Culture and linguistics make the most obvious form of address an unpopular choice.

As much as I love the Japanese language, even I have to admit, from a design standpoint, its vocabulary is lacking in a couple of ways. For example, the same word, ashi, means both “leg” and “foot.” There’s no distinction between singular nouns and plural nouns, and the selection of profanity is woefully limited.

But Japanese vocabulary does a perfectly fine job when it comes to describing family members. All the bases are covered, such as okaa-san (“mom”), itoko (“cousin”), and oba-san (“aunt”).

Actually, though, even Japanese women who have a niece might not hear that last one very often. In a recent survey conducted by Japanese cosmetics maker Shiseido, only about one in ten women with a niece in middle or high school said their niece called them oba-san.

▼ 1,000 women, between the ages of 30 and 59, were polled, and only 11.2 percent said their nieces calls them oba-san.


Why the reluctance to call an aunt an aunt? Well, while the primary definition of oba-san is indeed “aunt,” it also has the secondary meaning of “middle-aged woman.” For many Japanese women, it’s a shocking moment when a stranger refers to them as oba-san for the first time, as opposed to the more youthful-sounding onee-san (literally “big sister,” but also used to mean “young woman”).

So what did the survey participants’ nieces call them? The overwhelming favorite was to add -chan, the more affectionate version of the well-known honorific suffix -san, to the aunt’s first name.

The complete results were:
1. First name plus -chan – 56 percent
2. oba-san – 11.2 percent
3. Nickname – 10.2 percent
4. First name (no suffix) – 6.5 percent
5. -san – 6.4 percent
6. one-san – 5.2 percent
7. Other – 4.5 percent

The survey doesn’t get into whether nieces are shying away from using oba-san by their own volition, at their aunts’ request, or because of their parents’ guidance. In any case, even though Japanese culture preaches respect for one’s elders, linguistically, it looks like nieces are trying to be tactful about not rubbing the age difference in their aunts’ faces.

Source: @Press
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