Just recently, in my company we acquired several devices from one of the biggest companies in Japan. We are currently re-implementing part of our systems with such new devices.

During the implementation process, I had some technical doubts regarding the use of some APIs that communicate with the devices, and weren't able to solve by myself. I relayed them to my boss (CEO) in written form, from which he rephrased and sent as an email to our contact with this company (as he was the one handling the contact).

Now, I have some other doubts, but consulting with my boss again he decided to introduce me to the contact in an email, so I could then discuss these doubts with the contact by myself without having to go with my boss every time.

However, I am uncertain of what would be the correct and professional honorific/title to use when addressing this contact, as I have few to none experience writing to people in a Japanese context. Some details to consider:

  • I can see from previous emails on the thread that both my boss and this contact address each other as "-san". However, they sometimes drop the honorific and just call each other by their names.

  • This contact is most likely around the age of my boss, which would mean that I am younger than him. Also, I have never spoken to, wrote to, nor met this person before.

  • The email exchange is in English, and checking the thread I can't see any any professional title (like "Dr.") or similar. Also, my boss introduced me by my name and last name (without title).

At first I thought about using "Mr.", but don't know how this may be perceived in a Japanese context, nor if mirroring my boss' "-san" would be professional or out of place here.

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    Probably better suited for japanese.stackexchange.com – solarflare Aug 13 '18 at 23:18
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    @solarflare thanks for the site suggestion. I believe that if I rephrased this post it could fit over there. However, it's also a fit here because of the professional setting and the email situation. But thanks anyways, I'll check that site :) – DarkCygnus Aug 13 '18 at 23:26
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    @solarflare I disagree. Imo, international cultural questions should be on topic here, especially in a globalized workplace. I live in US and regularly work with a team in Japan, and would like to know this. – Time4Tea Aug 13 '18 at 23:29
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    @Time4Tea my thoughts exactly, this is about navigating the professional setting. It could be rephrased to be purely a linguistic matter, but currently there are contextual aspects to consider that makes it workplace-related. I added the international tag as you reminded me we have one :) – DarkCygnus Aug 13 '18 at 23:32
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    Whatever you do, consider using “question” instead of “doubt” when writing to non-Indians. Outside of India using “doubt” is confusing at best, and can even be perceived as insulting! – Ernest Friedman-Hill Aug 14 '18 at 11:26

One thing I can say is that Japanese people treat clients with the utmost respect. You are far more likely to be addressed as DarkCygnus様 (sama), no matter what your age or hierarchical position is, if you're a client, than as DarkCygnus-san. This is seen for example, in the general term for guest, client or customer: お客様 (okyakusama), and the associated phrase お客様は神様です (lit. "the customer is God" - not King). In communication with the travel agency that my company uses, for example, I have always been addressed as surname様 (for reference, I am a very junior employee in a large company - there are probably 6-7 levels between me and my CEO).

That the Japanese person addressed the CEO of a client company using -san (!!) In written communication, and later on had no problems dropping the honorific altogether, tells me that this is a person comfortable with not using Japanese mannerisms in English - and probably only used the -san because your CEO did. When communicating with vendors for technical support, I have had the good luck of getting Japanese people who're good at English. These people have never used Japanese honorifics when emailing me in English, and, indeed, have followed the general custom of using the form suggested by the signature. I usually use "Muru" as my signature and they in turn used their first names (which occasionally confuses me, since I use their surnames everywhere else).

As the client, it's always safe for you to use -san. But given that the contact seems comfortable without it, I'd suggest that you pick whatever level you're comfortable with, and not use Japanese honorifics in English. Use Mr. if you feel like it - you don't have to use -san.

For reference, whenever vendors initiated communication with my team, emails in Japanese always began with:

company-name person-surname

(Likewise when my team initiates communication with the vendor)

The same person when emailing me in English would write:

Hi first-name

The first time, and "Hi Muru" in subsequent emails.

