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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #27: April 16, 2003

Japanese Personal Address Terms and Social Identity: Part 2

Daniel Dolan (Principal, Communication Japan)

This is the second installment of a two-part essay that discusses the use of personal address terms by mass media in Japan. In Part One I described how journalists in Japan strategically employ a complex set of personal address terms to refer to social actors, and introduced the concept of conditional respect to examine the particular use of these terms in crime stories. Below I provide two cases of crime reporting to illustrate my argument.

I selected these particular cases not because they are the most sensational, nor because they are in some way most representative of conditional respect. Rather these cases, unfolding over a period of many years in response to the slow-moving criminal justice system, provide especially compelling evidence of a discourse practice that is best identifiable and understood within a historical context of normative rupture. This strategy of case selection reflects the recognition among ethnographers of communication that discursive rules are often identifiable at sites of rule violation and in the redressive communal conversation that usually follows.

Two Cases of Mass-Mediated Criminal Careers

One familiar dimension of social identity is public reputation. A central contention of this essay is that a public reputation, particularly when engineered by mass media, is more than a mental construct. Rather, reputations and other aspects of social identity processes are born of and are inseparable from language. From this view, an understanding of such processes demands some degree of attention to language in use. It also is important to recognize that, as with most speech practices, social identity work is characterized both by patterned stability and ongoing change. As Bromley (1993) notes, although members of a community usually share ways of seeing others as particular persons, public reputations are not static, but rather they "have a life-history--they have a beginning, they develop and change, and eventually they cease to exist" (p. 215).

Working with the two guiding assumptions that social identities are locatable linguistic constructions and that social identities (e.g., reputations) usually change over time, I used an online electronic database to access verbatim Japanese language newspaper articles of crimes. Through close analyses of these texts--at times supplemented by television reports and popular magazines--I plotted the trajectory of personal address term use marking the careers of publicly developed criminal identities. For the purposes of this study I defined personal address term as any direct verbal or written reference by an individual or organization spokesperson to any other individual, which given the material examined included the terms san, yogisha, hikoku, or family name. I relied primarily on newspaper articles from the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun, because these two publications are the most widely read newspapers in Japan and because both are available on the electronic database. Keyword searches can be performed with the database, which allowed me to identify articles in which hikoku and yogisha were used.

For data related to the first case described below I studied 27 Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper articles published between June 1989 and July 1997, and compared the use of personal address terms in these stories to the use of such terms in 17 stories about the case from the Asahi Shimbun during the same time period. I also referred to a story about the case published in May 1996 by a popular weekly magazine. I retrieved data related to the second case from 15 Yomiuri Shimbun stories published between June 1989 and July 1991, and from five Asahi Shimbun articles published during the same period.

From Pariah to Citizen and Back
The first case involves a complicated series of events spanning 22 years, during which a man was convicted of murder, sentenced to life imprisonment, released, then once again incarcerated. In mass media reports this individual was identified first as hikoku, then san, then yogisha, and finally as hikoku again. Although unusually complex and dramatic, newspaper accounts of this case provide a clear example of conditional respect processes that in less popular cases may not be as apparent.

The saga began in September, 1974, when Etsuo Ohno--a grade-school dropout with a history of criminal activity--was arrested on suspicion of theft. While in police custody Ohno confessed to a variety of unsolved murders, including the murder of a young woman whose body had been found one month earlier. Ohno remained in prison for 12 years on a number of minor charges while prosecutors built a homicide case against him. Finally, in September 1986, Ohno was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the young woman. However, during the next five years Ohno's lawyer argued persuasively that Ohno's confession was coerced and untrustworthy, and on 23 April 1991, the Tokyo High Court reversed Ohno's conviction due to lack of evidence.

