japanese honorifics

41 Important Japanese Honorifics and How to Use Them

Japanese honorifics are a complex system of addressing other people, much like the “Mr.” and “Ms.” or the “Sir” and “Madame” used in English.

There are more than 30 different forms of Japanese honorifics.

Read on to read about eight of the most common Japanese honorifics. Then, discover a number of more advanced Japanese honorifics for more specific situations.

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The 8 Most Common Japanese Honorifics

さん San

Ahhh, the famous san, hands-down the most common honorific.

If there’s an equivalent to the English Mr. or Ms., then this is it.

It’s used in both formal and informal situations and it’s generally okay to use for anyone, for those times you are not sure which honorific to go for.

San can also be used when referring to companies and shops to imply respect for whatever that establishment itself may be, as well as the people who might be representing it.

San is really quite a versatile honorific. You can use it to refer to your dog, an animated character, your favorite bag, your favorite food, the Easter Bunny, etc. It’s like giving a toy bear to a child and saying: これはくまさんです!(This is Mr. Bear!).

In the wonderful world of san, you might even be able to use it while cooking: なべにえびさんとかにさんをいっぱいいれましょう!(Let’s put plenty of Mr. Shrimp and Mr. Crab into the pot!)—though it may make you come across as a 5-year-old.

(くん) — Kun

You might have heard kun in an anime, usually referring to a boy of school age.

Kun is usually used to address young males or any man (or sometimes woman!) who entered a company after the person addressing them.

It can also be used by women when they speak of their boyfriends, husbands or really close male friends. There are a lot of times when you will hear a woman attach kun with a certain fondness behind her words.

But just remember that, in general, kun is used to refer to young men or boys.

ちゃんChan

Chan is one funny honorific.

It’s used when a person finds a person (or a thing, or a pet) adorable, sweet or endearing. It’s usually used to address or talk about babies (赤ちゃん akachan — baby), young boys and girls, teenage girls, girlfriends, boyfriends or even a male friend that you find to be kind of cheeky and too close to warrant a san.

You can also imagine how it might be perceived when used with a superior or a not-too-close male friend. Try to stay away from this one if you don’t want to get fired or punched.

(し) — Shi

You’re not going to encounter shi that often out loud, but it actually is a pretty common honorific in writing.

It’s used mainly in the news when they’re talking or writing about a famous person or notable figure (or really, anyone in the news) that one doesn’t know personally. It can also be used in the place of a pronoun, once the person in question has been established.

Keep this in mind when you’re studying your newspaper kanji!

(さま) — Sama

Sama is a more formal version of ­san.

It’s usually used to refer to customers, those of higher rank or to someone who’s earned (or just warrants) your respect. Customers of any kind of shop or service are automatically given the “utmost respect” status, so you’ll certainly have heard this if you’ve ever indulged in shopping in Japan.

You may have already stumbled upon it in some very common Japanese phrases such as お疲れ様 (おつかれさま — good work) and ご苦労様 (ごくろうさま — thank you for doing this work for me).

There are some situations when not even さま can express the level of respect you feel for a certain person.

In these situations, you may want to use 上 (うえ) which literally means “above.” So you may hear someone’s father referred to as 父上 (ちちうえ)if you happen to be watching a period drama or visiting the home of a family of martial artists.

For now though, just stick to sama for companies and respected people and you’re off to a great start.

先輩 (せんぱい) — Senpai

Another honorific heavily used in anime and Japanese series, senpai is used to address a senior in your school, your work, your club or any other group you might belong into. If you’re a sophomore, a freshman in your college is going to call you senpai. You’ll in turn use it to address or refer to a colleague with more experience.

In a nutshell, you can use senpai with someone who’s generally of the same rank as you but at a more senior level.

And if you’re familiar with anime, you probably already know that you don’t necessarily need a name to use senpai. It’s an honorific title that can stand on its own.

The opposite of senpai, however, which is 後輩 (こうはい — junior) is going to sound super condescending if used to refer to someone either with or without a name. I’d stay away from ever using that as a suffix!

先生 (せんせい) — Sensei

You might already know that this one is used to refer to teachers, but sensei is also used to address people in general who are experts in their respective fields.

It can refer to people of science (doctors, biologists, physicists, etc.), people of the arts (novelists, painters, musicians, manga artists, etc.), people of the law and in politics (politicians, lawyers, judges, etc.) and masters of martial arts.

As with sensei, it can be used as a stand-alone title—and is so often used in this way that you may actually forget the real name of whoever you are referring to!

