The Japanese language uses a broad array of honorific suffixes for addressing or referring to people, for example -san, as in Davey-san. These honorifics are gender-neutral (can be used for males and females), though some are more used for men or women (-kun is primarily used for males, while -chan is primarily used for women) and can be attached to first names as well as surnames, for example, Peter-san, Catherine-san, Miller-san. Using an honorific is generally required when referring to someone, but in some cases it can be dropped or must not be used – see usage notes below.

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Usage

Honorifics are not part of the basic grammar of the Japanese language, yet proper use is essential to proficient and appropriate speech. Significantly, referring to oneself using an honorific, or dropping a honorific when it is required is a serious faux pas, in either case coming across as clumsy or arrogant.

An honorific is generally used when referring to the person one is talking to (one’s interlocutor), or when referring to an unrelated third party in speech. It is dropped however by some superiors, when referring to one’s in-group, and in formal writing, and is never used to refer to oneself, except for dramatic effect, or some exceptional cases.

Dropping the honorific suffix when referring to one’s interlocutor, which is known to as yobisute (呼び捨て), implies a high degree of intimacy and is generally reserved for one’s spouse, younger family members, social inferiors (as in a teacher addressing students in traditional arts), and very close friends. Within sports teams or among classmates, where the interlocutors approximately have the same age or seniority, it can also be acceptable to use family names without honorifics. Some people in the younger generation (roughly “born since 1970″) prefer to be referred to without an honorific, however, and drop honorifics as a sign of informality even with casual acquaintances.

When referring to a third person, honorifics are used except when referring to one’s family members while talking to a non-family-member, or when referring to a member of one’s company while talking to a customer or someone from another company – this is the uchi-soto (in-out) distinction. Honorifics are not used to refer to oneself, except to be arrogant (ore-sama), to be cute (-chan), or sometimes when talking to small children, to teach them how to address the speaker.

Use of honorifics is correlated with other forms of honorific speech in Japanese, notably use of the polite form (-masu, desu) versus the plain form – using the plain form with a polite honorific (-san, -sama) can be jarring, for instance.

Translation

When translating honorific suffixes to other languages, some analogous form of T–V distinction is generally used (which may involve different pronouns – tu/vous or thee/thou – or honorifics – see English honorifics), or referring to someone on a first-name basis rather than a family-name basis, or using a nickname or diminutive to indicate intimacy. For example, given a person named HASEGAWA Tarō, one may translate Hasegawa-san as “Mr. Hasegawa”, and Hasegawa-kun as “Hasegawa” (slightly formal in English, perhaps appropriate in a school setting) or as “Tarō” (appropriate between friends), the informal Tarō-kun as Tarō, and the diminutive Tarō-chan as Tarry or a similar nickname. Similarly, referring to a child by a respectful term (Hasegawa-sama) as by a company referring to a client might be translated as the somewhat archaic “Master Hasegawa”. However, it is not always possible to faithfully reflect the connotations of social status, seniority, or other relationships implied by suffixes.

Common honorifics

San

San (さん) (sometimes pronounced han (はん) in Kansai dialect), derived from sama (see below), is the most commonplace honorific, and is a title of respect typically used between equals of any age. Although the closest analog in English are the honorifics “Mr.”, “Miss”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.”, san is almost universally added to a person’s name, in both formal and informal contexts. However, in addition to being used with people’s names, it is also employed in a variety of other ways.

San is used in combination with workplace nouns, so a bookseller might be addressed or referred to as honya-san (“bookstore” + san), and a butcher as nikuya-san (“butcher shop” + san).

San is sometimes used with company names. For example, the offices or shop of a company called Kojima Denki might be referred to as “Kojima Denki-san” by another nearby company. This may be seen on small maps often used in phone books and business cards in Japan, where the names of surrounding companies are written using san.

San can also be attached to the names of animals or even inanimate objects. For example, a pet rabbit might be called usagi-san, and fish used for cooking can be referred to as sakana-san. Both uses would be considered childish (akin to “Mr. Rabbit” in English) and would be avoided in formal speech. Even married people often refer to their spouse with san.

Online, Japanese gamers often append a numeral 3 to another player’s name to denote san (e.g. Taro3 conveys Taro-san), since the number three, written 三(さん, san) in Japanese, is pronounced “san”.

Chan

Chan (ちゃん) is a diminutive suffix; it expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. Thus, using chan with a superior’s name would be condescending and rude. In general, chan is used for babies, young children, grandparents and teenage girls. It may also be used towards cute animals, lovers, close friends, or any youthful woman. It can be used for males in some circumstances, but in general this use is rather condescending or intimate.

