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ADDRESSING PEOPLE ~Key to success in Japanese business

ADDRESSING PEOPLE ~Key to success in Japanese business

Japanese conventions when speaking to/about people 

Let's meet Shacho.

In small companies in the English-speaking world,
more often than not we are on first name base with our colleagues,
including the managing director.
If your director is in a different city in a corporate board room,
it might be different.

In Japan, the company president is addressed by his title, Shacho.
Actually, his business card might show a more complicated official title,
but on the work floor we refer to him or her as Shacho.

It's even used to replace pronouns as "he" or "she". We don't get HIS permission.
We get Shacho's permission. We don't wait for HER to come, we wait for Shacho.
And then Shacho comes.If something is noteworthy,
we have to tell Shacho. Again, Shacho wants us to plan a project.
Shacho is going to make a speech.

Even on the homepage,
there usually is a Shacho no aisatsu which is something like
“Greetings from Shacho” or “Let's meet Shacho”.
The largest private office in the headquarters, usually is the shacho-shitsu,
which translates as Shacho's room.

Head of the ambulance

Company presidents are by far not the only people called by their title.
When you stay a few months or longer in Japan,
you discover ever more elaborate titles used in the same fashion.

A hospital or byo-in is managed by an Incho.
A fire station crew or shobo-tai or an ambulance is led by a taicho.

The common way to create those words for the heads of organizations and teams,
is the character -cho added to the Chinese pronunciation of the last character in the type of organization.
So, a kaisha or company, is led by sha-cho. A shobo-tai by a tai-cho.

How about a school?
Japanese for school is gakko.
It has a ko-cho but we add teacher, sensei, to make their title kocho-sensei.

Later more about this “sensei”.

Corporate Hierarchy

Companies often have many layers of hierarchy.
Which functions they have, of course depends on the type of business.

A retail chain has ten-cho, which quite literally means “head of a shop”.
A sales organization might have many branch managers, sho-cho,
because they head an eigyo-sho, a sales location.

Large corporations invariably have managers in different levels of seniority,
usually there are one or several Jomu (operational head),
Bu-cho (Director of a division), ka-cho, manager of a department.

Knowing the exact position in the hierarchy is key to any successful transaction.
Even within one’s own organization, it’s utterly important to use these titles,
to respect the authority coming with it, and to go through the right levels to advance business.

Let’s wait for Bu-cho

Company hierarchy in Japan is not only a technical difference.
There is an awareness that exceeds simple decision-making authority.

For example, in the meeting room,
it might be wise to wait for Bu-cho before you start.
You might not wait for all of your colleagues, but you do for your Bu-cho.
When the company has a celebration, again it might be wise to “wait for Bu-cho”.

Imagine a conversation like this, in the local pub.
―Let`s wait for Bu-cho.
―No, it`s OK. Bu-cho said he'll join at 7:30.
―OK, so let's already make a toast, 1 beer before Bu-cho comes.
―How about ka-cho?
―He is on his way, yeah, let's wait for ka-cho.

This is a universal type of conversation,
all the people in the conversation know exactly who is mentioned,
but the names are not mentioned at all.
So, people from outside who happen to overhear such conversation,
get to know the general situation, but don't get the details.

So many ka-cho

Large corporations with centralized decision-making,
find themselves in a situation where the headquarters is the place with lots of people high up in the corporate hierarchy.

When working for a mid-sized or large Japanese company HQ,
there are so many ka-cho and Bu-cho.
Each responsible for other senior tasks.
This however can make it ambiguous when only saying ka-cho. In my own corporate world experience,
some lower-ranking seniors were then referred to by name.
Never the name alone. Always family names with -san added at the end.
Also name and rank / function was used to avoid confusion.

―Have you already shown this to Bu-cho?
―No, Suzuki-san is in a meeting.
―Maybe ask Watanabe Bu-cho?
―I left it on (Bu-cho's) desk.


Large organizations have a lot of fluidity as well.
Some people get a promotion,
but not yet with all the esteem and benefits of the next rank.
So, they can become vice-bu-cho, deputy-bu-cho, and plain English “manager”,
all of which usually are seniors, but not as deeply anchored into the corporate structure as Bu-cho or kacho.

In their private life these corporate ranks will not be mentioned.
A Shacho however, with some local notoriety,
surprisingly often is called Shacho by locals who hold him in regard.
This only is true though for companies of some size,and with a certain length of operation in that municipality.
To avoid confusion, their company name sometimes is added.

Even more revered, though less powerful, are the Kai-cho.
They are semi-retired Shacho.
Often the founder and owner, who has exchanged his active leadership for a more remote influence.

Their presence can have the effect of gaining trust of customers and employees,
though banks that extend credit to businesses,
are usually less happy to have an 80-year-old Shacho,
so they push for a construction where the successor is in name the Shacho,
but under the wings of a Kai-cho.

Their name is usually not mentioned,
everyone knows who is the Kai-cho, and there's only one,
and it's usually the oldest, most famous person in the company history.

The Principal

Coming back to education, schools, gakko, have a ko-cho.
But more accurately principals are called kocho-sensei.
This sensei means teacher, so teachers may be referred to as sensei.
Just the same as shacho-shitsu, the principal`s office is the ko-cho-shitsu.

The title sensei can apply broadly to professionals respected for their education,
as e.g. doctors.
It's common to relate the doctor`s advice in the following way:
“I went to the hospital and had sensei look at it.
I was worried, but sensei told me it can be treated easily.”


Anyone not covered above, still can't be mentioned just by their names.
It is always better to add some honorific suffixes if talking about someone who isn't from your innermost personal circle.

Speak to someone, add -san, or in some cases -sama.
Write to someone, add -sama, or if colleagues and friends, -san.
Speak about someone, add -san,

call everyone (minna), address everyone, or write an email to all your colleagues, make it minna-sama.
Call a customer, with unknown name, okyaku-sama.
It's so common, you won't notice it after a while, but throughout daily life,
all kinds of wordings have honorific suffixes.

Let's return the honor and speak equally friendly-polite back.

社長 Shacho
Managing Director / President

院長 In-cho
Director of the hospital, also Incho-sensei

校長 Ko-cho
Principal, also kocho-sensei

店長 ten-cho
Store manager

所長 sho-cho
Head of a sales office

常務 Jomu
top-level employee, with major decision powers

部長 Bu-cho
Director of a company division, senior role in a career plan, treat with due respect.

次長 ji-cho
the deputy Bucho, mainly used to refer to her / him, but also sometimes to address him / her

課長 ka-cho
used to speak about head of small division or department.

会長 Kai-cho
Semi-retired company president, often the founder of company
Usually the most respected person in the company

先生 sensei
teacher, can be added to a name, also often used for doctors

お客様 okyaku-sama
used to address customers (especially when you don't know their name)

皆様 Minnasama
Dear all, Ladies &Gentlemen. Used when addressing a team
隊長 Taicho
head of the ambulance team, fire brigade

ones in bold above /are often used in a corporation.

Reference you might be interested in:

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