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With all due respect, Japan dropping titles

The change in policy came directly from the Tokyo headquarters of Elpida Memory, a semiconductor maker, but it had nothing to do with computer chips.

The 1,366 workers at Elpida's factory here were told to stop addressing one another by their titles and simply to add the suffix -san to their names.

Yukio Sakamoto, the president and chief executive in Tokyo, believes that using such titles as "department chief" impedes decisionmaking and innovation.

"To call someone "president' is to deify him," said Sakamoto, who was influenced by the 28 years he worked at Texas Instruments. "It's part of Japan's hierarchical society. Now that has no meaning. If you have ability, you can rise to the top and show your ability."

Many Japanese companies, traditionally divided rigidly by age and seniority, have dropped the use of titles to create a more open _ and, they hope, competitive _ culture.

The long economic slump has forced companies to merge or abandon seniority in favor of performance, upsetting the traditional order. This has led to confusion in the use of titles as well as honorific language, experts say.

The shift also mirrors changes in Japanese society. Equality-minded parents no longer emphasize honorific language to their children, and most schools no longer expect children to use honorific language to their teachers. As a result, young Japanese entering the work force have a poor command of honorific language and do not feel compelled to use it.

"There's confusion and embarrassment," said Rika Oshima, the 43-year-old president of Speaking Essay, a school that instructs new employees on the use of honorific language. "Junior staffers aren't strict about using respectful forms to their bosses, whereas bosses want their staffers to use respectful forms to them, but bosses cannot say that."

What is clear is that the use of honorific language, called keigo, to elevate a person or humble oneself, has especially fallen out of use among young Japanese.

Japanese, perhaps more than any other language, has traditionally taken account of social standing. While French speakers must decide between the familiar tu and the formal vous in addressing someone in the second person, in Japanese, there are many ways to say I or you, each calibrated by age, circumstance, gender, social position and other factors. Verb endings, adjectives and entire words also shift.

Mistakes have been deadly. In 1975, two workers, Kunihiro Fukuda, 30, and Tomohiko Okabe, 27, were having a drink in a Tokyo bar, according to magazine reports at the time. Although Okabe was younger, he had entered the company first and had taken to addressing his colleague in a manner usually reserved for someone younger, calling him Fukuda instead of Fukuda-san. Fukuda protested. But Okabe said, "What's wrong if a senior guy calls his junior in this way?" Enraged, Fukuda grabbed his colleague by the neck and pummeled his face, killing him, the magazines reported.

These days, companies hope the use of -san _ less cumbersome than the longer titles traditionally used _ will allow workers to exchange ideas more freely and make decisions more quickly. In 2001, 59 percent of companies with more than 3,000 employees had adopted such a policy, compared with 34 percent in 1995, according to the Institute of Labor Administration of Japan.

Sakamoto, 56, made the change last December, immediately after becoming the chief executive of Elpida.

"It's easier to talk now," said Kazuyoshi Iizuka, a 32-year-old employee at the Tokyo headquarters.

Sakamoto said he also discouraged the use of honorific language that Japanese have traditionally used toward an older person, a boss, a customer, a stranger.

Sakamoto decided that the factory in Hiroshima would adopt the new policy Sept. 1. The factory's president, Takehiko Kubota, 59, who describes himself as "old-fashioned," sent an e-mail Sept. 5 explaining the policy to his staff.

"I think a free and frank atmosphere existed already here, so I don't know if this policy will be significant," he said. "But by adopting this policy, it might give birth to something new. If we don't try, we won't find out."

A few weeks later, workers still found it awkward. "It will change little by little," said Hiromichi Iwabuchi, 48, a manager. "Even I sometimes say, "President Kubota-san.' I think people will become more frank and free to talk thanks to this change. And it will show in our new ideas and products."

Fumio Inoue, a professor of linguistics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said honorifics began with the nobility a millennium ago. At first, they were strictly based on social hierarchy, but after World War II and the democratization of Japanese society, they began to be used according to the level of intimacy between speakers.

For many older Japanese, the decline of honorific language amounted to losing the deep beauty of their language. "Here in Hiroshima, because we are in the country, some of the old ways remain," Kubota, the factory manager, said. "But in Tokyo, it's chaos."

In Tokyo, at Taiyo General, a futures trading company, Hideki Matama, the 51-year-old deputy general manager of personnel, said training for new employees included honorific language.

To him, the decline of honorific language symbolized Japan's shift away from an older generation concerned with its place in companies or society to a younger one focused on personal satisfaction.

"At company seminars, I often get questions whether weekends are off, or whether women have maternity leave," he said.

"One time, when I asked one boy about his dreams, he said, "Good marriage, good home and children.' Can you believe that?"