Although traditionally honorifics are not applied to oneself, some young women adopt the childish affectation of referring to themselves in the third person using chan (childish because it suggests that one has not learned to distinguish between names used for self and names used by others). For example, a young woman named Kanako might call herself Kanako-chan rather than using a first person pronoun. Also, the very common female name suffix -ko (〜子) may be dropped, as in Kana-chan.

Kun

Kun (君【くん】) is used by persons of senior status in addressing or referring to those of junior status, or by anyone when addressing or referring to male children or male teenagers. It can also be used by females when addressing a male that they are emotionally attached to or have known for a long period of time. Although kun is generally used for boys, that is not a hard rule. For example, kun can be used to name a close personal friend or family member of either gender. Also, in business settings, young female employees may also be addressed as kun by older males of senior status. It can also be used by male teachers addressing their female students.

In the Diet of Japan (Legislature), chairpersons use kun when addressing diet members and ministers. An exception was when Takako Doi was the chairperson of the lower house: she used the san title.

Sama

Sama (様 【さま】) is a markedly more respectful version of san. It is used mainly to refer to people much higher in rank than oneself, toward one’s customers, and sometimes toward people one greatly admires. When used to refer to oneself, sama expresses extreme arrogance (or self-effacing irony), as with ore-sama (俺様, “my esteemed self”).

Sama customarily follows the addressee’s name on postal packages and letters and in business email.

Sama also appears in such set phrases as o-machidō sama (“sorry to keep you waiting”), o-tsukare sama (an expression of empathy for people who have been working long and hard), and go-kurō sama (an expression recognizing someone’s labors), but although this is written with the same kanji, it is semantically distinct from the sama used as a term of address.

Senpai and kōhai

Senpai (先輩 【せんぱい】) is used to address or refer to one’s senior colleagues in a school, company, sports club, or other group. So at school, the students in higher grades than oneself are senpai. Students of the same or lower grade are not senpai, nor are teachers. In a business environment, colleagues with more experience are sempai, but one’s boss is not a sempai. Like “Doctor” in English, senpai can be used by itself as well as with a name. Due to the phonological rules of the Japanese language, although spelled senpai, the n sound turns to an m sound, thereby being pronounced sempai.

A kōhai (後輩 【こうはい】) is a junior, the reverse of senpai, but it is not normally used as an honorific.

Sensei

Sensei (先生 【せんせい】) (literally meaning “former-born”) is used to refer to or address teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and other authority figures. It is used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill, and is also applied to novelists, poets, painters, and other artists, including manga artists. In Japanese martial arts, sensei typically refers to someone who is the head of a dojo. As with sempai, sensei can be used not only as a suffix, but also as a stand-alone title.

Sensei can be used fawningly, and it can also be employed sarcastically to ridicule such fawning. The Japanese media invoke it (rendered in katakana, akin to scare quotes or italics in English) to highlight the megalomania of those who allow themselves to be sycophantically addressed with the term.

Shi

Shi (氏 【し】) is used in formal writing, and sometimes in very formal speech, for referring to a person who is unfamiliar to the speaker, typically a person known through publications whom the speaker has never actually met. For example, the shi title is common in the speech of newsreaders. It is preferred in legal documents, academic journals, and certain other formal written styles. Once a person’s name has been used with shi, the person can be referred to with shi alone, without the name, as long as there is only one person being referred to.

Other titles

Occupation-related titles

It is common to use a job title after someone’s name, instead of using a general honorific. For example, an athlete (選手, senshu) named Ichiro might be referred to as “Ichiro-senshu” rather than “Ichiro-san“, and a master carpenter (棟梁, tōryō) named Suzuki might be referred to as “Suzuki-tōryō” rather than “Suzuki-san“.

In a business setting, it is common to refer to people using their rank, especially for positions of authority, such as department chief (部長, buchō) or company president (社長, shachō). Within one’s own company or when speaking of another company, title + san is used, so a president is Shachō-san. When speaking of one’s own company to a customer or another company, the title is used by itself or attached to a name, so a department chief named Suzuki is referred to as Buchō or Suzuki-buchō.

For criminals and the accused

Convicted and suspected criminals were once referred to without any title, but now an effort is made to distinguish between suspects (容疑者, yōgisha), defendants (被告, hikoku), and convicts (受刑者, jukeisha), so as not to presume guilt before anything has been proven. These titles can be used by themselves or attached to names.

