I had this realization (as with so many others) while living in Japan. I first noticed it when I was sitting in a “kaiten-zushi” restaurant, watching some cooks chop fish. It was robotic, repetitive work, about as difficult – and about as well-paid – as flipping burgers. But my Japanese friend referred to one of those cooks as “sushi-ya-san”, meaning “Mr. Sushi Chef”. She used the honorific reflexively, not patronizingly or sarcastically. The respect for this low-paid, low-skilled worker was reflexive, automatic. I suddenly wondered if we could get Americans to start calling burger-flippers “sir”. The thought made me laugh.
Sushi places that are inherited, not just bought for money and some high school person paid to run it, are considered part of Japan’s food culture. As such, they share the same social respect given to old koryu martial arts dojos that are passed through the family line, unbroken for centuries.
But it is very difficult for a foreigner or someone who cannot think in Japanese, to comprehend what -san even implies in a situation contextually.
What your translator and your google program on your Iphone tells you, isn’t going to be the full truth.
A McDonalds fast food or family restaurant type franchise has etiquette that a 5 star restaurant in the US might envy. So it is difficult to find a fast food US equivalent in Japan. Maid cafes or internet cafes perhaps?
This is the culture which has codes governing the right way for social unequals to bow to one another that are so rigorous and tightly defined that schools of international business etiquette often don’t even try to teach them.
It’s not that difficult for people that think in Japanese. But tourists like Obama are more likely to offend and make fun of people, when they try modifying bows and social gestures in Japan.
The concept of sarcasm is not foreign to the Japanese. If a person bows lower than is required to an equal or inferior, this can easily be communicated as an insult. The same way as using the title “Mr. Executive” to your associate, while telling him to go out and get your coffee communicates.
Things make perfect sense once a person thinks in Japanese. The language is probably required for that.
-San suffix is a commonly used way to tell everyone around them, that you are behaving in a professional and non-intimate way with a person. Westerners see a personal relationship and greeting as something that relates to the people involved. The Japanese see greetings and formal methods as a way to determine a relationship AND a way to tell everyone else around them that such a relationship exists.
So they would literally take the suffix of “sir” to mean that you are addressing a member of the knighthood.
Depending on the suffix and prefix used, people can greet each other and everyone else around them would know the approximate nature of that relationship by the context. Lovers. Professional boss-employee. Associates. Equals or peers. Elder and the junior. Master and apprentice. Child and parent. Child and parent in law. Brothers. Sisters. Old brothers with younger sisters. Younger brothers with older sisters.
Just by what people say to each other and the method they use to change the phrasing, it is easy to detect what the approximate relationship is.
However this requires the ability to think outside one’s cultural sandbox. Which is not something zombies of the Left or the intellectual class in the US, is allowed to do any more.
My best estimate for why a person would call a sushi shop owner or employee as -san would be close to a Western analogy.
San is often used to make clear that there is a gap between people. It is respectful, but it is a respectful way to acknowledge differences in closeness and social status between strangers. Japan had to find a way that wouldn’t insult either party, when two unknown parties greeted each other without knowing each other’s status. So the ultra polite and professional way would be to ask “which sama are you”. Assuming the highest social status relative to the speaker, when in doubt.
But that particular episode with the Sushi reminds me more of when people don’t call their bosses by their first name in public. Even if the person speaking knows the Sushi owner on a close level, they might not wish to broadcast that relationship to a stranger, especially a foreign Western stranger. For the same reason that if you know your boss’ first name, you don’t start calling him by his first name or his high school nickname, at the board meeting or when you and your boss are meeting corporate business leaders and investors.
People know it is right or wrong socially, but it is not something they normally think about consciously.