殿 (どの) — Dono

殿 (どの) is usually attached to a name when neither san ­nor sama is appropriate.

It’s a tricky little honorific that’s usually used when the person you refer to is at the same level as you but needs to be shown a bit higher respect than usual.

Not commonly used, it roughly has the meaning of “master” or “lord” but it certainly isn’t used in the same scope anymore.

Japanese Honorifics for the Family

You can talk about family members in a few ways in Japanese, but it generally depends on your point of view and who you’re talking to:

Talking about your family

You can use these terms to tell someone about your family members.

(ちち) — Father

(はは) — Mother

(あに) — Older brother

(あね) — Older sister

(おとうと) — Younger brother

(いもうと) — Younger sister

祖父 (そふ) — Grandfather

祖母 (そぼ) — Grandmother

おじ — Uncle

おば — Aunt

Talking to your family or about someone else’s family

When addressing your family directly or discussing another person’s family, you should use honorific family forms:

お父さん (おとうさん) — Father, Dad

This is pretty standard, but can be exchanged for a lot of variations depending on your relationship. 親父 (おやじ — dad, old man) can be used affectionately or somewhat rudely to refer to an older gentleman. Careful!

お母さん (おかあさん) — Mother, Mom

A lot of the time you can drop the お prefix when speaking to your mother.

おじさん — Uncle

You can also use this one to describe an older man you may or may not know… but be careful how you use this one. You don’t want to go calling a 30-something an “old man” and ruin someone’s day.

Another variation to watch out for is the rude おっさん (something like “geezer”).

おばさん — Aunt

You might have heard people in TV shows using this for women they don’t know but perceive to be older women—you can imagine how much trouble this could get you into.

おじいさん — Grandpa

I’d save this one for people who are obviously senior citizens, if used at all. But using it with your grandfather is fine.

おばあさん — Grandma

The same goes for this one!

お兄さん (おにいさん) — Big brother

Use this for your (or someone’s) actual brother, or just a young man whose name you don’t know.

お姉さん (おねえさん) — Big sister

Also used to refer to young women. I’d opt for this one as opposed to おばさん if you want to be a polite little foreigner.

As you might have heard or read in your anime or manga, the お at the beginning of the title can be dropped if the conversation is casual. You’ve probably even heard older brothers or sisters simply referred to as 兄ちゃん (にいちゃん) or 姉ちゃん (ねえちゃん) throughout an entire series.

You can use the common honorific ちゃん ­instead of ­さん­ in order to lighten the tone, or you can opt to show a higher degree of respect by using さま­.

For example, you might hear a brother speak fondly of his older sister with 姉ちゃん, or a young boy speak of his much older (and pretty scary) brother with お兄様 (おにいさま)… but the latter is hardly ever used anymore and might make you sound either a little dated or like a big wimp.

The use of honorifics within the family generally adheres to a hierarchical order. The younger members of the family will address an older member using an honorific. In the opposite direction (older to younger), calling by name is acceptable.

Another interesting usage note: If a younger member of the family is present, honorifics will shift. For instance, if we have a household of three generations, in front of the children the father will call his father “grandpa” or おじいさん and his wife “mother” or お母さん.

Japanese Honorifics for Your Company or Job

In a company, employees use their superior’s position in the company as an honorific. So, you’d distinguish which section head you’re complaining about by referring to them as 鈴木課長 (すずきかちょう).

A few of those include:

社長 (しゃちょう) — President

副社長 (ふくしゃちょう) — Vice president

部長 (ぶちょう) — Department head

課長 (かちょう) — Section head

係長 (かかりちょう) — Team leader

And because the Japanese are so good at choosing the right honorific for the right situation, there are even honorifics to refer to the company itself. Expect to run into these during negotiations or when reading contracts:

弊社 (へいしゃ) — Our company, humble

自社 (じしゃ) — Our company, neutral

貴社 (きしゃ) — Your company, noble [*Use 貴社 when it’s written.]

御社 (おんしゃ) — Your company, honorable [*Use 御社 when it’s spoken.]

当社 (とうしゃ) — Our/your company, the company in question, neutral

Martial Arts and Professional Titles

In martial arts, students usually use sensei for the dojo master and the senpai/kouhai system for the students.

Nevertheless, each martial arts organization may adopt its own honorific title.

Just search for your favorite martial art and see what’s considered the norm for honorific use.

