Japanese Honorifics: What Are They?

Introduction

Whether it’s from an anime or Japanese drama that you watched, a manga you read, or from learning Japanese, you’ve bound to come across suffixes that are used to address people. These are called Japanese honorifics and they’re just like our version of “sir” and “ma’am”.

It’s quite a big deal in Japanese culture — the use of honorifics indicates the kind of relationship you have with the person, conveys formality and respect, and is a form of politeness. There is an honorific suffix for every situation; both informal and formal honorifics exist. That just goes to show how important they are in the culture.

The list of honorifics can go for as long as one can imagine, but here we’ll take a look at the most common ones that you’ll hear quite frequently in Japanese shows and movies, mangas and even on the streets of Japan!

Honorifics in Japanese Culture

Before anything else, let’s talk a bit more about honorifics in Japanese culture. For us as English speakers, we might not be so familiar with the concept of honorifics. While we don’t have such an extensive range of honorifics, we do have some terms like Mr., Miss, Mrs., and Dr. The difference is that, for us, they’re prefixes rather than suffixes.

In Japanese culture, the hierarchy factor is quite significant. Honorifics play a huge role in understanding the complexity of the unique communication system of the Japanese. Different honorifics are used based on criteria such as age, social status, a field of work, job title, and your place (whether it is superior, inferior, or neutral) to the other person. Depending on these, they’ll reflect in your conversation with the other person — with some people, you’ll have less of a formal language while with others, it can get quite formal. 

Japanese honorifics are attached to the end of the person’s name, and it’s usually the last name. It’s not that common in Japanese culture to call a person by their first name unless you’re extremely familiar with that person. Another thing to note that it’s also extremely rude to call someone just by their last name without any honorifics, so let’s try not to offend anyone!

There are also occasions where you shouldn’t use honorifics: when talking about yourself, when the other person asks you to not use them (in Japanese, it’s called yobisute 呼び捨て), when talking to someone from your family or inner circle (uchi, ), and when talking to someone from your outer circle (soto, ) about someone from your inner circle. 

Sometimes, you can also drop the “o” (お) prefix to make it more colloquial. For example, you can drop the “o” お from “oka-san” お母さん to be “ka-san” 母さん. It’s like a jump from saying mother to mum. Take note that you can’t do it for all — sometimes it can come off as rude, so check with your Japanese friends first!

There are tons of honorifics in Japanese culture — how does one know which and when to use them? Let’s take a look at the common ones and the situations we can use them for.

-san

The most common honorific is -san (さん) and it’s on the higher end of the formality spectrum. It can loosely translate to Ms. or Mr.. Most of the time, this suffix is used among colleagues at work, fellow students at school, and also acquaintances that you’re not so familiar with — regardless of age or gender. 

This Japanese honorific is probably the one you can use confidently without offending anyone but at the same time without going overboard. When you’re unsure of what Japanese suffix to use, go for -san — it’s the safest bet. The worst response you’ll get is the other person telling you to not be formal and drop the suffix; in that case, that’s a win for you!

-sama

A step higher from the -san suffix is the -sama (), and it’s the most formal honorific of them all. This Japanese honorific is used to refer to deities like God (kamisama, 神様), royalty (ohime-sama, お姫様) and in extremely specific situations towards people of higher status. 

A most common one you’ll hear in Japan is okyakusama (お客様) which refers to the customers. In Japan, customers bear a sense of social superiority, hence you’ll often be referred to with -sama attached to your name if you’re at a store. It’s similar to “Mister” or “Madam” in English, but twice the formality.

You can also try to use -sama to flatter people casually or be sarcastic. For example, you can add -sama to the slang male term for “I” (ore, ) to make ore-sama (俺様), which is like “my royal self”.

-kun

This Japanese honorific is most often used for younger men and male teenagers; like a male classmate or younger brother. Occasionally, it can be used to refer to young women, but that doesn’t happen as frequently. The suffix -kun () has the same kanji as kimi (), which is an informal way of saying “you” — so the formality level of this Japanese honorific is not as high as the other two mentioned earlier.

This Japanese honorific is usually used by people who are seen as superior, like when a person of higher status talks to a younger person. The rules aren’t as strict and straightforward for this one though; sometimes it can be a casual reference to a cute boy.

-chan

The female version of -kun is -chan (ちゃん). This Japanese honorific has an endearing tone to it and is mostly used for children. It doesn’t limit to just that though — most of the time, grandmothers are called oba-chan (おばちゃん) and other female members of the family use the -chan honorific as well.

While it’s mostly used for girls, some boys also use -chan. Rather than it being a feminine honorific, it just adds a sense of cuteness to a person’s name. It also indicates that you’re familiar with the person. 

Because it’s an informal honorific, be careful not to use it for people you’re not familiar with. It might come across as rude and uncalled for. 

-senpai

I bet you’ve heard of the phrase “notice me, senpai”. This Japanese honorific, -senpai (先輩) is used for people of higher status or higher up the hierarchy chain. This term is usually used in school, at work and in other similar situations. There’s a level of respect attached to this honorific, as it is someone that’s above you.

The opposite of a senpai is a kohai (後輩), which means junior, but you don’t usually use it as an honorific or suffix. 

-sensei

Last but definitely not least is the -sensei (先生) honorific. Sensei actually translates to “teacher” on its own, but as an honorific, it can be used for any authority figures like teachers, doctors, politicians and lawyers. There’s a level of respect attached to this suffix as it acknowledges that the person has achieved a certain level of mastery in a skill.

Conclusion

And there you have it, the most common honorifics in Japanese culture! While there are quite a few more, they’re not as common and not as flexible to use as the ones mentioned above. Plus, we can go through life in Japan with just these honorifics without ever touching the other ones, so why bother? Get accustomed with these suffixes and try using them with your family and friends first — who knows, they’ll end up calling you -chan by the end of it!

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