Anyone with a basic knowledge of Japanese has definitely heard of honorifics. Whether or not you’ve heard them called honorifics is different. But we’ve all at least heard of putting the word “-san” and the end of someone’s name. If you haven’t heard of it, well, you just did.
So why do Japanese speakers always tack on these little words at the end of names? What do they mean? And why are there so many of them??
You may have even more questions about honorifics and how to use them, and hopefully I’ll be able to answer a lot of those. Because the thing is, honorifics are pretty darn important. And they can be kind of confusing sometimes.
Basically, you’re going to tack on an honorific at the end of someone’s name. This is to show them respect, because we know that Japanese is big on showing respect to people. The honorific you choose, however, is very important. There are a lot of societal rules on which honorific is appropriate in every situation.
So let’s dig in to some honorifics and pull them apart.
Honorifics You Can Use
Here it is. The honorific. If you are ever in doubt of which honorific to use, just say “-san.”
Most of the time, when this one is translated, we use the English “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” or whatever applies. And it does have that sort of feel to it. But it’s not quite the same.
There’s a big cultural difference here that I feel like I should explain. The thing is, Japanese culture tends to be more formal than most English-speaking cultures. You don’t really call people by their given name unless you are very close friends with them. But with English-speakers, we tend to speak more informally (even in situations where formality is still expected) in order to show that we a friendly and relaxed.
So in the same situation where an English speaker may refer to someone as “Jeff,” a Japanese speaker may call them “Smith-san.” It’s not that the situation is different, it’s that the cultural expectations and customs are.
Long story short: This is the most common honorific you can use. It is almost always appropriate, and you are going to hear it all the time.
Another interesting tidbit with “-san” is that you can use it even when you don’t know someone’s name. This is usually when the person is related to a business. So you can call a florist “hanaya-san” (花屋さん) which would literally mean “Mr./Mrs. Flower Shop.” This is pretty useful. Especially because calling some you don’t know “you” in Japanese is kinda weird.
If you’ve ever seen anime, you’ve heard this one. This honorific is also used all the time, but because of how many people have heard it in media, you might be a little fuzzy on the use of it.
This one is used almost exclusively with girls. If you use it with a boy, they are either five years old, or you better be really good friends with them. (Please note: I only know one guy who is okay with people calling him “-chan.” With guys, you usually want to use “-kun.”) As for using it with girls, it’s totally fine. As long as you are friends with them, go ahead and tack “-chan” on their names. When you are talking to friends, “-chan” is actually a lot better than “-san” because there’s no distance between you. Being less formal with friends helps them feel a lot more comfortable around you.
A lot of girls will even abbreviate their names to sound even cuter with “-chan” because we all want to be cute, okay? So, if you take my name for example, “Jessica-chan” is perfectly fine. But “Jecchan” is way cuter. If you figure out a shortened version of your name and want your friends to call you that, go ahead and ask them. They probably will.
This one is a little interesting too because sometimes girls will refer to themselves with “-chan.” It’s normally a little weird to refer to yourself with an honorific, but for some reason it’s okay with “-chan.” It’s almost like talking in the third person, except a lot less extra.
Because “-chan” infers cuteness, I’ve also heard it used a lot for animals, mascots, and other inherently cute things.
Here’s another one you may have heard a lot. A common misconception is that “-kun” is the same as “-chan” but for guys. But “-kun” is actually more gender neutral.
It can definitely be used with guy friends, the way “-chan” is for girls. I haven’t heard guys abbreviate their names like girls do to sound cute, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some did. Usually you just use their first name with “-kun.”
But “-kun” can also be used for girls, generally in more professional settings. When it’s used like this, it seems like the woman’s family name will be used, rather than her first name. So if you hear a woman being called “-kun,” it’s totally normal.
Okay guys. I know I put this on the “You Can Use” list, but I have some things to say about it.
“Sama” is one of the most formal honorifics out there. Besides the honorifics used specifically for royalty (which you can use “-sama” for even some of those), you’re not gonna get much fancier than this.
If you use “-sama” on a regular basis, it’s really weird.
However, I am including it on this list because you will hear it. This honorific is generally reserved for deities and royalty, so using it to talk about a normal human person is just a little overkill. When I was young and spoke baby Japanese, I once asked someone if I should refer to a celebrity as “-sama” and you know what? They laughed at me. So don’t call people “-sama.”
The times when you do hear “-sama” will be when referring to literal gods or royalty, or in a few common phrases. And those common phrases are what kept “-sama” on this list. These are things like “O-tsukare-sama” (お疲れ様), which means something like “Good work,” and can be said to coworkers, or “Gochisou-sama” (ご馳走様) which is said after eating. Other than polite phrases that have “-sama” built into them, you won’t be using this one on a regular basis.
