Intro to Japanese Honorifics
As is known by many, Japanese is one of the most polite languages in the world. However, not knowing when and how to be polite can cause a lot of trouble for language learners.
Japanese honorifics (Keigo) are complex. But don’t worry, let’s get them done gradually! In this article, we will mainly focus on the most basic kind of honorifics: honorific suffixes in Japanese.
What Are Japanese Honorific Suffixes?
Japanese Honorific suffixes are titles used to refer to others in a polite way. さん(San), 様(Sama), 君(Kun), ちゃん(Chan) are common Japanese honorific titles used in daily conversation. These suffixes are often attached to the end of one’s name and different suffixes suggest the gender, age, and the relationship of the speaker to the referred person.
Why Are Japanese Honorifics Important?
Japanese honorifics are an important way to express respect, formality, and friendship to those you interact with. In Japan, its use is mandatory in many formal and informal social situations. Japanese people start to use honorifics from kindergarten, and use them everyday with people at school, at work, or even in the family. If you fail to use honorifics correctly, you may leave a bad impression on others or hurt others’ feelings.
Common Japanese Honorific Titles
|English (and explanation)||日本語||Romaji|
|Mr. /Mrs. /Ms.||Name さん||San|
|For boys||Name くん||Kun|
|For girls||Name ちゃん||Chan|
|For Business scenes||Name さま||Sama|
|For teacher||Name 先生||Sensei|
|Senior at School/work||Name 先輩||Senpai|
|Company CEO||Name 社長||Shachou|
|Department head||Name 部長||Buchou|
|Old Japanese suffix||Name 殿||Dono|
The following sections will introduce the differences between and usage of several common Japanese honorifics.
San is the most common form of honorific suffix, and also the safest one when you are not sure which suffix to choose. It can be translated into “Ms.” and “Mr.” in English.
You can use it on formal occasions like schools and offices, as well as on less formal occasions with acquaintances. It expresses respect to people in a moderate way: not too rude, yet not overly polite.
Sama is the most formal honorific suffix. How formal is it? In fact, Japanese use “sama” to address God (神様 kami-sama) and royalty (天皇様 tennō-sama). That’s why you rarely have a chance to use “sama” in daily life. However, Japanese people do use “sama” in business to show their respect for customers, calling them “お客様 (okyaku-sama)”.
By the way, when you hear someone using it before “ore (俺)”, which means “I”, it connotes sarcasm about that person being overly self-confident.
Kun (君 orくん)
Kun is a male suffix used for kids and between friends. The word can also be used by people of senior status to address people of junior status.
Remember: you never use “kun” to address a man who is older or of a higher level than you. Teachers use “kun” to address male students sometimes, but you do not want to address your teacher with “kun”.
Chan is an endearing female suffix. It is most commonly used for children but is also widely used among female family members and close friends.
Chan has a sense of cuteness and acquaintance, so it is also used towards pets and lovers. However, if you use it to address a superior, it will sound condescending and rude to others.
These four are the most common honorifics you may encounter, but the following ones can also be important in certain situations.
Senpai (先輩) and Kōhai (後輩)
Senpai and kōhai are reflections of hierarchical relationships in Japanese culture.
Senpai can be used to refer to or address one’s older or more senior colleagues, or those with more experience in a school, workplace, dojo, or sports club. It can be used as a suffix following someone’s name or replace their name entirely. In contrast, Kōhai can be used to refer to one’s younger or more junior colleagues. However, this is not used to address someone directly.
You may have already known that “sensei” means “teacher” in Japanese, but the word is also used to refer to doctors, politicians, lawyers, and other authority figures. Generally, the word has the meaning of a high level of mastery in certain skills. You use “sensei” to show your respect for the person addressed. “Sensei” can be used as a suffix or replace someone’s name entirely.
You will most commonly encounter “shi” in news readings. Shi is a formal honorific suffix used to address someone you have known through publications but have never actually met. It is preferred in legal documents, academic journals, and other formal written styles.
“殿” is pronounced “dono” when attached to names. It is not common in daily conversations, but is sometimes used in business correspondence, as well as on certificates and awards. It is less respectful than “sama”, indicating that the person referred to rank as the same level of the referrer, yet commands respect from the speaker.
