10 May 2020
(This article was reviewed and edited by native Japanese speakers to ensure accuracy.)
Honorifics represent the essence of Japanese societal structure. Getting a handle on how to navigate honorifics can not only make you a better Japanese speaker, but it will allow you to participate in the culture and society.
First, let’s dive into what honorifics mean in English:
Honorifics are titles that define a person to show their “status” and in English, it comes before a name. It could be titles such as Ms., Mrs., Mr., or Dr. In the case of royalty it could be “prince”, or in politics, it could be “president” or “senator”.
Although it’s also quite common in English, it’s not as prevalently used and complex as in the Japanese language. It’s increasingly common in everyday life to just refer to each other by first names.
So how does this work in Japanese?
In the Japanese language, honorifics appear at the ends of names and are used in a very conscious way.
Everyone can choose the level of politeness when speaking. Since many words and phrases have polite and informal forms, it makes sense that the honorific also plays a crucial role in showing politeness.
When not to use honorifics:
Before discussing the types of honorifics, it’s just as important to know when not to use honorifics. There is even a word called 呼び捨て(yobi sute) to mean no-honorifics. It can literally be translated as “to call and throw out”.
Generally, when using no-honorifics, it means that the other person is of equal or lower status than you. In Japanese, “status” can be determined by age and credentials. The exceptions are if the other person is extremely close, has given you permission to use no-honorifics, or is a family member.
Same age friends and classmates might call each other without honorifics. It is particularly common for men to use last names in these situations.
Satou, kyou hima?
Satou, you free today?
Parents talking to their kids, family members who share last names, and small children talking among each other will often use no-honorifics with the first name.
Kazuma, shukudai yatta?
Kazuma, did you do your homework?
Teachers have the choice not to use honorifics to their students. Usually, it will be their last name without honorifics. (But teachers many also use honorifics. It’s their choice.)
Satou, shukudai yatta?
Satou, did you do your homework?
Another common situation is with sports coaches talking to members of their team. Usually, it will be without honorifics and called by their last name.
Takahashi, boru o motto takaku kikku shinaito dame da!
Takahashi, you have to kick the ball higher!
When talking to people from other companies, you should not use honorifics when referring to members of your own company. This applies even in situations where they are your boss.
This is because your boss is not the other company’s boss. In a sense, you must talk about yourself and your company as a lower “status” to show respect to the other company.
申し訳ございません。佐藤は今、席を外しております。(Satou is your boss.)
Moushiwake gozaimasen. Satou wa ima, seki o hazushiteorimasu.
I’m very sorry. Satou is away at the moment.
However, make sure to use honorifics when actually talking to your boss. In this case, 佐藤部長 (Sato buchou) if his title is 部長 (department head).
Types of honorifics
ちゃん – Chan
This is an endearing honorific that is used with children and friends. It is used with someone who is of equal or lower status.
It is generally perceived as a female honorific and has a kawaii, or cute, connotation. Depending on the context or situation, it can also apply to all ages and genders. This can sometimes make it difficult to understand the various uses.
It’s common to use this honorific when adults are talking to a child (normally girls) or among children. Parents might also use it with their children.
Rina-chan kyou youchien dou datta?
Rina, how was preschool today?
Towards a close female friend or romantic partner, it’s also possible to use ちゃん.
Saki-chan, kafe ikanai?
Saki, do you want to go to a cafe?
This honorific also often combines with word stems that mean grandma, grandpa, uncle, etc… to show more endearment towards them. It’s similar to how in English we might say granny, gramps, auntie to be more affectionate.
Also keep in mind that in Japanese culture, it’s possible to call a non-family member brother, uncle, aunt, etc… if you feel close enough. For example, you might call the middle-aged women from the corner store that you see almost everyday おばちゃん or auntie.
Situations when using ちゃん with a male might be if the other person is a close friend, family, romantic partner, or sometimes a child who is a boy. In these situations, it acts more like a nickname and the first name is often shortened to two syllables.
Kinou Kazu chan benkyou shita?
Did you study yesterday?
くん – Kun
This is basically like ちゃん, but is perceived as a male honorific. It can be used informally towards those who are lower or equal in status, age, and qualifications. It adds more friendliness and familiarity to a name.
It’s often used when an adult or another child is talking to a boy. Parents might also use it with their children.
Kazuma kun shukudai yatta?
Kazuma did you do your homework?
With male friends, classmates, and romantic partners, it’s also common to use くん.
Among classmates, the last name is frequently used with くん. Keep in mind that there are many choices when it comes to the honorifics and it depends on your preference and the social group that you belong to.
Satou kun, kondo eiga ikanai?
Satou kun, do you want to go to the movies next time?
In business contexts, although a bit old-fashioned, it can be used towards subordinates using their last name. In these situations, it can also apply to women.
Sato kun, purezen no junbi dekita?
Sato, did you finish preparing the presentation?
