Japanese honorifics are titles that can be used to show respect and courtesy towards people of a “superior” social status in Japan.
In English these are used before the name with words such as Dr., Mrs., Ms., or Mr. However, in the Japanese language (similar to Korean) there are more options for honorific titles and they’re usually attached to the end of names.
Honorifics represent Japanese culture and society
Honorifics form a vital part of the Japanese language and culture.
There are many more honorifics in Japanese than in English. Using the right one can show varying levels of consideration and politeness to those around you.
Age, occupational position, and status can determine the social hierarchy in Japanese society.
The type of speech you choose should match this hierarchy to avoid rudeness.
One unique aspect of Japanese honorifics is that it can also show familiarity and affection.
It can be used both to show respect to those of higher hierarchy, but it can also show fondness and care to those who are of lower hierarchy.
Most common Japanese honorifics
This is one of the most commonly used honorifics in Japanese.
It is similar to the use of Ms., Mr., or Mrs. in English. However, a key difference is that さん does not indicate marital status or gender.
With strangers, it is best to use さん with the last name to indicate respect:
Tanaka san wa irashaimasu ka?
Is Mr./Ms. Tanaka available?
It’s also possible to use さん with anyone who is older than you to show consideration towards them.
Age is extremely important in Japanese culture.
In general, you should use polite language for anyone who is even one year older than you.
Kikuchi san, otetsudai shimashouka?
Mr./Ms. Kikuchi, would you like some help?
If you’re close friends with someone who is older, it can be more friendly to add さん to their first name. This can show familiarity but also a sense of respect.
Akane san, kondo eiga mini ikimasenka?
Akane, would you like to go see a movie sometime?
くん is used towards those who are equal in status or younger than you. It is often used with the first name and it’s considered a masculine honorific.
It can show a sense of casualness and friendliness.
Adults talking to young boys will often add this to show affection. An aunt might say to her nephew, Akio:
Akio kun, kondo okashi motte kurune.
Akio, I’ll bring some candy next time.
It’s also used among children when they are talking with each other.
Kyou wa akio kun to geemu asobu.
Today, I’m going to play video games with Akio.
Male friends, romantic partners, or family members can also be called with くんdepending on the situation.
Takeshi kun, daigaku sotsugyou omedetou!
Takeshi, congrats on graduating college!
ちゃん can be used similarly to くん, but it’s often used with females who are younger or equal in social hierarchy.
However, it can also be used with men or boys depending on the situation. Keep in mind that ちゃん is used only with the first name. Using this, can give a “cute” childlike image to the person you are talking about.
Adults addressing a child or children talking amongst themselves can use ちゃん.
Ami chan, kouen no buranko de asobou!
Ami, let’s go play on the swing set in the park!
When used between adults, it’s usually with close friends or those who are younger than you.
For example, if you want to go out to eat with your younger friend, Kanako, you might say:
Kanako chan, chikaku no pasuta yasan ni ranchi ikanai?
Kanako, do you want to go to the pasta restaurant for lunch tomorrow?
Although more common with women, ちゃん can also be used with men. It’s often used by relatives talking to their younger family members, close friends, and romantic partners.
For example, you could call your adult nephew, Ken, with ちゃん.
Ken chan, shuushoku kimatte yokatta ne!
Ken, that’s great that you found a job!
It’s important to note that ちゃん is almost never used between men when they talk with each other.
様 is one of the most formal and polite ways to call someone.
It indicates that the other person is a much higher status than you. It is frequently used in the service industry such as hotels, restaurants, banks, and airline companies. It’s also used on envelopes to address people, even for those who are close to you.
For example, at the waiting room of a bank you might be called in for an appointment:
Saito sama, irasshaimasu ka?
Mr./Ms. Saito, are you here?
Japanese honorifics in educational settings
The best way to understand honorifics is to see how they are used in different situations and locations.
Schools are the first place that children begin to learn about the hierarchy structure in Japanese society. For this reason, there are specific customs and “rules” when it comes to honorifics in a school setting.
You may already be familiar with these from various manga, anime, and dramas based in middle and high schools!
Among classmates in the same grade who are friends, it’s normal to hear them refer to each other without honorifics or with ちゃん or くん.
Kana chan, tesuto benkyou issho ni shinai?
Kana, wanna study for the test together?
くん and さん
Teacher’s will use くん or さん with the last name of their students.
This is to show a professional atmosphere at school. くん will often be used towards male students and さん will be used with the female or male students.
Suzuki kun, motto benkyou o shinken ni shinasai.
Suzuki, you have to take your studies more seriously.
先生 literally means teacher and teachers should almost always be referred to with this title.
It can be used with the last name of the teacher.
Suzuki sensei, ashita wa jugyou ni deraremasen.
Mr./Ms. Suzuki, I cannot go to the class tomorrow.
This honorific can also be used by itself to replace a name.
Sensei, ashita wa jugyou ni deraremasen.
Teacher, I cannot go to the class tomorrow.
先輩 (senpai) / 後輩 (kouhai)
The 先輩 and 後輩 relationship is an important part of Japanese culture. 先輩 refers to someone who is older with more experience and 後輩 is someone who is your junior. This is typical in sports teams and club activities during school.
