The Japanese language uses a broad array of honorific suffixes for addressing or referring to people. These honorifics attach to the end of people's names, as in lucy-san where the honorific -san was attached to the name lucy. These honorifics are often gender-neutral, but some imply a more feminine context (such as -chan) while others imply a more masculine one (such as -kun).
- Senpai and kōhai
- Sensei and hakase
- Occupation related titles
- For criminals and the accused
- For companies
- No kimi
- Royal and official titles
- Martial arts titles
- Other martial arts titles
- Other titles
- Euphonic suffixes and wordplay
- Baby talk variations
- Familial honorifics
These are often used along with other forms of Japanese honorific speech, keigo, such as that used in conjugating verbs.
Although honorifics are not part of the basic grammar of the Japanese language, they are a fundamental part of the sociolinguistics of Japanese, and proper use is essential to proficient and appropriate speech. Significantly, referring to oneself using an honorific, or dropping an honorific when it is required, is a serious faux pas, in either case coming across as clumsy or arrogant.
They can be applied to either the first or last name depending on which is given. In situations where both the first and last names are spoken, the suffix is attached to whichever comes last in the word order.
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, or 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 as to 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 be acceptable to use family names without honorifics. Some people of the younger generation, roughly born since 1970, prefer to be referred to without an honorific. However, dropping honorifics is 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 when trying 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.
While these honorifics are solely used on proper nouns, these suffixes can turn common nouns into proper nouns when attached to the end of them. This can be seen on words such as 猫ちゃん ("neko-chan") which turns the common noun neko (cat) into a proper noun which would refer solely to that particular cat, while adding the honorific -chan can also means cute or small.
When translating honorific suffixes into English, separate pronouns or adjectives must be used in order to convey characteristics to the person they are referencing as well. While some honorifics such as "-san" are very frequently used due to their gender neutrality and very simple definition of polite unfamiliarity, other honorifics such as "-chan" or "-kun" are more specific as to the context in which they must be used as well as the implications they give off when attached to a person's name. These implications can only be translated into English using either adjectives or adjective word phrases.
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", "Ms.", or "Mrs.", -san is almost universally added to a person's name; "-san" can be used in formal and informal contexts and for any gender. Because it is the most common honorific, it is also the most often used to convert common nouns into proper ones, as seen below.
San may be 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's 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 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, but both would be considered childish (akin to "Mr. Fish" in English) and would be avoided in formal speech. Married people often refer to their spouse with san.
Due to -san being gender neutral and commonly used, it can be used to refer to people who are not close or to whom one does not know. However, it may not be appropriate when using it on someone who is close or when it is clear that other honorifics should be used.
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 is also pronounced san.
Sama (様【さま】) is a more respectful version of san for people of a higher rank than oneself, toward one's guests or customers (such as a sports venue announcer addressing members of the audience), and sometimes toward people one greatly admires. Deities such as the native Shinto kami and the Christian God, are referred to as kami-sama, meaning "Revered spirit-sama". When used to refer to oneself, sama expresses extreme arrogance (or self-effacing irony), as in praising one's self to be of a higher rank, 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 ("thank you for waiting") or o-tsukare sama ("thank you for a good job").
With the exception of the Emperor of Japan, sama can be used to informally address the Empress and other members of the Imperial Family. The Emperor is, however, always addressed as Heika (Your Majesty). (See "Royal and official titles" below).
Kun (君【くん】) is used by people of senior status addressing or referring to those of junior status, by anyone addressing or referring to male children or male teenagers, or among male friends. It can be used by males or females when addressing a male whom they are emotionally attached to or have known for a long time.
Although kun is generally used for boys, it is not a hard rule. For example, kun can be used to name a close personal friend or family member of any gender. In business settings, young female employees are addressed as kun by older males of senior status. It can be used by male teachers addressing their female students.
'Kun' can mean different things depending on the gender. "Kun" for females is a more respectful name than calling them cute. Kun isn't only used to address females formally; it can also be used for a very close friend or family member. Calling a female 'Kun' is not insulting, and can also mean that the person is respected, although that is not the normal implication. Sisters with the same name, such as 'Miku,' may be differentiated by calling one 'Miku~Chan' and the other 'Miku~San' or 'Sama,' and on some occasions 'Kun.' 'Chan' and 'Kun' sometimes mean similar things. Rarely, 'Kun' means "sweet and kind."
