Do you have a nickname?
Your friends might call you one thing after an incident you wish everyone would forget already.
Maybe your family calls you something else entirely, and no one knows why or how it got started.
Nicknames are a way to show familiarity and a special kind of bond. It’s a way to personalize how we interact with other people.
In Japan, nicknames serve the same purpose: they’re a common way to show affection or respect, gently tease or generally bring people closer.
Japanese nicknames are a bit different from Western ones, though, thanks to some language and cultural differences.
Want to know how to nickname your Japanese BFF the right way? Wondering what your own nickname might be in Japanese? Or maybe you just binged an anime and want to understand why even the teacher doesn’t call Kasuga Ayumu by her real name.
This handy guide will show you the anatomy and culture of a Japanese nickname, and help you create some of your very own.
How Are Japanese Nicknames Different from Western Ones?
Nicknames in Japan and in the West have similar functions, but the way they’re formed is a little different.
The Japanese writing system is pretty unique. That, combined with language and cultural differences, contribute to different kinds of naming methods from the West.
This isn’t always true: Some nicknames in Japan are formed in the same way as those in the West, like shortening names or naming people after prominent features or characteristics, after things they like or after defining incidents.
Other times, these nicknames seem to have nothing to do with the person’s name or personality at all.
If you have a good grasp on how Japanese writing systems work, these nickname methods will make perfect sense.
If you’re not as savvy about kanji or hiragana as you’d like to be, don’t worry: We’ll go into detail on why particular nicknaming methods make sense in the Japanese language.
Japanese Nicknames and 5 Common Ways to Create Them
Before we get into our guide, it’s worth noting that it may not always be appropriate to give someone a nickname. You wouldn’t go up to your boss and give them a silly pet name. (At least not to their face!)
The same is true no matter where you are. Make sure you’re really good pals with someone before giving them a nickname.
1. Combine the first and last name
Many Japanese people, particularly younger ones, have taken to merging their given name and surname together to create a nickname.
Typically, you don’t see this in Western countries. In Japan and many Asian countries, though, the last name has quite a bit of importance.
Merging the two names together is an affectionate act that still honors family surnames in a way.
三池 崇史 (みいけ たかし) — Miike Takashi could be nicknamed みいかし — Miikashi.
To do this with a Western name, you’ll need to “Japanify” your name with kana. One way to this is to use a hiragana chart to spell out your name, or something similar enough.
For example, this writer’s name is Em Casalena. The hiragana for this could be えむ かすりな which would be pronounced “Emu Kasurina.”
From there, you could shorten the surname and combine the two names into something like えむりな — Emurina. (If your name has more syllables, you’d shorten both the first and last name.)
2. Shorten a name the old-fashioned way
This is a type of nickname that many Westerners are familiar with. Just shorten the first name: For example, Jennifer turns into Jen, or Samuel turns into Sam.
You can do this in Japanese as well, to create some affectionate nicknames.
This is pretty simple. It doesn’t really matter what part of the name is chopped off, but a good rule of thumb would be to drop one or more kana from someone’s name:
健史 (たけし) — Takeshi could be shortened to たけ — Take.
歩美 (あゆみ) — Ayumi could be shortened to あゆ — Ayu.
3. Use Japanese honorifics
Japanese honorifics are a pretty important part of the culture.
While in English we mostly use Mrs., Ms. and Mr. to refer to people—Mrs. Johnson or Mr. Ferguson, for instance—the Japanese attach different kinds of honorific kana to the ends of names.
Specific honorifics are used when addressing teachers, older people, friends, children and more. Which honorific you tag onto which name is incredibly important, and using the wrong one can be disrespectful.
Here’s a list of some basic Japanese honorifics:
さん — -san
This honorific is combined with a surname as a title of respect between societal equals. You would use it with your coworker or a fellow student, but it’s too formal to use among very close friends.
様 (さま) — -sama
This is a step up in formality from “-san” and is used for customers, clients, etc. Be sure to use this with their surname, not their given name.
君 (くん) — -kun
Use this honorific mainly when addressing a male that’s younger than you.
It’s usually used for children, but if you have a younger male friend, this is a sort of tongue-in-cheek honorific you could use as their nickname. You can use this with either the given name or surname.
ちゃん — -chan
Like “-kun,” this is used to address younger people, primarily young girls. You can use it with male friends that you’ve known for a long time as well. It’s typically used with a given name, but you can tack it onto a last name, too.
Just be careful with this one. Using “-chan” in the wrong situation, particularly with someone who’s superior to you, can be seen as condescending.
たん — -tan
If you know a really cute little baby, slap this ultra-cutesy honorific onto their name when baby talking to them.
先生 (せんせい) ― -sensei
Use this to address a teacher, doctor or another authority figure that’s a master of their particular skill. You can use a given name or surname with this, but it’s much more commonly attached to surnames.
先輩 (せんぱい) — -senpai
This is used for someone who’s your senior (in rank, position, age, etc.). Again, first or last name works here, but surnames are much more commonly used for this honorific.
You’ve probably heard it in anime. A lot.
Honorifics are used very often and are an integral part of the Japanese culture and language. To really drill them into your head, I recommend that you watch authentic videos where the language is used naturally, like the videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
As you can surmise, these are situational and depend on your social position in relation to the people you’re speaking to.
Here are a few examples:
土屋さん (つちや-さん ) — Tsuchiya-san
松本様 (まつもと-さま ) — Matsumoto-sama
慎吾君 (しんご-くん ) — Shingo-kun
4. Use different translations of kanji
Another way you can give someone a nickname is to use an alternate meaning of the kanji for their name.
This one can go either way:
You can use a different kanji to stand in for a sound. For instance, if you often text your friend and their name is 市 (し) — Shi, you could nickname them 士 (し) — Shi, which means “gentleman.”
Or you can use a different reading of kanji to change the meaning (and sound) of the name. For instance, someone named 大人気 (おとなげ) — Otonage could be nicknamed 大人気 (だいにんき) — Daininki, which means “very popular.”
5. Use simple words that describe a person
This is arguably the most fun way to nickname someone because you can label them something cute or something that’ll drive them nuts. Depends on the kind of friend you are.
Still, be sure to be careful with nicknames like this so you don’t accidentally insult someone you care about by calling them something like 駄目君 (だめ-くん ) — Failure-kun.
Dango is a type of sweet Japanese treat that comes on a stick, sort of like a kabob with sweet soft candies of different colors and flavors. It’s like calling someone “Sweet Dumpling” or “Cupcake.”
Here’s another example: A Japanese friend of mine calls me 鼠ちゃん (ねずみ-ちゃん) — Mouse-chan because I’m very quiet in social situations.
Aren’t Japanese nicknames interesting?
Believe it or not, this information may prove very handy if you ever have the opportunity to travel abroad to Japan and make some friends.
If not, you now have some extra knowledge about the Japanese culture. And learning about culture is just as important as learning the language!
Emily Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. She writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
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