Of course, there are some Japanese honorifics related to martial arts that are commonly used:

剣聖 (けんせい) — An honorary title given to a master swordsman

親方 (おやかた) — A sumo coach

師匠 (ししょう) — Martial arts coach

(ぜき) — Sumo wrestlers of the top divisions

There are also some honorifics especially for members of the clergy in religions:

法師 (ほうし) — Buddhist monk

神父 (しんぷ) — Catholic priest

牧師 (ぼくし) — Protestant pastor

Royal and Official Titles

Since honorifics developed in an era when royalty, power and honor were prevalent, it comes as no surprise that there are quite a lot of honorifics related to royalty and political status. Get your newspaper-reading chops with a few of these:

陛下 (へいか) 

Used after the titles “Emperor” or “Empress,” you’ll likely see this used when reporting on the goings-on of the Imperial family.

殿下 (でんか)

Used after other titles like “King” or “Queen” to mean similar to “his/her Highness”

王女 (おうじょ/ひめ) 

If you ever happen to be in the presence of a princess (or you’re joking around with a girl you’re trying to impress), this honorific is your friend.

王子 (おうじ) 

You may have heard this one in Japanese dramas or anime. It’s either affixed with 様 (さま) as in 王子様(おうじさま) for “Prince Charming,” or it’s tacked on to a name, such as ハリー王子 (はりーおうじ) for “Prince Harry.”

閣下 (かっか) 

Your Excellency, used for Prime Ministers, ambassadors, etc.

大統領 (だいとうりょう) 

President of a state, such as オバマ大統領 (おばま だいとうりょう), “President Obama.”

How to Use Japanese Honorifics

Honorifics are not a grammatical feature, so you generally won’t find a solid chapter on them in a Japanese grammar book.

Knowing what they are is very important to understanding Japanese culture. This is especially true in regard to the Japanese sense of formality, politeness and accepted behavior.

An honorific is used to refer to the person you’re talking to and/or talking about (if that person is not around). While in English we would use these expressions in front of the last name (Mr. Johnson, Ms. Adams), in Japanese it’s always expressed with a suffix.

There are as many honorifics as there are levels of courtesy in Japanese society. And before you start using any of the honorifics above, we need to clarify the when and the how of their usage. 

1. Use honorifics for others, not for yourself

The heading is self-explanatory: Never use an honorific to refer to yourself. It’s considered cocky and a sign of bad manners.

2. Use honorifics when they’re needed

This may seem like common sense, but when you need to use an honorific… use it. If you’re not sure, use it!

When referring to someone else (or even to your company), be sure to use the appropriate honorific as needed. Failing to do so might result in appearing arrogant.

3. Use honorifics with polite speech

Honorifics are generally tied to all the other forms of polite speech in Japanese. Most notably with the first form we all learned: the –masu form.

If you’re not sure about which suffix to use, use this polite form as a buffer.

4. Drop honorifics when referring to family (usually)

When talking about a member of your family, you may choose to drop the honorific. You can refer to your sister without using chan (more on the individual honorifics in the next part) or to your father even as something cheeky like 親父 (おやじ — old man) if you’re talking among good friends.

5. Drop honorifics with people very close to you

Let me clarify that. The only honorific you can drop is the one referring to the person you’re talking to. Not the honorifics relating to other people not present.

For example, if you’re talking with your girlfriend, your best friend or your dog, feel free to drop that honorific. It shows intimacy.

6. Drop honorifics with classmates of the same age

If you’re in school and this one applies to you, then, well done. You’re probably younger than me. You also have access to another situation in which you can drop the honorific.

If you’re on a sports team or in a classroom with people of the same age, you can refer to each other without the need for honorifics. This is especially the case considering a lot of homeroom class settings in Japan promote very close relationships with classmates.

7. Learn proper usage before dropping honorifics

Now don’t get me wrong, most of the time it’s a good idea to copy native speakers. It’s useful for learning vocabulary, expressions and everyday idioms.

But… honorifics are an exception.

Consider this: The younger generation of Japanese, mainly those born after 1980, often prefer to hear their names without the honorifics, giving a casual air even among people they don’t know that well.

But as a student of Japanese, you really don’t want to assume this is the case. You need to understand their proper use before making any such potentially awkward slip-ups.

It helps to listen out for them in conversations, TV shows and other videos to really get to know the usage before you start leaving them out.

On FluentU, authentic short videos are paired with interactive subtitles. You can discover the meaning of any honorific by clicking on it in the subtitles, then add them to a flashcard deck for later study through personalized quizzes.

 

Use this information about common and advanced Japanese honorifics when you’re out in the real world. Read books, talk to people and listen to different dialects.

In other words, live the language in its purest form.

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