Cleaning with Narita-kun and Epo-chan
Here they are, possibly the most photographed cleaners in Japan.
A regular feature at Narita airport since 2009, these automatic robot cleaners whizz around after hours sweeping the already-clean floors of one of the world’s cleanest airports. Hardly necessary, but as they’re cute one can understand and appreciate their presence.
The boy is called なりたくん “Narita-kun” (from the name of the airport) and his companion is エポちゃん “Epo-chan” (“epo” being the sound of the word “airport” pronounced with a Japanese accent).
And what about kun and chan? These are diminutive suffixes attached to names in Japan. In the same way that we use the honorific prefixes Mr, Ms, Mrs and so on in the West, Japan has a wide range of honorific suffixes.
However in Japanese society a very strict hierarchy of honorifics is followed, and referring to someone using the wrong suffix in the wrong situation can be considered incredibly rude, naive, or humiliating depending on the circumstances.
The most commonly used is san after someone’s surname, which is closest to the western Mr and Mrs. It can be used for women or men in both formal and casual situations. A useful safe bet if unsure of what to use.
In schools during a roll call, the teacher will call out student names with the chan or kun suffix after each and every name, as these are the general terms for someone younger than the speaker.
kun – for little boys
Kun is a diminutive used for males. It is generally used by someone of high status when referring to males of lower status or younger than them. For example a boss referring to a male subordinate, or a teacher or parent talking to a male child.
On the other hand, it can also be used as a condescending term to try and assert one’s superiority and diminish or embarrass another male by implying their lower status or relative youth and inexperience.
chan – more complicated!
Chan is the female equivalent, generally used to refer to little girls. And it too can be used to humiliate someone and speak down to them.
It’s common for girl characters in animation and comics to be called chan, particularly if one wants to emphasise cuteness, or weakness, or innocence.
However, chan also has a wide variety of other connotations.
Men, particularly older men, may use chan to try and gain favour from women, the suggestion being that they’re young and attractive. This of course can also be used in a misogynistic or sleazy way.
And it can be used ironically.
As it describes girls or suggests femininity, chan is often used casually to refer to gay guys. And not only by others – gay friends may refer to each other directly as chan too.
As another example, chan is often used by women to refer to a boy who they think is cute.
The variations and circumstances have many implications and possible interpretations, and obviously there’s a great deal of room for misinterpretation too.
But back to our robot cleaner friends….
narita-kun and epo-chan
The two pals are laser-guided and contain built-in sensors so they can automatically negotiate obstacles, corners, and avoid stairs.
They can also communicate with lifts and thereby move between floors of buildings by themselves!
For more information including pdf downloads:
This link shows an early non-character version developed by Fuji and Sumitomo.
Here’s a later report, which reveals that a newer version of Narita-kun and Epo-chan would set the airport management back about $40,000 apiece.