious if they are written, Japanese people distinguish the meaning and appropriately use them in conversation according to context and situation. Moreover, they judge a speaker's age, occupation and things of interest to him by his words and the way he uses them. The reason why the Japanese language may be called "a devil's tongue" by non-Japanese people is the large number of such homophones.

Wording and writing
In addition to honorifics, abbreviations and coinages, the Japanese language has another distinctive characteristic. The wording is different depending on the speaker's age, gender, birthplace, living environment, social position and occupation. Conversely, Japanese people when conversing or reading understand the speaker or writer's character and circumstances to some degree through his particular wording.
They also form a portrait of a writer's character through the shapes of his written characters as well as the writing utensils he uses, which may be an extension of such interpretation through wording. If I write this article like a young girl using cute, rounded characters or so-called gyaru-moji ("gal-writing"), most Japanese readers will think it is written by a young girl. If a person writes a letter using traditional utensils like a writing brush and India ink, most people will think the letter is from a somewhat aged and artistic person. These things come from the fact that language for the Japanese is seen to be based on pictorial images, as I wrote in the previous article.
Please send your comment or opinion to