  • Checked the thread and as far as I was copied I see this person was the one that called my boss San first. Still, all chat was in English even though we are (and they know) I am in a Spanish-speaking country. Does that clarify further? – DarkCygnus Aug 14 '18 at 4:04
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    @DarkCygnus ah, not much, if the CEO and the contact had a exchanged a few emails before you were copied. As long as you're communicating in English, you don't need the Japanese honorifics. My experience as a very junior employee generally has been that Japanese people start off with -sama (as I am the client) and have no problems with using casual language if I switch to English - even inviting the use of first names. Just a note if you do choose to use -san: you shouldn't refer to your own boss with -san when talking to the contact. – muru Aug 14 '18 at 4:16
  • Thanks for you answer muru :) it was really useful. Surely will check back on it on future exchanges with people from Japan – DarkCygnus Aug 17 '18 at 18:38
  • @DarkCygnus so how did it go with the contact? – muru Aug 18 '18 at 4:18
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    I wrote san, and he replied the same way. Everything good with the questions :D – DarkCygnus Aug 18 '18 at 4:28

Use -san. Japanese are very particular about showing respect. Just make sure you are using his last name -san, do not use his first name. -san is equivalent to Mr. however using -san would be more respectful in my opinion. If he views you as his junior, he may respond with your last name -kun, which I highly doubt he will out of respect but just in case, do not refer back to him as -kun, only -san.

  • Thanks for you answer. Do you suggest that I use the "san" throughout all of the mails I send? Or can I drop it eventually as my boss did? – DarkCygnus Aug 13 '18 at 23:37
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    Is that the case for any age/seniority level? I work regularly with a couple of Engineers in Japan - one is older and seems to use -san a lot; the other is younger and doesn't seem to use it as much. I've been using -san for the more senior guy, but not so much the younger one. – Time4Tea Aug 13 '18 at 23:46
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    Our Q&A site has some back it up guidelines to help get the best answers. Can you edit your post to include references or relate this to personal, ideally professional, experience? – Lilienthal Aug 14 '18 at 8:55
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    @Time4Tea If you are non-Japanese, you should use -san for all Japanese employees, even if you would normally be considered more senior than them (and even if their Japanese colleagues would not use the honorific with them). – user81330 Aug 14 '18 at 10:04

It depends on the (perceived) hierarchical relation between the two of you. Based on both my personal experience in Japan, mostly in academia but also personal, and also what you can be found in online references

  • If the other person is well above you (like a department director or CEO to an engineer), you can use Surname-sama or, in cases where the person is a (potential) authority in a field, Surname-sensei.

    Sama (様【さま】) is a more respectful version for people of a higher rank than oneself or divine, toward one's guests or customers (such as a sports venue announcer addressing members of the audience), and sometimes toward people one greatly admires

    Sensei (先生【せんせい】) (literally meaning "former-born") is used to refer to or address teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and other authority figures. It is used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill, such as accomplished novelists, musicians, artists and martial artists.

  • If you are on the same level, use Surname-san

    San (さん) (sometimes pronounced han (はん) in Kansai dialect) is the most commonplace honorific and is a title of respect typically used between equals of any age. Although the closest analog in English are the honorifics "Mr.", "Miss", "Ms.", or "Mrs.", -san is almost universally added to a person's name; "-san" can be used in formal and informal contexts and for both genders.

  • If you are above the other person or in good familiarity (like two classmates), use Surname-kun

    Kun (君【くん】) is generally used by people of senior status addressing or referring to those of junior status, by anyone addressing or it can be used when referring to men in general, male children or male teenagers, or among male friends. It can be used by males or females when addressing a male to whom they are emotionally attached, or who they have known for a long time.

Not using/dropping honorifics at all is usually done with really intimate relationship, and in professional context might cause the rise of an eyebrow, but if it was done by the Japanese counterpart first you can also follow.

  • Would it change given that we are their clients? I think that we are on the same level-ish – DarkCygnus Aug 14 '18 at 3:06
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    @DarkCygnus, I don't think so. -san would be appropriate based on what you state. – L.Dutch Aug 14 '18 at 3:08
  • Our Q&A site has some back it up guidelines to help get the best answers. Can you edit your post to include references or relate this to personal, ideally professional, experience? – Lilienthal Aug 14 '18 at 8:55
  • @Lilienthal, I hope it is better now – L.Dutch Aug 14 '18 at 9:02
  • @L.Dutch Much better, though I typically recommend going into a bit more detail about what experience you had (professional within industry or education, personal only, ...). You may want to add a specific reference for use of "-sensei" or expand on when it would be appropriate as I imagine usage of that is very rare in industry. – Lilienthal Aug 14 '18 at 10:23

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