In the National Diet (Legislature), the Speaker of the House uses kun when addressing Diet members and ministers. An exception was when Takako Doi was the Speaker of the lower house, where she used the title san.
Chan (ちゃん) is a diminutive suffix; it expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. It comes from a "cute" pronouncing of -san (in Japanese, replacing s sounds with ch sounds is seen as cute). In general, chan is used for babies, young children, grandparents and teenagers. It may also be used towards cute animals, lovers, close friends, any youthful woman, or between friends. Using chan with a superior's name is considered to be condescending and rude.
Although traditionally, honorifics are not applied to oneself, some people 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 oneself and names used by others). For example, a young woman named Kanako might call herself Kanako-chan rather than using a first person pronoun. "Chan" is only used between people who have known each other for a long time or who are of the same gender. Otherwise, using this for someone, especially adults, only known for a short period of time, can be seen as offensive.
Tan (たん) is an even more cute or affectionate variant of "chan". It evokes a small child's mispronunciation of that form of address, or baby talk – similar to how, for example, a speaker of English might use "widdle" instead of "little" when speaking to a baby. Moe anthropomorphisms are often labeled as "-tan", e.g., the commercial mascot Habanero-tan, the manga figure Afghanis-tan or the OS-tans representing operating systems.
Bō (坊【ぼう】) is another diminutive that expresses endearment. Like "chan", it is used for babies or young children, but is exclusively used for boys instead of girls.
Senpai and kōhai
Senpai (先輩【せんぱい】) is used to address or refer to one's senior colleagues (respected colleagues) in a school, dojo, or sports club. So at school, the students in higher grades than oneself are senpai. Teachers are not senpai, but rather they are "Sensei." Neither are students of the same or lower grade: they are referred to as kōhai. In a business environment, those with more experience are senpai, but one's boss is not a senpai. In the same manner as English titles such as "doctor" or "professor", senpai can be used by itself as well as with a name. A kōhai (後輩【こうはい】) is a junior, the reverse of senpai, but it is not normally used as an honorific; kun is used for this function instead.
Sensei and hakase
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, such as accomplished novelists, musicians, artists and martial artists. In Japanese martial arts, sensei typically refers to someone who is the head of a dojo. As with senpai, sensei can be used not only as a suffix, but also as a stand-alone title. The term is not generally used when addressing a person with very high academic expertise; the one used instead is hakase (博士【はかせ】) (lit. "doctor" but the actual meaning is closer to "professor").
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 (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.
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.
However, when referring to oneself, the title is used indirectly, as using it directly is perceived as arrogant. Thus, a department chief named Suzuki will introduce themselves as 部長の鈴木 Buchō-no-Suzuki, rather than ×鈴木部長 *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 actor and musician 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—an example of euphemism treadmill.
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 limited (有限会社, yūgen gaisha). These are often abbreviated as 株 and 有 respectively.
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 below 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.
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 its use 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 (上) literally means "above", and denotes a high level of respect. While its use is no longer common, it is still seen in constructions like chichi-ue (父上), haha-ue (母上) and ane-ue (姉上), reverent terms for "father", "mother" and "sister" respectively. Receipts that do not require specification of the payer's name are often filled in with ue-sama.
Royal and official titles
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 (deceased) head of the style. This is how the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba is often referred to by practitioners of that art. The 'O' prefix itself is also an honorific.
Various titles are also employed to refer to senior instructors. Which titles are used depends on the particular licensing organization.
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. Many organizations in Japan award such titles upon a sincere study and dedication of Japanese martial arts. The below mentioned titles are awarded after observing a person's martial arts skills, his/her ability of teaching and understanding of martial arts and the most importantly as a role model and the perfection of one's character.
Other martial arts titles
Levels of black belts sometimes used as martial arts titles
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 cuteness, and more frequently used in popular entertainment than in everyday speech. 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 an ordinary honorific.
There are even baby talk versions of baby talk versions. Chan can be changed to tan (たん), and less often, chama (ちゃま) to tama (たま).
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 okāsan (お母さん) and "older brother" becomes oniisan (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:
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.