Japanese-honorifics

San or Chan? Guide to Japanese Honorifics Suffixes


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Hi, I am Cindy Fan. I majored in Japanese for four years in undergraduate school and spent 7 months in Tokyo as an exchange student. There, I fell in love with Japanese culture. Currently, I am studying for an LLM degree at BFSU.

Intro to Japanese Honorifics

As is known to all, Japanese is one of the most polite languages in the world. But knowing when and how to be polite can cause trouble for language learners.

Japanese honorifics can be a headache. Japanese has a complex honorific speech system known as Keigo, which includes “polite language”, “respectful language”, “humble language”, “respectful verbs” and “word beautification”.

In this article, we will focus on the most basic kind of honorifics: honorific suffixes in Japanese.

What Are Japanese Honorific Suffixes?

Japanese Honorific suffixes are used to refer to others in a polite way. You are to use the Japanese honorific suffix when referring to your interlocutor or someone else in your conversation, especially if the person referred to is superior to you. 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.when and how to use japanese honorifics

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.

Japanese Honorifics: Common Titles and Their Differences

You may find it difficult to choose the correct form from the long list of Japanese honorifics.

The following sections will introduce the differences between and usage of several common Japanese honorifics.

San in Japanese 

San (さん) 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 in Japanese

Sama (様) 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)”.

"customers" are called "お客様 (okyaku-sama)" in Japanese, image from NTT Docomo.
“customers” are called “お客様 (okyaku-sama)” in Japanese, image from NTT Docomo.

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 in Japanese

Kun (君 orくん) 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 in Japanese 

Chan (ちゃん) 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 and Kōhai in Japanese 

Senpai (先輩) and kōhai (後輩) 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.

Sensei in Japanese 

You may have already known that “sensei” (先生) 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.

san, chan, kun, sensei
Characters from a Japanese cartoon. The red banners show how they are being addressed in the show. You can see chan (ちゃん), kun (くん) and sensei (先生) used in this picture.
 

Shi in Japanese 

You will most commonly encounter “shi” (氏) 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.

Japanese honorifics-shi
Credit: Asahi Digital

Dono/tono in Japanese 

“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.

How to Use Japanese Honorific Suffixes

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.

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

First, You may drop the honorifics only when referring to your spouse, younger family members, close friends, and confidantes.

Second, in the case of referring to a third-person, you can drop honorifics when referring to a non-family member in a conversation with your own family, or when referring to a member of your company to a customer or someone from another company. In a word, you should use honorifics except for when you refer to a member of the in-group while talking to someone outside the group. This is called “uchi–soto (in-group/out-group) distinction”. This will be further discussed in the Japanese Honorific at work below.

Third, 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.

When to Use Japanese Honorific Suffixes

Though there are certain conditions under which you can drop the 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.

Japanese use different honorifics depending on different personal relationships at school, at work, and even in the family.

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.

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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).

sebastian-herrmann-NbtIDoFKGO8-unsplash
Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

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.

Sensei

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.

Familial Honorifics 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.


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