Posts mislead on Japanese paper's use of 'Mr' for South Korean leader

Copyright © AFP 2017-2023. All rights reserved.

A screenshot of the front page of a Japanese daily has been shared repeatedly in Korean-language posts that misleadingly claim the paper "disrespected" South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol by addressing him as "Mr" rather than "president" in its report. But the Japanese title "Mr" does not have the same connotation of "talking down" as it does in certain contexts in Korean, a linguist told AFP. Japanese media typically refer to national leaders, including their own, as "Mr", whereas South Korean media customarily refer to them solely by their official titles.

The Korean-language claim was shared alongside an image of the front page of the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan's most read dailies, here on Facebook on March 17, 2023.

The Japanese-language headline reads, in part: "Mr Yoon 'Japan is a partner'." The Japanese characters for "Mr Yoon" are circled in purple.

Korean-language text embedded below the image reads: "Yomiuri, Japan's top newspaper, is treating Yoon disrespectfully by addressing him as 'Mr' instead of 'president'."

The user captioned the image: "This is the reality of South Korea's current president."

The Chinese character "" -- meaning surname -- has been adopted into both the Japanese and Korean writing systems and is used in both as a suffix to family names. The character is read as "shi" in Japanese, while it is written as "씨" and read as "ssi" in Korean.

Screenshot of the misleading claim shared on Facebook. Captured March 21, 2023.

The claim began to circulate online after Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a summit in Tokyo on March 17 to thaw long-frozen ties, pledging renewed diplomacy after years of tensions between the two countries over historic disputes.

Yomiuri Shimbun's report cited in the misleading post was referring to Yoon's public address on March 1, the anniversary of mass demonstrations that took place across Korea in 1919, when the country was under Japanese occupation.

Yoon referred to Japan as a "partner that shares the same universal values as [South Korea]" and pledged to rebuild ties with Tokyo in a speech he gave days before his government announced a plan to settle compensation issues involving South Korean victims of Japan's forced wartime labour.

The identical claims have been shared on Facebook here, here and here.

But the claim is misleading. The title "Mr" has different connotations in Korean and Japanese.

Same title, different connotation

Japanese media outlets often address both their own and foreign leaders as "Mr" as seen here, here and here.

Yomiuri Shimbun's other reports on Yoon's March 1 address, seen here and here, show he was referred to by both "shi" and "president".

In contrast, South Korean press typically use official titles such as "president" or "prime minister" when addressing public figures, including country leaders and officials, as seen here, here and here.

Lee Byeong-jin, a linguist and Japanese language expert at South Korea's Sejong University, said the claim is inaccurate and the phrase "shi" carries different connotations in Japan and Korea.

"The term meaning 'Mr' in the Japanese language does not have a connotation of talking down or disrespect as it does in certain contexts in Korean," Lee told AFP.

"Japan's media and press use the term 'Mr' and official titles interchangeably when referring to public figures," he said.

A study by researchers at South Korea’s Chonnam University also found that the use of "ssi" is less polite in South Korea when compared to its Japanese equivalent, "shi".

The 2019 study compared the usage of the term in Korean and Japanese news reports.

They found that "ssi" was used more for suspects and victims of cases and ordinary people in South Korea, while "shi" was more often used for people in politics or economics such as world leaders, ministers, officials, and business executives in Japan.