Sama, san, kun, chan: the many Japanese honorifics

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If you’ve ever come across any manga or anime, you’ve probably already heard people referred to as –san, –chan, –sensei, or maybe even –kun. These are Japanese honorifics and they are used in the same way one might use “sir” or “ma’am”. However, it’s not quite that simple.

There isn’t a blanket rule of thumb for how to use them. Rather, it’s a mix of politeness and the type of relationship people have with each other. In Japan, politeness is very important in daily life, so it’s very useful to know when and how to use these honorifics.

Read on to learn more about the basics of Japanese honorifics and how you can use them.

The main Japanese honorifics

San さん

San is probably the first honorific you’ll learn how to use and it is one of the most commonly used. You can use it with anyone you don’t really know, regardless of their gender, age or social status. It’s a neutral term, which most closely resembles “Sir/Madam“. This suffix is also added to company or business names, like a pastry shop (パン屋さん, pan-ya-san).

Chan ちゃん

This is the most familiar honorific and is supposedly derived from children who couldn’t say “San” properly. This small mistake was considered cute and stayed in the language. It is used to refer to young women you’re close with, children, babies, a grandmother, or even an animal you’re especially fond of. It can also be used in a couple or when talking about someone you like a lot. You therefore need to be careful who you use it with and avoid using it for people you’re not so close to.

Kun くん

This is a suffix seen as masculine, used for teenagers and young men. Sometimes, it is used to refer to young women, but only in very specific situations. It’s usually used by people seen as superior, since this honorific is mostly used when one person of higher status is talking to a younger person. The politeness level is low and its kanji is the same as the one used for kimi (君), which is an informal way of saying “you”. Kun can be used when talking with a classmate, a younger brother or younger man. Men only use it with women they are close to and likewise, women will use it with men.

Sama さま

The use of the word -sama is the most formal, and is very special. This higher version of -san is used in very specific situations towards people who have a high status, such as with customers in the customer service industry, but more commonly when talking about Japanese deities 神様 (kami-sama). This Japanese honorific bears a sense of social superiority, as in the case of “the customer is king”, and customers are therefore referred to as お客様 (okyakusama).

Its English equivalent would be an extremely polite form of “Mister/Madam Customer.” Sometimes, this honorific will be attached to a word referring to a group of people or an audience, such as is the case with 皆様 (mina-sama; everyone), giving an extra layer of politeness to the group. Finally, you’ll also find this honorific in Japanese expressions, such as the famous お疲れ様です (otsukaresama desu), which is used to thank someone for their hard work.

Other common honorifics 

There are many more Japanese honorifics, but some of the most common ones are: Buchou (部長), Kachou (課長), Shachou (社長) or Kaichou (会長), which refer to specifically ranked people in a company; and there are also honorifics used mostly in a school context like Senpai (先輩, older person), Kouhai (後輩, younger person) or Sensei (先生, teacher).

How to use these honorifics

If you’re familiar with Japanese culture, you already know that people rarely use another person’s first name. Therefore, Japanese honorifics are tied to last names. It’s very rude to simply call someone by their last name.

Sometimes the honorific will be attached to the person’s first name for other reasons, such as when two people are especially close or if you’re a foreigner. Unlike Japanese people, foreigners usually use first names more and Japanese people tend to respect that choice.

The word “honorific” here is very important: it is the key to understanding this complex communication system. Japan uses an important hierarchy, based on criteria like age or social status. According to your field of work or your job title, you might be in a superior, inferior, or neutral position when compared to another person.

All these factors are reflected in the way someone speaks, which creates a more or less formal language. The more formal language is called keigo, which you can read more about here.

Japanese honorifics not only vary depending on the person, but also on other factors like the level of trust, the person’s background, their education, or even gender. Even as a foreigner, it is important to respect those rules in order to feel welcome in this country.

When you shouldn’t use Japanese honorifics

Note that you shouldn’t use these honorifics when:

  • talking about yourself;
  • when the person you’re talking to asks you not to use them (呼び捨てyobisute, which literally means “call” and “throw away”);
  • when you are talking with someone from your inner circle (内 uchi), like your parents, grandparents, etc.; or
  • when you are talking about someone from this inner circle to someone outside that circle  (外 soto), for example, if you’re talking to your boss about your best friend, you should avoid using honorifics when using your friend’s name.

Learn Japanese with Go! Go! Nihon

And there you have it! The basic rules of using Japanese honorifics. Their usage is much more complex and can be difficult to interpret at times. But as a foreigner, people will cut you some slack if you mess up. That being said, if you work in Japan, you may want to be extra careful when using these honorifics. Don’t hesitate to ask the person directly what they want you to call them if you’re not sure.

If you want to learn more about the Japanese language, why not consider studying Japanese in Japan? Or if you can’t make it to Japan yet, an online course is one of the best ways to start your Japanese language journey. Go! Go! Nihon offers a comprehensive beginner Japanese course together with Akamonkai Japanese Language School. Read more about the course here.

If you want to study in Japan but you’re short on time, Go! Go! Nihon also offers amazing study trips where you can learn Japanese and enjoy Japanese culture for a few weeks. We also offer a 2-week crash course for beginners, where you learn essential everyday Japanese phrases.

Contact us for more information and make sure to follow our blog for more insight into the Japanese language, culture and society.

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