Distinguishing first and last names on Japanse business cards

For old hands in Asia, we forget we know so much as “common sense” learnt by diffusion over the years that a green-nose just doesn’t grasp. An interesting example is Japanese (or even more generally, Asian) names and the common practice of reversing the order in multiple Asian countries of the family and Christian name on printed business cards.

Differences between East and West

In the West, it is absolutely normal, merely common sense even, to put your Christian name in front of your family name on your business cards. Well, in many Asian countries, it is just as much common sense to put your family name first and Christian name last on that business card. No problem you think, if you know the rule. WRONG!

Japanese Omotenashi makes it complicated

Sometimes, a little bit of Omotenashi creeps in when the person creating the name card thinks too much about it. “Ah, those Westerners do the opposite, so when I draft the English on the reverse side of my business card, I will kindly print my name how they like it”. Great, thanks for the forethought ….. but then the problem starts for those unfamiliar to Japanese/Asian names as to whether or not this Omotenashi flip-flop has been done or not. For old hands in Japan, we can (almost always) spot the family name versus Christian name and alert our overseas colleagues to the correct format.

Good intentions, wrong outcome

Sadly, sometimes these observations are too late, if you allow me a little story.  My European colleague wanted to get on the front foot to arrange a customer meeting. Without consulting me, he sent a first contact E-Mail to Taro-san (name changed to protect the innocent) and CC to me requesting a meeting with the customer. I have known Taro-san for years, but never called him Taro-san. He has always been known as Watanabe-san to me as my recognition of our supplier/customer hierarchy.

When Herr EU-san didn’t get a reply from Taro-san, he contacted me in a little heated condition. When I saw he had written Taro-san rather than Watanabe-san, I was now the heated one, questioning him why he had insulted this customer, whom we had been courting for years, by addressing him like a personal family friend. Silence came down the phone-line ….. then, “I copied it from the English business card – Watanabe Taro. Of course, his family name is Taro.” Oops, an example of Omotenashi going in the wrong direction.

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