The day of the High Court ruling, the Asahi Shimbun carried four stories about Ohno's overturned sentence. In the first two Asahi articles there were 21 direct personal address references to Ohno, including the headlines, or approximately .7% of a total 2,914 words (Japanese characters). The first reference to Ohno in the first story was to Ohno Etsuo-hikoku, which established for readers his family name, given name, and legal status since his arrest and conviction on murder charges five years earlier. Six later references were to Ohno-hikoku, and five references were to hikoku alone. In the second Asahi article, Ohno Etsuo-hikoku was used once, Ohno-hikoku was used twice, and hikoku alone appeared three times. However, in the third story, apparently filed later in the day and perhaps after some editorial discussion, a photograph showing a smiling Ohno at a news conference was accompanied by a caption that included in large print the words Ohno-san. The pattern of personal address term use in this story was similar to the pattern seen in the first two stories. The first reference to Ohno after the photo caption was to Etsuo Ohno-san and the remaining seven references were to Ohno-san, for a total of nine personal address references, or approximately .6% of 1,485 words. The fourth Asahi article contained 1,671 words of which approximately .5% were personal address terms, with Ohno-san in the headline and six times later and two references to Ohno Etsuo-san.

The Yomiuri Shimbun printed five stories on the day of Ohno's release, the first in the morning edition and the rest in the evening, with a total of 55 direct references to Ohno, or approximately .8% of 7116 words. Similar to the Asahi reports, Ohno was referred to in the first three stories as Ohno-hikoku (once in the headline of the first story and five times later), Ohno Etsuo-hikoku (in the lead sentence of each of the three stories), and hikoku alone (31 times). However, in the fourth and fifth Yomiuri articles, the only references to Ohno were with either Ohno Etsuo-san (two times) or Ohno-san (13 times). In both of these newspapers, on the same day and within the same edition (evening), Ohno was first designated Ohno the accused and then Ohno the citizen. In effect, with the use of san his honor was publicly reinstated by the mass media.

Over the next month, the Yomiuri Shimbun published nine stories related to Ohno's release between 25 April 1991 and 28 September 1991. Among the 59 direct references to Ohno, or approximately .7% of a total 8,534 words, 11 are in the form Ohno Etsuo-san and Ohno-san is used 31 times. The Asahi Shimbun ran eight additional stories on the Ohno case with a total of 32 direct references to Ohno, or approximately .7% of a total 4,521 words. However, on 24 April 1991, three days after Ohno's release, one of these eight articles contained a curious anomaly in the expected pattern of personal address term use by the mass media in Japan. The writer referred six times to Ohno: once using Ohno Etsuo-hikoku, three times using Ohno-hikoku, and twice using hikoku alone. Then, in a 25 April 1991 story, only Ohno Etsuo-san was used again (once). Between 29 April and 24 May 1991, only variations of the san term were employed, with Ohno Etsuo-san occurring eight times and Ohno-san occurring 16 times.

Released from prison and returned to normal society, Ohno remained free until April 1996, when he was arrested again--this time on suspicion of the abduction and attempted murder of a five-year-old girl. While in police custody, investigators also linked him to DNA samples taken from the burned body of a middle-aged woman found near his property in January 1996. The Asahi Shimbun announced in two stories on 27 April 1996 that Ohno-yogisha (used four times) was now a suspect in this latter incident as well. The remaining 11 direct references to Ohno used the forms Ohno Etsuo-yogisha (used once in the headlines of both articles plus an additional two times in the text of the stories) and yogisha alone (seven times) for a total of 15 person references, or approximately .8% of 1,791 words. The Yomiuri Shimbun ran two stories the same day, both of which began with a reference to Ohno Etsuo-yogisha. The two other references to Ohno in the first story, and the five remaining references in the second story were to Ohno-yogisha. During the following month there were six additional Yomiuri articles pertaining to the case with a total of 50 direct references to Ohno, or approximately 1% of a total 5,158 words. Of these, the first reference in each of the six stories was to Ohno Etsuo-yogisha, 39 references were to Ohno-yogisha (five of these appeared in headlines), and five references were to yogisha alone.

Then on 28 May 1996, the Asahi Shimbun ran a story reporting that Ohno had confessed to the attempted murder of the five-year-old girl and to the murder of the woman. Both of the two direct references to Ohno in this story were to Ohno-hikoku. The Yomiuri ran one article the same day, in which there were eight direct references to Ohno. In the headline and in five later instances, the term Ohno-hikoku was used. Ohno Etsuo-hikoku was used once in the lead sentence, while the one remaining reference was to hikoku alone. The Asahi published two more stories about Ohno in 1996, one on July 23 and one on September 10. In these stories there were 17 references to Ohno, or approximately 1% of 1,394 words. All references to Ohno were some variation of hikoku. In 1996 the Yomiuri ran four stories after his confession: on June 7, June 28, July 23 and September 10. A fifth article about the case was published 23 July 1997. As with the Asahi, all 28 references to Ohno in these articles, or approximately 1.3% of a total 2,187 words, used some form of hikoku. On 27 March 1998, Ohno was sentenced by the Tokyo District Court to life in prison.