Even when your school years are over, the idea that older people should mentor and take care of their juniors is something that stays with Japanese people.
With the term 先輩, you should always use it with the last name.
For example, if you want to congratulate someone who is in a higher grade than you, you could say:
Tanaka senpai, kinou no shiai kakko yokatta desu!
Tanaka, yesterday’s game was amazing!
It’s also possible to use 先輩 to replace the name.
Senpai, kinou no shiai kakko yokatta desu!
(Senior), yesterday’s game was amazing!
With the term 後輩, it does not turn into an honorific because it is considered a lower status.
If referring to your 後輩, you should just use their first or last name with no honorifics.
You could also attach either くん, さん, or ちゃん.
Japanese honorifics in the workplace
Another typical location where it’s important to know how to use honorifics is in the office.
It’s necessary to follow the social cues and adhere to the hierarchy and structure of the company.
When talking about the people in your own office to those outside of the workplace, be sure to omit any honorific titles to appear humble or lower in status than the person you’re talking with.
さん and くん
For interactions with those who are of equal or younger than you, you should use either the last name with さん or くん. Similar to the school setting, くん should mainly be used with men.
ちゃん is considered too childish and unprofessional for most workplaces.
Suzuki kun, kono genkou kopii shite.
Suzuki, could you copy this document.
Yamada san, shucchou itsu iku no?
Yamada, when are you going on your business trip?
Title/Position honorifics in Japanese companies
To refer to people in a higher position, it’s best to use the title or position they have in the company.
If they have no titles, then it’s a good idea to stick with their last name and さん.
Some examples of titles or positions within a company include:
|係長||kakari chou||section manager|
These can be used as honorifics by putting the person’s last name and then their title, or simply by their title.
Yamamoto buchou, kaigi no junbi ga dekimashita.
Yamamoto division manager, I just finished the preparation for the meeting.
Occupation title honorifics in Japan
As shown earlier with the honorific title for teacher, occupation titles can also become honorifics in themselves. In addition, 先生, is a title which can actually apply to other occupations as well.
Here are some examples of occupation title honorifics:
|先生||sensei||teacher, doctor, and manga writers|
|博士||hakase||professor or scientist|
|牧師||bokushi||minister of church|
These titles should be used with the last name or by itself to replace the name.
Ichirou senshu wa kotoshi intai shimasu.
Ichirou (athlete) will retire this year.
“Cute” Japanese honorifics
Honorifics can often show affection and care.
Common honorifics that do this are ちゃん and くん, but there are other honorifics that mimic baby-talk that can be added to names. These can be used with babies but it’s also added to women’s names as a cute nickname. Idols will frequently have these kinds of nicknames.
Here are some “cute” honorifics: たん (Tan), ぽん (Pon), りん (Rin), やん (Yan).
To use these honorifics, they can be added to the end of a first name. The names are often shortened to two syllables to fit better with these honorific endings.
For example, an idol named Mariko could be called Maritan:
Mari tan to shashin ga toritai!
I want to take a picture with Mari!
呼び捨て (Yobisute) and when to omit honorifics
呼び捨て refers to not using any honorific titles.
Because it’s more common to use honorifics in Japanese, it can also be significant not to use it. If you don’t use honorifics someone who is your superior it could come across as extremely rude.
However, when used in the right way, not using honorifics can show closeness and familiarity.
When talking about yourself, your family, or your own company, don’t add honorifics. This is to make sure that it sounds more humble to the person you’re talking to.
For example, even if you normally call your sister, まこちゃん (mako chan), you’d have to say まこ(mako) when talking about her to someone outside your family.
Mako wa koukou no benkyou de isogashii mitai desu.
Mako seems to be busy with her studies in high school.
You can also choose to omit honorifics with those who are lower or equal in status or age. It’s also common within families to use no honorifics.
Yumi, ashita hima dattara kaimono ikanai?
Yumi, if you’re free tomorrow wanna go shopping?
A mother to their child might not use honorifics:
Kanako, heya o katazuke nasai!
Kanako, clean your room!
Teachers or coaches, will often omit honorifics from last names. This has a more authoritative sound to it.
Takeda, ashita no shai ganbare!
Takeda, do your best tomorrow at the match!
It’s also possible that you start using honorifics with someone but they will ask you to just call them without any honorifics.
Determining which Japanese honorific to use
As shown in this article, honorifics can be complex and full of varieties. In order to be polite and to show that you understand Japanese culture, it’s important to know when and what honorifics to use.
Since this can be challenging for non-native speakers, here are some final tips on figuring out the right honorific!
If you don’t know much about the other person use: さん.
The most foolproof way to call someone is by using さん and their last name.
This is the best option when the other person is a stranger.
Find out their age and status in society.
If you know what their age or status is in society, it can help determine if you should be more or less polite with the other person.
Even someone one year older than you should be spoken in a polite way.
Likewise, it’s possible to begin to use more casual honorifics if the other person is one year younger.
Find out what others call them.
What others call them can be a great hint as to how you should talk to that person.
If they have an occupation title, it can be useful to know if you should call them by that. Students will all call their teachers, 先生 (sensei).
To learn more about Japanese honorifics, see the Japanese resources list.
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