Honoring Japanese Honorifics: Sama, Kun, San, Sensei and Everything Else
“Karate is in the heart, Daniel-san.” – Miyagi-sensei
Wax on…. Wax off…..
What was the first film you saw about Japan?
For me it was “The Karate Kid”—one of the most influential films of the 80s.
I’m sure you already know who Daniel-san and Miyagi sensei are.
And if that’s the case, I’m quite certain you were as puzzled as I was the first time you heard Mr. Miyagi referring to Daniel as “Daniel-san.“
San? Why san? What does that san mean? Is it slang? Is it a pronoun? Maybe a number?
Is it completely random or is there a hidden meaning behind the enigmatic suffix?
Actually, there is a meaning, but it is by no means hidden.
You’ve just encountered a Japanese honorific!
Japanese honorifics are a very complex system of addressing other people, much like the “Mr.” and “Ms.” or the “Sir” and “Madame” we use, with the added complexity of having more than thirty different forms.
It’s time to decipher that san in “Daniel-san.”
Japanese Honorifics 101
Honorifics are not a grammatical matter, so you won’t find any solid chapter on them in a Japanese grammar book.
Knowing what they are is very important to understanding Japanese culture. Especially in regards to the Japanese sense of formality, politeness and accepted behavior.
An honorific is used to refer to the person we are talking to and/or talking about if that person is not around. While in English we would use these expressions in front of a last name (Mr. Johnson, Ms. Adams), in Japanese it is always expressed with a suffix.
There are as many honorifics as there are levels of courtesy in Japanese society. But before going into the honorifics themselves, we need to clarify the when and the how of their usage.
If you want to master Japanese honorifics, and thus master appropriate Japanese speech, you need to follow these rules:
1. Don’t use an honorific to refer to yourself
Well, the title is so self-explanatory, I’m not sure I need to clarify it any further. Never use an honorific to refer to yourself. It is considered cocky and a sign of bad manners.
2. Don’t drop an honorific when it is needed
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. You wouldn’t want that now would you?
3. Don’t just copy the Japanese
Now don’t get me wrong, most of the time it is good to copy the native speakers. It is useful for learning vocabulary, expressions and everyday idioms.
But… honorifics are an exception.
In order to fully master the system, you need to have spent a lot of time in an authentic Japanese environment and have experienced a multitude of real life situations with different people.
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.
The proper use of honorifics is quite tricky and difficult to judge, but there are some basic guidelines we’re going to analyze in the second part.
But I want to know more now!
Okay, okay, if you absolutely insist. Here are some extra things you should know about the use of honorifics.
1. Often use honorifics with the –masu form of verbs
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 are not sure about which suffix to use, use this polite form as a buffer in case you get switched-around.
2. Honorifics are usually dropped when referring to family
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 are talking among good friends.
3. Honorifics can be dropped with a person very close to you
Let me clarify that. The only honorific you can drop is the one referring to the person you are talking to. Not the honorifics relating to other people not present.
For example, if you are talking with your girlfriend, your best friend or your dog, feel free to drop that honorific. It shows intimacy. You know, love and stuff.
4. You can potentially drop the honorific if talking to classmates of the same age
If you are in school and this one applied to you, then, well done. You are probably younger than me. You also have access to another situation in which you can drop the honorific. If you are 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. Especially considering a lot of homeroom class settings in Japan promote very close relationships with classmates.
And now, without further ado…
Honoring Japanese Honorifics: Sama, Kun, San, Sensei and Everything Else
7 Common Honorifics to Up Your Courtesy Game
Here it is, folks. A list of the most commonly-used honorifics.
Use them well.
Ahhh, the famous san as in “Daniel-san.” San is hands-down the most common honorific.
If there is an equivalent to our 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 also be able to say 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!)—but only if you’d like to come across as a 5-year-old…
You might have heard kun in an anime, usually referring to a boy of school age in one of those high school shows.
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.
Chan is one funny honorific.
It is used when a person finds a person (or a thing, or a pet) adorable, sweet or endearing. It is 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 get the drill.
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.
You’re not going to encounter shi that often out loud, but it actually is a pretty common honorific that you’ll find 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!
We’re going to get proper now and go for sama.
Sama is actually a more formal version of san.
It’s usually used to refer to customers, those of higher rank, or to someone who has 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).
For now though, just stick to sama for people and companies and you’re off to a great start.
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 that is 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 and dehumanizing if used to refer to someone either with or without a name. I’d stay away from ever using that as a suffix!
Miyagi-sensei, we’ve arrived!
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!
“Go, find balance.”
It is only natural that I close this article with another quote by Miyagi-sensei.
Now you know what that enigmatic suffix means and why he kept calling his apprentice “Daniel-san.“
Keep studying your Japanese and in time you will be able to recognize not only when these honorifics are used, but when to use them properly yourself!
Good luck, Mr. Student of Japanese!
Thanasis Karavasilis is a writer and lover of stories who was educated to be a teacher of English. He spends his time between worlds and inside pages; written or otherwise. You can get a glimpse of his adventures somewhere inside his hideout.