Guilty Verdict Reversed
The second case involved the story of a man who languished in prison for 18 years for the alleged murder of a taxi driver, until his death sentence was overturned and he was released. Because the reversal was sufficiently sensational to attract media attention even though the man had been arrested and sentenced so many years before, the public restoration of the man's social identity from hikoku to san is both clear and remarkable.

On 28 July 1972, Norio Shimogami was arrested for the 11 May 1972 murder of a taxi driver in Yamanaka, Japan. Shimogami, suspected of killing the victim in a money-related scam, was given the death sentence in October 1975 by the Kanazawa District Court. After a series of appeals, the Nagoya High Court upheld the sentence in January 1982. However, Shimogami continued to appeal his sentence and on 22 June 1989 the case reached the Supreme Court, which ordered the Nagoya high court to retry the case. Re-trial procedures began 12 December 1989, and on 27 July 1990 the court reversed its decision and Shimogami's conviction was overturned. After 18 years in prison, Shimogami was returned to society.

The Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun followed the case with a series of articles covering the period between the Supreme court decision to send the case back for retrial, and the subsequent reversal by the Nagoya high court. Stories printed in both newspapers on 23 June 1989--the day following the Supreme court's decision that the case be retried--presented information concerning Shimogami's alleged crime and conviction. In all five instances of person reference, the Asahi Shimbun article used the term hikoku alone. The Yomiuri referred to Shimogami 12 times, using Shimogami Norio-hikoku in the lead sentence and six times later in the story, and hikoku alone five times.

On 27 July 1990--the day the Nagoya high court decided to repeal Shimogami's conviction--the morning edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun carried two articles about the case, both of which used only the forms Shimogami-hikoku (once in the headline of the second story and twice elsewhere), Shimogami Norio-hikoku (once in the lead sentences of both stories), and hikoku alone (three times) to refer to Shimogami. In the evening edition of the Yomiuri, after the court decision was made, there were three stories with a total of 19 direct references to Shimogami, or approximately .5% of 4,166 words. In the first two articles there were seven references to Shimogami-hikoku (once in the headline of the first story and six times later), two references to Shimogami Norio-hikoku (once in the lead sentences of the first two stories), and one mention of hikoku alone. However, in the third story, the reporter broke with precedence by using Shimogami Norio-san once in the lead sentence, and Shimogami-san for each of the nine person references following.

Meanwhile, the Asahi Shimbun ran four evening edition stories with 25 direct references to Shimogami the day of his release, two of which were on the front page. These person references represent approximately .3% of a total 7,039 words. The lead story on the front page included a photo of Shimogami standing between his mother and his defense attorney. Shimogami and his mother were holding hands, he had his left hand held up in a tentative gesture to the crowd and reporters, his mother's head was bowed, and the attorney was saluting by raising his right arm high. The large banner headline read "Shimogami-hikoku satsujin wa muzai" ("convicted murderer Shimogami found innocent"). There were 10 additional references to Shimogami in the two front page stories: Shimogami Norio-hikoku was used once in the lead sentences of both stories and in the photo caption, and Shimogami-hikoku was used the remaining seven times. However, the third and fourth articles, one of which included a photo of a large crowd of Shimogami supporters smiling, clapping, and holding signs, made reference only to Shimogami-san (12 times, including once in the sub-headline of the larger story) and Shimogami Norio-san (once in the lead sentences of both stories).

Then, without explanation, the Yomiuri Shimbun printed a story the following day, 28 July 1990, in which the writer or editor returned to the use of Shimogami-hikoku (five times), Shimogami Norio-hikoku (once in the lead sentence), and hikoku alone (once). After this date, in all eight articles related to the case published in the Yomiuri over the next year beginning 9 August 1990, Shimogami-san (13 times) or Shimogami Norio-san (six times) were used in all 19 references to him. These 19 references account for approximately .5% of a total 3,875 words. Interestingly, two of these stories, printed 21 October 1990, provide context for the use of "san" by referring to "formerly accused Shimogami Norio-san."

