The Complete Guide to Japanese Email Etiquette and Format
“… I think that your Japanese is good enough to understand how you should address a professor. Please reword this email before I forward it to the department head.”
I was by no means a beginner, so how could I fail at sending a simple email after all this time?
I discovered that the problem wasn’t due to my knowledge of the Japanese language—it was my understanding of Japanese culture.
There’s an entire culture and etiquette surrounding digital correspondence in Japanese, so if you plan to live, study or even just make some acquaintances in Japan, you’ll need to know the basic Japanese email format.
- Proper Japanese Email Format
- Why You Need to Know Japanese Email Etiquette
Proper Japanese Email Format
There’s definitely a proper format for Japanese emails, and if you’re a native English speaker, it’s probably a bit different than what you’re used to.
So, you do have to learn it if you want to succeed at Japanese email etiquette. The good news is that it’s quite straightforward and a lot of it is just putting the right phrases in the right places.
A proper email looks something like this:
- 件名 (けんめい) — Subject
- 宛名 (あてな) — Recipient
- 送信者 (そうしんしゃ) — Sender
- 本文 (ほんぶん) — Body
- 結び (むすび) — Concluding words
- 署名 (しょめい) — Signature
What these different terms amount to might differ slightly from your expectations, so let’s take a closer look.
1. 件名 (けんめい): The subject line of your email
Japanese subject lines carry a lot more oomph than their English equivalents. They should be very specific and tend to be quite long, sufficient that the person you’re contacting will know exactly what’s in your email before they open it.
For instance, if you’re emailing a professor, here’s what two subject lines might look like:
言語社会学 ３月１７日の講義について (質問)
げんご しゃかいがく さんがつ じゅうしちにち の こうぎに ついて (しつもん)
A question about March 17th’s Linguistic Sociology lecture
古典文学 期末レポート課題 (＿名前＿)
こてんぶんがく きまつ れぽーと かだい (＿なまえ＿)
Classical Literature Theme of (my) final paper (your name here)
2. 宛名 (あてな): The recipient of your email
If I were to contact my colleagues, bosses or professors in the US by email, I’d definitely begin with “dear so-and-so,” or at the very least include a salutation. Not doing so could be considered rude.
This isn’t the case in Japan, though: It’s enough to simply state the person’s last name and title. It isn’t even necessary to add an honorific suffix like -san (さん) or -sama (様／さま).
田中先生 (たなか せんせい) — Mr. Tanaka
石川教授 (いしかわ きょうじゅ) — Professor Ishikawa
3. 送信者 (そうしんしゃ): The sender of your email
Here we include a detailed explanation of exactly who we are in relation to the recipient.
I’ll include one example suitable for full-time students and another for exchange students. That being said, the basic structure is something like this:
Faculty — Department — Year of Study — Name
So for example:
(ぶんがくぶ げんごがっか にねんの やまだ はなこ です。)
Hanako Yamada, Faculty of Literature, Department of Linguistics, Sophomore
(きんだい にほんぶんがくを りしゅうしている たんき りゅうがくせい の にこらす・さみです。)
Sami Nicholas, a short-term international student taking a course in modern Japanese Literature
If you aren’t a student, you should still include sender information, along with any other relevant information about your position or company, so the recipient will know who you are. For instance:
Company — Position — Full name
4. 本文 (ほんぶん): The body of your email
This part is more familiar. Explain why you’re contacting the recipient in a concise manner, but make sure to write it in a respectful, formal fashion.
5. 結び (むすび): A few concluding words
Just like in English, there are a number of fixed phrases that get mixed, matched and attached to the end of a Japanese email to signal that the letter has come to a close.
These typically make use of 謙譲語 (けんじょうご) — humble language. If you’re not sure what exactly that means, be sure to read up a bit about 敬語 (けいご) — keigo, polite language.
(おいそがしいところ おてすうをおかけして もうしわけありませんが、 よろしくおねがいいたします。)
I sincerely apologize to cause you trouble at such a time, Best regards,
(おいそがしいところ きょうしゅくですが、 ごへんしんを いただけますとさいわいです。)
I understand that you’re very busy, but I would be very grateful if you could find the time to send me a response.
6. 署名: (しょめい) Wrap things up with your signature
Rest assured, there isn’t a cultural hoop to jump through here. Simply list your full name.
山田 花子 (やまだ はなこ) — Hanako Yamada
サミ・ニコラス — Sami Nicholas
Why You Need to Know Japanese Email Etiquette
Imagine that you’re standing in line to buy lunch when reaching into your pocket, you discover that you forgot your wallet. Furthermore, for the sake of argument, you have to ask the person behind you for money.
How would you phrase that request if the person behind you was…
- …your mom?
- …your best friend?
- …your professor?
- …an acquaintance?
- …a complete stranger?
Although we’re essentially saying the same thing in each of these cases—”I need money”—the way you’d phrase this message differs in each scenario. In other words, the language you choose to use depends on the situation you happen to be in.
This is a really key idea: Just because you can express a given idea in a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the best option for every scenario.
That’s where having an understanding of the culture of your target language becomes important. Being linguistically capable of expressing an idea (say, knowing the necessary vocabulary and grammar to do so) is one thing, but understanding when you should (or shouldn’t) express it in a certain way is another.
Culture is connected to basically everything, including seemingly mundane tasks like sending an email. To learn more about Japanese culture and how to express yourself properly, you can consume more authentic Japanese materials, such as books or movies.
There’s also the language learning app and website FluentU, where lessons come in the form of authentic Japanese video clips with interactive subtitles that show contextual definitions, pronunciation and videos of the term used in other situations.
By observing actual native Japanese speakers interacting with one another—whether that’s in person or online—you can learn the proper language and etiquette to use in different scenarios. Eventually, things like using the correct Japanese email etiquette will become second nature to you.
Although it might sound frightening, especially if you haven’t done a lot of formal writing in Japanese, sending an email basically amounts to six very formulaic steps.
Even if you make a few mistakes here and there with the Japanese itself, your recipient will still appreciate the email’s overall concise structure!