Now that you’ve got a general idea of common Japanese honorifics, you can judge for yourself which ones to use on which occasions. For beginners, you can just stick with the -san suffix if you get confused.
Japanese Honorifics: How to Use The Titles and Their Differences
Unlike English prefixes added to one’s last name, the Japanese suffixes can be attached to the end of either the first name or the last name. The first name is generally considered closer than the last name, so you can choose to use first name plus honorifics when you are familiar with the one you refer to.
📌Note that the honorifics should be used in accordance with other forms of honorific speech in Japanese. For instance, using the plain form with a polite honorific (-san, -sama) can sound ridiculous.
Yamamoto: This is a photo I took when I traveled to Mt. Fuji.
Nakamura: Wow! You took this photo, Mr. Yamamoto? Wonderful, show me!
However, you may have noticed that there are times when Japanese people drop the honorifics in some conversations. So when should you add honorifics and when shouldn’t you? Here are a few rules to follow.
When Not to Use Japanese Honorific Suffixes
When referring to a third person, you can drop honorifics if referring to a family member in a conversation with someone outside of the family or when referring to a member of your company to a customer or someone from another company.
Yamamoto: My mother made this sushi. Please enjoy.
Satou: Looks delicious! Your mother must be good at cooking. Much appreciated.
Nakano: My name is Nakano from ABC company. Thank you very much for your continued support. Is Mr. Hayashi, the head of the Planning Department here?
Staff： Sorry. Hayashi is currently out of the office.
In addition, the honorific suffix is never used to refer to oneself, except for dramatic effect, or some exceptional cases.
Also, nowadays, some people of younger generations prefer to be referred to without an honorific even when they just knew each other.
Honorific suffixes are a part of Japanese Keigo (honorific system). When it comes to Keigo, one of the most important things to learn about is Uchi-Soto consciousness in Japanese, which can help you get a better grasp on honorific suffixes and other things related to politeness levels!
Uchi (inside) literally means inside, and Soto means outside, but don’t just take them literally. Their actual implications are us and them in English, emphasizing the boundaries between human relationships. In Japanese, when you speak to someone identified as Uchi (us) in your mind, you can use 君 (kun), ちゃん (chan), etc. Conversely, if you talk to someone identified as Soto (them), you can use さん (san) and other polite suffixes.
The Uchi-Soto consciousness is not unique to the Japanese language, nor does it imply a xenophobic culture. Actually, every language in the world, including English, has this concept to some degree. Please think about how your politeness levels vary from casual chatting to formal occasions in daily life. The difference in Japanese is reflected mainly through honorific huffixes and other Keigo.
Though there are certain conditions under which you can drop honorific suffixes, do remember that in most cases, dropping the honorifics (呼び捨て or “yobisute” in Japanese) from the name of the person you’re referring to is rude unless you are very close with them.
（First day of school）
Kuramoto: Hello! My name is Sato. Nice to meet you!
Nakano: Hello, Kuramoto-san. My name is Nakano. Nice to meet you!
（Six months later）
Nakano: Hey, Kuramoto. Let me copy your homework.
Kuramoto: You’re a pain in the ass.
It’s easy to tell that the politeness levels between Kuramoto and Nakano changed after they had gotten to know each other for a while. When Nakano called out to Kuramoto, he dropped honorifics, which indicates that their relationship has become closer than before (i.e. they have come to think of each other as Uchi). This example shows that Uchi-Soto is fluid. Likewise, it is possible to change from Uchi to Soto when you are estranged from someone.
Another characteristic of Uchi-Soto is subjectivity, which means you can decide who is in the Uchi group or the Soto group. Nevertheless, it would be better to remember that it may offend the other person not to see them as Soto too soon. If you see someone as Uchi too soon, they may feel offended or overwhelmed. Being over-friendly is not good.
Similarly, treating someone as Soto when you are already on good terms may make them feel alienated. In brief, the sense of Soto-Uchi is very subtle and takes a long time to grasp precisely. But no worries, Japanese people have a high language tolerance for foreigners.
Before we move on to the next part, another thing you ought to know is that the honorific suffix is never used to refer to oneself, except for dramatic effect, or some exceptional cases.