However, although “suspect” and “defendant” began as neutral descriptions, they have become derogatory over time. When Gorō Inagaki was arrested for a traffic accident in 2001, some media referred him with the newly made title menbā (メンバー), originating from the English word member, to avoid use of yōgisha (容疑者, suspect). But in addition to being criticized as an unnatural term, this title also became derogatory almost instantly.

For companies

There are several different words for “our company” and “your company.” “Our company” can be expressed with the humble heisha (弊社, “clumsy/poor company”) or the neutral jisha (自社, “our own company”), and “your company” can be expressed with the honorific kisha (貴社, “noble company”, used in writing) or onsha (御社, “honorable company”, used in speech). Additionally, the neutral tōsha (当社, “this company”) can refer to either the speaker’s or the listener’s company. All of these titles are used by themselves, not attached to names.

When mentioning a company’s name, it is considered important to include its status depending on whether it is incorporated (株式会社, kabushikigaisha) or yūgen gaisha). These are often abbreviated as 株 and 有 respectively.

Dono/tono

Tono (殿 【との】), pronounced dono (どの) when attached to a name, roughly means “lord” or “master”. It does not equate noble status; rather it is a term akin to “milord” or French “monseigneur,” and lies in between san and sama in level of respect. This title is not commonly used in daily conversation, but it is still used in some types of written business correspondence, as well as on certificates and awards, and in written correspondence in tea ceremonies. It is/was also used to indicate that the person referred to has the same (high) rank as the referrer, yet commands respect from the speaker.

When used in conversation in present day it is often used as a joke expressing an exaggeration of age. This is also commonly used in anime/manga; particularly by foreigners, old people, and people of low standing, especially in shounen anime/manga.

No kimi

No kimi (の君) is another suffix coming from Japanese history. It was used to denominate Lords and Ladies in the Court, especially during the Heian period. The most famous example is the Prince Hikaru Genji, protagonist of The Tale of Genji who was called “Hikaru no Kimi “(光の君). Nowadays, this suffix can be used as a metaphor for someone who behaves like a prince or princess from ancient times, but it is very rare. Its main usage remains in historical dramas.

This suffix also appears when addressing lovers in letters from a man to a woman, as in, “Murasaki No kimi” or “My beloved Ms. Murasaki”.

Ue

Ue (上) literally means “above”, and denotes a high level of respect. While its use is no longer very common, it is still seen in constructions like chichi-ue (父上) and haha-ue (母上), reverent terms for “father” and “mother” respectively. Receipts that do not require specification of the payer’s name are often filled in with ue-sama.

Royal and official titles

  • Heika (陛下) is used for sovereign royalty, similar to “Majesty” in English. For example, Tennō Heika (天皇陛下) means “His Majesty the Emperor” and Kōgō Heika (皇后陛下) means Her Majesty the Empress. Kokuō Heika (国王陛下) is His Majesty the King and Joō Heika (女王陛下) is Her Majesty the Queen. Heika by itself can also be used as a direct term of address, equivalent to “Your Majesty”.
  • Denka (殿下) is used for non-sovereign royalty, similar to “Royal Highness”. For example, Suwēden Ōkoku, Vikutoria Kōtaishi Denka (スウェーデン王国、ヴィクトリア皇太子殿下, “Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Victoria of the Kingdom of Sweden”). Denka can be used by itself, like “Your Royal Highness.”
  • Hidenka (妃殿下) is for addressing the consort of the prince, and is used the same way as the other royal titles.
  • Kakka (閣下) means “Your Excellency” and is used for heads of state (except for those addressed by Heika or Denka), ministers including the Prime Minister of Japan, ambassadors and other high-rank officials such as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. It too can be used by itself or attached to a specific title.
  • Daitōryō (大統領) means “President” and is used for any national president. It is most commonly attached to a name, such as the 44th President of the United States, Obama-Daitōryō (オバマ大統領, “President Obama”).

Martial arts titles

Martial artists often address their teachers as sensei. Junior and senior students are organized via a senpai/kōhai system. Also in some systems of karate, O´Sensei is the title of the head of the style.

Various titles are also employed to refer to senior instructors. Which titles are used depends on the particular licensing organization.

Shōgō

Shōgō (称号, “title”, “name”, “degree”) are martial arts titles developed by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, the Kokusai Budoin and the International Martial Arts Federation Europe.

  • Renshi (錬士 : れんし): Instructor.
  • Kyōshi (教士 : きょうし) refers to an advanced teacher.
  • Hanshi (範士 : はんし) refers to a senior expert considered a “teacher of teachers”. This title is used by many different arts for the top few instructors of that style, and is sometimes translated “Grand Master”.
  • Meijin (名人): awarded by a special board of examiners.

