Japanese Honorific Titles: Learn Them So You Don’t Upset Anyone
In English, friends or at times, even people that are superior are called by their first names without any honorific titles. In Japanese, this is not ordinary unless the relationship is very close. In fact, it you are meeting someone for the first time and call them without any titles, it can actually be considered a little rude.
In Japan, there are various types of honorific titles. The usage is differentiated by time, situation and the relationship between the individuals. One title can express whether you respect the person, think that person is cute, etc and it is a very important part of the language. We don’t think that any Japanese person would get angry if a person learning Japanese misuses a title. But if you are planning to live or work in Japan, this information is sure to come in handy! Here, we try to show how the titles are used so you can learn how they can be used!
This is the most standard honorific title so we’re sure you have all heard of it. It can be used for male, female, elder or younger. It is equivalent to the English Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. It can be used after the first name or the last name so better to use “san” when in doubt. For example, in the movie Karate Kid, Mr, Miyagi calls the student, Daniel-san, even though he is not Japanese.
The Japanese sometimes use san not only for humans but for animals too. It is often done so by women or children, but an elephant (zou) becomes zou-san and an ant (ari) becomes ari-san. And this may come off as strange, but even Winnie the Pooh is called Pooh-san. This just shows that it is used in a multitude of situations.
Kun is used for young boys or between males of around the same age. Additionally, when a superior calls his subordinate at work, they may use kun. However, it is only done so when the superior is older. Recently, it’s not rare that someone younger is superior so when you use kun in the workplace, it may sound a little outdated.
Chan is used for someone that you think is just “adorable”, so it is mainly used toward younger girls. It can also be used for pets. If the relationship is close, it can be used for males or adults as well.
For example in “My Neighbor Totoro”, the girl is called “Mei-chan” by the grandmother. But on the other hand, the Japanese comedy duo, Down Town are called Macchan and Hama-chan, with the “chan” even though they are grown adults. This just means that everyone knows them as familiar figures.
If you were calling someone xx-san and then, you start calling them xx-chan, it feels like the two of you suddenly got very intimate. If a guy calls a girl “xx-san” but suddenly starts calling them “xx-chan”, the girl may get a little excited thinking the guy has feelings for her.
Also you should be cautious when using “chan” for someone older even if they are female. You may upset them by letting them think that you don’t have enough respect for them. To sense the subtle nuances of the relationship and using the appropriate title is the Japanese-style.
This is an honorific title that was originally used back in the day when there were feudal lords(tono-sama). We still see this in writing, but it is not used very often in verbal communication. You may hear it if you are watching a historical drama. So, if you use the title “xx-dono” for someone, even if you mean respect, they may think it’s funny like “Hey, what era did you time-travel from?!”.
This is an honorific title that is used for someone older or superior. It can be used for both males and females. You can simply call someone “senpai” or use it after their name like “xx-senpai”. In Japan, someone who is older is respected as they have more experience in life. So starting around junior high school, you start to become cognizant of the “senpai” and “kohai” relationship. FYI, the antonym for sempai is kohai, but you wouldn’t call someone “kohai” or “xx-kohai”.
This is used in official documents, official announcements or in the media.
In terms of politeness, it is between sama and san, i.e. neutral yet respectful, so you will often hear a news reporter referring to someone as xx-shi.
You would use it also if you were giving a formal speech and want to refer to someone who you’re not familiar with or someone who you have not met but know through media publications.
Sensei is used for a school teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician, etc and any other person who has expertise in a special skill or profession beyond the standard studies. Any writer, manga-artist, artist falls into this category as well. Similar to “senpai” this can be used alone as “sensei” or be used after the name.
This is a title that can be used for both males and females. It is more respectful than “san”. For example, words that have sama are kami-sama (god), o-sama (king), jyo-o-sama (queen), so people that are far superior than yourself. And in Japan, a customer is honored so customers/guests are called xx-sama. If you make a reservation at a restaurant or a store, they may call you xx-sama.
One thing to note however is that this is used in a very polite setting so it is not used in verbal communication among people who are familiar. It would be helpful to remember for example, if you are addressing a letter or writing an email to a business partner.
FYI, the sama is used after the surname. This is just a nuance- thing, but when it is used after the first name…it may sound a little erotic… like an S & M queen or something… lol
Also, there are some exceptional words where the title sama is used, but it doesn’t necessarily convey respect. For example, beware of the works ore-sama and kisama because it’s hardly considered polite. Particularly the kisama, in kanji characters it appears as if they are very respectful words, but it is actually a derogatory word. You may see this being used in a yakuza movie or in a violent scene where someone is angrily shouting “kisama—-!!!”. This word is seldom used amongst people with friendly relationships so just be careful.
The Honorific Titles Chart
Here we introduced the most standard honorific titles, but there are many more beyond the ones we introduced in this article. And trying to differentiate the subtle nuances is such a deep art! To make it easy to visualize the relationship, we’ve mapped it out on a very simple chart. The use of titles can express respect or express closeness and it is a very important part of the Japanese communication. We hope this helps because learning its usage can be so helpful!