Please read on. Let’s learn more about the connection between honorific suffixes and the Uchi-Soto consciousness.
Japanese Honorifics at School
At school, students typically call the teacher “last name+sensei”, for example, a teacher named Hiroshi Tanaka is called “Tanaka sensei” by his students.
In most cases, the teacher calls students by their last name+san or kun (for boys). For instance, a male student whose name is “Takubi Sugimoto” can be addressed as “Sugimoto san” or “Sugimoto kun” by his teachers.
How Do Students Refer to Each Other?
As mentioned above, “senpai” is a frequently used honorific suffix between peers at school. If Sakura Yamamoto is a student in the fifth grade, and Erika Suzuki is a student in the fourth grade. Then it is very likely that Sakura calls Erika “Suzuki san” or “Erika san”, and Erika calls Sakura “Suzuki senpai” or “senpai”.
If the two are classmates, they are likely to call each other “first name/ last name+san”, depending on personal preference and the relationship between them.
Japanese Honorifics at Work
Have you ever wondered how to address people at work?
Though it can be rather complicated to learn, using honorifics correctly will help you look professional and polite in business settings.
How to address your boss, subordinates and co-workers at the office
You should use a title for referring to your boss or seniors at the office. For example, if you have a boss whose name is Mr. Satou (佐藤) and is a department head, you can call him just “Buchou (部長, department head)” or “Satou Buchou (佐藤部長，Department Head Satou )” in office.
How to address your subordinates or co-workers
The most frequently used suffix “title” is a good choice here. For instance, if you have a co-worker whose family name is Satou, you can call him “Satou-san”.
As mentioned above, seniors sometimes use “kun” to address male subordinates, like “Satou-kun”.
Names to use when talking with your clients or people outside the company.
If you need to mention the name of your boss or co-worker in a business talk with clients or people outside your company, you are to use his/her family name, without any suffixes.
For example, you should not call your coworker “Satou Buchou” when talking to your client. Rather, you are to call him or her “Buchou no Satou”(部長の佐藤，our Department Head, Satou)”, or “our company’s department head” (弊社の部長).
Names to use for clients or seniors
To express respect for the clients or seniors at work, you may want to use the most formal suffix “sama” to address them. Since san is less formal than sama, using san for clients may sound too casual and should be avoided.
As mentioned before, for politicians, lawyers or consultants, use “sensei” instead of “san”. For example, “Satou-sensei”.
Japanese Honorifics with Family
Now that you have already learned about formal and informal Japanese honorifics, aren’t you curious about how Japanese people address their family members?
As mentioned above, Japan has a culture of “uchi–soto (in-group/out-group) distinction”, so they developed two different ways to refer to family members.
When referring to your own family members while talking to others, you want to be humble and use neutral nouns, such as haha (母) for “mother”. When addressing your own family members (especially those older than you) or addressing or referring to someone else’s family members, you need to use honorific forms, which use the suffix“san”. For example, “mother” becomes okāsan (お母さん) in the honorific form. Usually, the older family member just calls the younger one by name.
Check out the chart below and learn the two sets of family words in Japanese.
Notably, sometimes honorifics “chan” and “sama” can also be used instead of -san, to indicate a higher level of closeness or reverence, respectively.
Conclusion on Japanese Honorific Suffixes
Japanese honorifics originate from and exemplify Japanese culture. As you learn more about them, you may get a taste of the Senpai-kōhai culture, the Uchi-soto culture, and so on. You may also find yourself able to speculate about different interpersonal relationships according to different levels of respectfulness through the use of honorifics.
It is noteworthy that nowadays, some people of the younger generation prefer to be referred to without honorifics, so you can ask for the person’s personal opinion when you are not sure to use honorifics or not. Another way is to follow his or her way of addressing you. For example, if someone you just knew at the party calls you with the first name+san, it possibly means he or she would like to be called the same way.
Being prudent about Japanese honorifics is necessary since you do not want to leave others with a rude impression or sound excessively intimate.
Try to use what you have learned to address others politely and you will find you are one step closer to understanding Japanese culture. You may also want to know some basic Japanese phrases to show your politeness.