Other martial arts titles

  • Kensei (剣聖, sword’s saint) an honorary title given to a warrior of legendary skill in swordsmanship.
  • Kyōshi (教師 : きょうし), which in everyday Japanese can be a more modest synonym for sensei, is sometimes used to indicate an instructor.
  • Oyakata (親方 : おやかた), master, especially a sumo coach. The literal sense is of someone in loco parentis.
  • Shihan (師範 : しはん), merely means chief instructor; unlike the titles above it is not related to grade.
  • Shidōin(指導員:しどういん), intermediate instructor, also unrelated to grade.
  • Shishō (師匠 : ししょう) is another title used for martial arts instructors.
  • Zeki (関 : ぜき), literally “barrier”, used for sumo wrestlers in the top two divisions (sekitori).

Other titles

  • Hōshi (法師: ほうし), Buddhist monk
  • Shinpu (神父: しんぷ), Catholic priest (lit. Godfather). A Catholic priest (shisai (司祭: しさい) (lit. minister of worship) receives this title.

Euphonic suffixes and wordplay

In informal speech, some Japanese people may use contrived suffixes in place of normal honorifics. This is essentially a form of wordplay, with suffixes being chosen for their sound, or for friendly or scornful connotations. Although the range of such suffixes that might be coined is limitless, some have gained such widespread usage that the boundary between established honorifics and wordplay has become a little blurred. Examples of such suffixes include variations on chan (see below), bee (scornful), and rin (friendly). Note that unlike a proper honorific, use of such suffixes is governed largely by how they sound in conjunction with a particular name, and on the effect the speaker is trying to achieve.

Baby talk variations

Some honorifics have baby talk versions—mispronunciations stereotypically associated with small children, and hence, cuteness. The baby talk version of sama is chama (ちゃま), for example, and in fact chan was a baby talk version of san that eventually became regarded as an ordinary honorific.

There are even baby talk versions of baby talk versions. Chan can be changed to tan (たん), and less commonly, chama (ちゃま) to tama (たま). These are popularly used in the names of moe anthropomorphisms, in which a cute female, or less commonly male character represents an object, concept, or popular consumer product. Well-known examples include the OS-tan operating system anthropomorphisms, charcoal mascot Binchō-tan.

Familial honorifics

Words for family members have two different forms in Japanese. When referring to one’s own family members while speaking to a non-family-member, neutral, descriptive nouns are used, such as haha (母) for “mother” and ani (兄) for “older brother”. When addressing one’s own family members or addressing or referring to someone else’s family members, honorific forms are used. Using the suffix -san, as is most common, “mother” becomes okā-san (お母さん) and “older brother” becomes onī-san (お兄さん). The honorifics -chan and -sama may also be used instead of -san, to express a higher level of closeness or reverence, respectively.

The general rule is that a younger family member (e.g., a young brother) addresses an older family member (e.g., a big brother) using an honorific form, while the older family member calls the younger one only by name.

The honorific forms are:

  • Otō-san (お父さん): father. The descriptive noun is chichi (父).
    • Oji-san (叔父さん/小父さん/伯父さん): uncle, or also “middle-aged gentleman”.
    • Ojī-san (お祖父さん/御爺さん/お爺さん/御祖父さん): grandpa, or also “male senior-citizen”.
  • Okā-san (お母さん): mother. The descriptive noun is haha (母).
    • Oba-san (伯母さん/小母さん/叔母さん): aunt, or also “middle-aged lady”.
    • Obā-san (お祖母さん/御祖母さん/御婆さん/お婆さん): grandma, or also “female senior-citizen”.
  • Onī-san (お兄さん): big brother, or also “a young gentleman”. The descriptive noun is ani (兄).
  • Onē-san (お姉さん): big sister, or also “a young lady”. The descriptive noun is ane .

The initial o- (お) in these nouns is itself an honorific prefix. In more casual situations the speaker may omit this prefix but will keep the suffix.

  • Nī-chan (兄ちゃん) or Nī-san (兄さん): when a young sibling addresses his or her own “big brother”.
  • Nē-chan (姉ちゃん) or Nē-san (姉さん): when a young sibling addresses his or her own “big sister”.
  • Kā-san (母さん): when a man addresses his own “wife” (the “mother” of their children).
  • Bā-chan (祖母ちゃん): when the grandchildren address their “grandma”.

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