Don’t Call My Name

He who should not be named. He whose name should not be spoken loudly. Yet, not out of fear as in the case of  Lord Voldemort. But out of respect.

The Emperor of Japan, His Imperial Majesty: 天皇陛下 Tennō Heika.

It is my favorite game, when I meet any Japanese, to ask them the unquestionable and to question the unaskable. Inexorably, they never know the answer. The name of the Emperor is in Japan a taboo more firmly established than the forbidden topic of burakumin, the discussion on gypsies or even the (denied) existence of hattenba.

Every American, most likely, knows the name of the US President, as well as every Canadian knows the name of the Queen. In Europe the situation is less stable, but still each of us does probably know the name of the Head of State of the Country where she lives. And I am ready to bet that the name of the French President, as well as the name of the Spanish King are well known outside their respective borders.

And if you have at least some little cultural interest on what happen outside the borders of your own Country, you probably know — or have heard  once — the name of the Japanese Emperor.

However, up to now, I have never met any Japanese citizen who has been able to tell me the name of the present — as well as of his predecessor — Head of State. Don’t believe me? Just give it a try. I have been living in Japan long enough to have my own statistics.


The Emperor is referred to just as “Emperor” in the Country of the Rising Sun. On the other hand, Japanese themselves do most of the times refer one to the other by family name, and it is quite inconvenient to address someone by first name. I remember my Japanese colleagues, when I was working there, calling one the other by first name only when discussing in English, with me. Switching immediately back to Surname-San as soon as they were talking Japanese.

Soon I discovered that it was not their ignorance, not to know — or not to be willing to pronounce — the name of the Emperor. But it was our — western — extreme ignorance and impoliteness to call the Emperor by his first name.


In my own mother language there are three, or even four, different forms to address other people. Two of these forms, the plural “you” and the even more unusual “them”, are now obsolete. Myself, I do not think I have ever had occasion to speak them out. The most common, and still in use, are a respectful third singular person “she” and the familiar “you”. I enjoy adapting my speech to the situation, and most of the time I use the “she” form for respect of my interlocutor.

Sometimes, though, it is just a nice and raffinate way to stress a distance. We are not all the same. What I say has not the same value of what you say. I offer my formal respect, to stress that you have to respect what I say. University professors do it all the time, interacting with students. Lawyers do it with their clients. General Practitioners with their patients.

Living internationally, and expressing myself — most of the time — in English, I cannot unfortunately enjoy the privilege of the “she” form. I should admit, that sometimes I miss it.

2 responses to “Don’t Call My Name

  1. Pingback: Beyond the iron curtain « The Incredible Tide·

  2. Pingback: I love Nozomi « The Incredible Tide·

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