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I kept this one up here because as you learn Japanese, you will most likely have a teacher at one point or another. “Sensei” literally translates to “someone who lived before,” so it basically means someone who is more experienced and knows more than you. This is true of teachers, and “sensei” is also used for doctors and lawyers. “Sensei” is the proper title for teachers, and it is appropriate to use this honorific when addressing them.
However, calling someone “sensei” who isn’t a teacher, or doesn’t deserve the title can come across as sarcastic and demeaning. So don’t do that.
Profession Related Titles:
These are kind of along the same line as “sensei.” With people in certain positions, you can refer to them based on their job title. You can call a company president “shachou” (社長) and use that as their honorific. So “Tanaka-shachou” is totally fine.
This works for people in political offices too. So the Prime Minister of Japan can be referred to as “Abe-shushou” (安倍首相). (Or, if you don’t agree with his policies, you can be like one of my Japanese teachers and call him “Abe-chan.”) The President of the United States is referred to with the title “daitouryou” (大統領) which can also be added to their family name.
But again, if you don’t know the title for someone, using “-san” is always fine.
Honorifics You Probably Won’t Use
Notice me. Alright, this one is on the list not because it’s weird to use, but because it just probably won’t come up very often.
In work and school in Japan there are “senpai” (先輩) and “kouhai” (後輩). If you know kanji, you’ll see that senpai is “before” and kouhai is “after.” The closest thing we have to this in English is “upperclassmen” and “underclassmen.” But those words are a little more specific in English than the Japanese ones. In your job or school, senpai refers to everyone above you, and kouhai refers to the people below you. These means that you can address the people above you with the honorific “senpai.” It’s kind of like “sensei” though, where if you use it with someone who doesn’t really fit the title, it’s just weird. Also, “kouhai” is not used as an honorific.
So this one you may see or hear. But it’s a little weird to use it. This kind of has a “referring to an author in an academic paper” feel to it, so you won’t get it often. It’s used in formal writing. I personally have never used it, but if you plan to write scholarly papers in Japanese, you may need it.
This is a historical honorific that was generally used to refer to lords. This would have been included in the category below about historical honorifics, except it is occasionally used today. Usually in really formal business situations (and generally in writing, from what I can tell). You won’t be saying this one a lot, but you might see it around if you are in that sort of environment.
Honorifics You Should Probably Not Use
First off, a note for this section. Everyone has their own speaking style. You will probably hear people go against some of the suggestions I have given in this article. But what I’m trying to do here is give you a good idea of what is generally accepted in Japan when it comes to honorifics. So this section is honorifics that I would personally never use. You, however, can follow your dreams and speak Japanese in whatever way you want. Just be warned, you will get funny looks if you use these ones a lot.
There are a couple “baby talk” versions of some honorifics. The most popular one is “-tan,” a mispronunciation of “-chan.” It’s meant to sound cute and endearing, like a four-year-old trying to speak Japanese. So if you are a grown person and using this, it might be a little on the weird side. In my opinion, it’s better to stick with “-chan.”
Classical Japanese can be ridiculously formal. It’s great. And that formality brings with it a whole slew of honorifics. Most notably is probably the honorific “-no kimi” from the Tale of Genji (That’s right. It’s ya boy Genji). I know these ones are super formal, and sometimes they make you feel like an eleventh century aristocrat or a really cool seventeenth century samurai lord. But don’t use them. That would be like walking around and talking like Shakespeare. It’s just kinda weird, guys.
Reeeeally Formal Honorifics:
Along with historical ones, there are really formal honorifics that you shouldn’t be using on the daily. Unless you actually work directly for the Emperor (which I doubt you do), there is not really any reason to use “Heika.” With these super formal honorifics, it’s important to keep them in context, or it could be tasteless or even offensive.
Use Honorifics Please
There are certainly other honorifics used in Japanese. If you hear one I haven’t listed, it doesn’t automatically make it weird to use. In whatever place you work or live, there might be situations where unconventional honorifics are used. Use your best judgement when deciding how to use other honorifics. If you hear it in an anime, you might want to avoid that one in normal conversation. If you hear it around friends or coworkers, it might be okay to use with them. And obviously, different professions have different honorifics associated with them, so you can learn and use those.
The one thing to be careful of is addressing someone without an honorific. Generally, don’t do this. Honorifics show someone you respect them, whether it is as a professional, a friend, or even a stranger. If you leave off the honorific, you are either very, very, very close to someone (like married to them), or you have no respect for them. It can be very offensive.
That is why learning how to use honorifics is so important. And remember, when in doubt, just use “-san.”