One possible explanation for use of the hikoku form by both newspapers even after Shimogami's sentence was repealed is that there typically is a period of approximately ten days after such a decision during which prosecutors make one final attempt to gather additional evidence. For this reason, reporters or editors may have chosen the conservative course of continuing to use hikoku to refer to Shimogami. In fact, the eventual steady adoption of san by reporters to refer to Shimogami coincides roughly with the conclusion of this ten-day period.


Beyond identifying an individual as a particular kind of person, or as a functioning citizen or not, when Japanese mass media reporters replace san with yogisha or hikoku when referring to an individual they are investing a social identity reference with a profound moral component. The suspected or accused criminal is being publicly disgraced in the clearest and most widespread way possible. In fact, anybody unfortunate enough to be associated in any way with the offender is disgraced as well, as evident in the frequently reported cases in which employment resignations are tendered and even suicides are committed by bosses or family members of convicted (or confessed) criminals.

Conditional respect, as practiced by mass media in Japan, operates mainly through stigmatization of individuals suspected or convicted of committing sensational crimes. The public's expectation of the san convention creates a critical point of dissonance and recognition when yogisha or hikoku, or in some cases the family name alone, is used instead. Shoham and Rahav (1982) note that stigmatization is most effective when its directors are powerful organizations, because "if somebody has been cast out of the community, [s]/he must be made as different as possible" (p. 175). Conditional respect practices by mass media in Japan reflect this; through specific social identity references social norms and behavioral expectations are clarified and the community's intolerance for violation of these expectations are reaffirmed.

While the concept of conditional respect is manifested socially through referential stigmatization, it is nurtured in a culture-specific understanding of behavioral accountability. An individual claims functioning membership in Japanese communal life both by recognizing how and where he or she fits in a complex web of established interpersonal relationships, and by performing a particular role or social identity with some minimal level of competence. As Goffman (1959) notes, "to be a given kind of person, then, is not merely to possess the required attributes, but also to sustain the standards of conduct and appearance that one's social grouping attaches thereto" (p. 75). Personal address term use by mass media in Japan provide publicly displayed assessments of an individual's general social competence. In everyday interactions, personal address term use in Japan is considerably more routine than precarious, because of the advantages of the establishment in Japanese society of what Goffman (1959) calls a "working consensus" concerning social identities (p. 10). Reciprocal use of san in nearly all cases of personal address among adults supports a base of at least nominal mutual respect from which daily affairs are conducted. Further, due to the gatekeeping role of the press and to the apparent attractiveness of news that is extraordinary, news reports of criminal activity present the media and those institutions that control the media with opportunities to re-establish for the audience awareness of the social and personal risks of engaging in publicly unacceptable behavior.

These two case studies of mass media treatment of sensational crime illustrate the media's practice of publicly identifying criminals through a widely understood and powerful system of personal address term use. This analysis echoes a consistent theme in discussions of the role of the mass media in most developed countries: the media is a powerful ultimate arbiter in determining not only what citizens recognize as being news, but also in shaping the ways in which they come to understand what are presented to them as the important issues of the day (Surette, 1994). The position I take in this essay, which is compatible with the ethnography of speaking approach, is that the direction and degree of influence of mass media on the social life of a given modern society must, like all communication practices, be discovered through investigation of the local scene of language use in everyday practices.

Selected References

  • Bromley, D. B. (1993). Reputation, image, and impression management. Chichester, England: John Wiley.
  • Farley, M. (1996). Japan's press and the politics of scandal. In S. J. Pharr & E. S. Krauss (Eds.), Media and politics in Japan (pp. 133-163). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.
  • Shoham, S. G., & Rahav, G. (1982). The mark of Cain: The stigma theory of crime and social deviance. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Surette, R. (1994). Predator criminals as media icons. In G. Barak (Ed.), Media, process, and the social construction of crime (pp. 131-158). New York: Garland.
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