Sarah Welles has shocked her Japanese co-workers by requesting that she be called by her family name rather than her given name.
“Since I came to Japan two years ago, everyone has called me Sarah-san,” said the manufacturing company managing director, 47, from Australia. “At first, I didn’t think much of it, as in my country it is quite usual for co-workers to call each other by their given names. But after a while, I realised that everyone else in the office, even those subordinate to me, were being called by their family names, and I was being singled out.”
Things came to a head this week when Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono/Kono Taro, announced his intention to request that international media organisations use the family name first when discussing Japanese individuals.
“I asked my secretary what she thought of this, and she replied in all seriousness that it was an important point. ‘To call someone by their given name first, or by their given name alone, shows far too much familiarity and shows great disrespect, Sarah-san’, she replied. At that moment I decided to make the change.”
Welles’ decision has not gone down well with others in her office.
“But we always call gaijin by their given names. From the ALTs at our schools to movie stars and musicians,” said Mai Nishida, Welles’ secretary. “That’s just how we do things in Japan.”
“It isn’t showing a lack of respect, per se,” continued Gozo Amano, a designer working beneath Welles. “It’s just that foreigners are less important, so they just don’t require the level of respect as Japanese. Especially if they’re women.”
“Besides, gaijin surnames are so difficult, compared to Japanese names,” added Daisuke Daito, another designer on Welles’s team, whose own surname requires eighty-four strokes to write. “How do you even say it? Ooweruzu? No, I’ll be sticking to Sarah-san, thank you very much.”
One co-worker who is understanding of Welles’s plight is Li Wang Fang, a weights engineer from China. “At least they call Welles-san by her proper name. They call me Ri Ō Hō, because that’s how they read the characters.”
“Oh, in Ri-san’s case it actually is due to a lack of respect,” explained Amano. “She’s both Chinese and a woman. I’m pretty sure I am constitutionally obliged to disrespect her.”