One of the first few words you can learn from beginner’s Japanese textbooks is あなた, which is always explained as the counterpart of English ‘you’. Well. We can’t say that this explanation is wrong. All dictionaries explain it the same way. All examples in beginner’s course use this word to mean ‘you’. And usually beginners are not taught how to say ‘you’ other than using あなた. So after the beginner’s course, it is very likely that learners may think あなた is equal to English ‘you’, which, unfortunately, is the biggest mistake you can learn from textbooks.
あなた is the biggest mistake you learn from textbooks
Before explaining, I need to emphasize that you cannot learn a language without learning the culture. It’s because the culture influences the way people use the language. English only has one ‘you’ because it is the central value of the English speaking world that everyone is born equal. When you speak English, you don’t need to take into consideration if the people you’re speaking to are of higher or lower social status. However, when you speak Japanese, you will surely get yourself into troubles if you speak it with an English mindset.
It is because in a Japanese society, social status strongly influences the language. Japanese people must bear in mind the social status of the people they are speaking to, e.g. assistant manager or manager, associate professor or professor, so that they can choose the right set of nouns and verbs to use. あなた is one of the many words one needs to choose when to use or when not to use.
It is surprising that most textbooks do not tell learners that we can’t use あなた when we are talking to our parents, teachers, supervisors, people older than you and people you should pay respect. And of course they don’t teach learners the alternatives. So learners are destined to make mistakes by using あなた to the wrong people. And in Japan, this kind of mistake is much more serious than grammatical mistake.
It is more serious than grammatical mistakes.
So what are the alternatives? Let me tell you one by one in details:
1. Do not use anything
It is not a joke. But one of the alternatives is to use nothing. It is because if a Japanese sentence does not have a subject, then it automatically applies to either the speaker or the listener. For instance,
In おいしいと思う (think yummy), Japanese people can understand that it means “(I) think (it is) yummy”, even though the subjects are all skipped.
And in おいしいか (yummy?), Japanese people know that it means “(do you think it is) yummy?”.
It is okay to add the word “I” and say 私はおいしいと思う in Japanese. But if you begin every sentence with 私は, then you will sound very very unnatural to native speakers. The same goes for あなた.
So if you are not sure whether it is okay to use あなた, then just don’t use it.
2. Use family name + san
The best ‘you’ in business world is family name + san(さん), which literally means Mr, Ms or Mrs in English. For example, if you are talking to Mr Yamada, who is your customer, supervisor or just someone you need to show respect, then you MUST substitute all あなた with Yamada-san.
3. Use job title + san
Job is the second life of the Japanese people. And they DO care a lot about their job titles. So after receiving a name card from a Japanese, besides reading the name, you should also pay attention to the job title. If he is a manager (課長), then call him 課長さん. He will be happy and you will be happy too.
4. Always call your teachers ‘sensei’ (先生)
You should call your teachers ‘sensei’, your father ‘otousan’ (お父さん), your mother ‘okaasan’ (お母さん), etc. But I doubt you will ever speak to your parents in Japanese if you are a learner, so just focus on ‘sensei’.
When you speak Japanese, do not use the English mindset. If you know the names of the people you are talking to, then use method 2. When you speak to people from another company, read the job title on the name card and use method 3. If you are talking to people you don’t know anything about, then just don’t use anything. あなた is reserved for people of the same or lower social status. By the way, Japanese women call their husbands あなた, which can be translated as ‘honey’ in English. So if you are female, be careful of this word when you are talking to a Japanese male.
The abovementioned 'social status' does not mean intrinsic status that one is born with, such as noble or slave, but the relative status in a certain situation. For example, Yamada-san is a manager of ABC Company and you are his customer. When he talks to you, he must show respect because you are a customer who pays him money. But if you quit your job and work under Yamada-san, then he will change his wordings to match the latest relative social status. And in the evening, you find that Yamada-san is in your English class. This time, he must show you respect and call you sensei because you are the teacher. Of course, in real life, things are not that dramatic. But I think you have already got my points.