さん – San
This is one of the most frequent honorifics and a safe choice for most occasions. It’s polite and formal, but also friendly. It can be used with friends, as well as those who you’re not familiar with.
さん typically implies that you perceive the other person as being of a higher status, but it’s perfectly normal to use it with people of equal or lower statuses.
Especially when talking with strangers, it is a good idea to call them by their last name with さん to be more polite.
For example, if you’re calling someone you have never met on the phone (Mr. Tanaka) you might say:
Moshimoshi, Tanaka san no otaku deshou ka?
Hello, is this Mr. Tanaka’s residence?
Some people in some situations put さん with acquaintances, older friends, and even close friends. Once a relationship is established and you find out more about the other person, it might be possible to use more informal honorifics. This works with both first and last names.
Using さん is common with adults, but kids usually don’t use it.
Yoshiko san, ranchi ikimasen ka?
Yoshiko, would you like to go for lunch?
Similarly to ちゃん, it’s possible to connect さん with word stems that mean mother, father, brother, etc. Compared to ちゃん it is slightly more polite to use these words.
様 is an honorific frequently used in situations relating to business and customer service. It is very polite and shows great respect to the other person. It is a way to address someone so that they are at a higher status level than you.
様 is more polite than さん.
Here are a few examples:
Salespeople often use this honorific towards customers.
Shitsurei desu ga, Satou sama wa gokekkon sarete irasshaimasu ka?
Mr. Sato, I’m sorry to ask but are you married?
It’s often used in business phone conversations.
Satou sama irasshaimasu deshouka?
Is Mr. Sato available?
It’s also a way to address people in business emails.
Kabushiki gaisha karaa, Anno sama
Mr. Anno of Color Corporation
先生 – Sensei
This honorific literally means teacher. In English, we tend to call teachers by Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., or Professor. In Japanese, the word for teacher is used as the honorific.
Satou sensei, shukudai wasuremashita.
Mr. Sato, I forgot my homework.
Besides teachers, 先生 can also be used for doctors, writers, and politicians.
Murakami sensei, tsugi no sakuhin no teema wa nandesu ka?
Mr. Murakami, what is the theme of your next work?
This honorific can also be used by itself to replace a name.
Sensei, ashi ga itai n desu kedo.
Doctor, my leg is hurting.
先輩 – Senpai (後輩 – Kouhai)
先輩 is someone who is usually older and more experienced. 後輩 signifies the “newbie” or someone who is often younger. 先輩 and 後輩 relationships are an important part of schools, workplaces, sports teams, or any other social/professional circles.
For example: If you are a first-year college student and someone else in your department is in their 3rd year, they would be the 先輩 and you would be the 後輩.
Although 後輩 is never used as an honorific, 先輩 can be used as an honorific to address those who are a senior to you. It is a nice way to build this kind of mentee and mentor relationship.
Ashita, Satou senpai wa kimasu ka?
Will Sato (senior) come tomorrow?
The honorific can also be used without the name, similarly to 先生.
Ashita, senpai wa kimasuka?
Will (Sato) senior come tomorrow?
It’s also important to note that a 先輩 will usually call their 後輩 with either no-honorifics or some form of casual honorific like さん, ちゃん, or くん.
たん – Tan and Informal Nicknames
たん, a variation on the honorific of ちゃん, can be like a cute nickname towards fictional, especially anime characters. It’s a common honorific for anime fans to use.
Please be aware that it’s is often considered cringy to use it with real-life people.
Emilia tan wa ore no yome da!
Emilia is my waifu!
Positions and Titles
Positions and titles can also act as honorifics and should be used whenever possible, especially if you are a part of that company or organization. It can be used with or without the name to call the other person. Here are some examples of positions and titles:
社長 – Shachou – President of a Company
部長 – Buchou – Department Head of a Company
課長 – Kachou – Section Manager of a Company
総理(大臣) – Souri (Daijin) – Prime Minister
This can often be shortened to simply 総理 to mean prime minister.
Here are some examples where these positions and titles are used:
Abe souri wa nihon no koyou o fuyasou to shite iru.
Prime Minister Abe is trying to increase employment in Japan.
A lot of people also address Preminister Abe as 安倍さん. It’s also common to see people just say 安倍, especially when they don’t like them.
Buchou, kyou no kaigi wa nanji kara desu ka?
Department head, what time is today’s meeting?
In legal or court situations, there are also honorifics that can be used alone or with a name. These can often be heard in news reports.
容疑者 – Yougisha – Suspect
被疑者 – Higisha – Accused Person
被告 – Hikoku – Defendant
原告 – Genkoku – Plaintiff
Here is an example:
Satou yougisha wa saifu o nusunde taiho saremashita.
Sato (suspect) stole a wallet and was arrested.
殿 – Dono
This honorific is old-fashioned but is still used today in letters, emails, or formal situations, especially after people’s titles. It is usually addressed from a higher to lower status
Other examples where you might encounter this is in movies and T.V. shows where it is set in samurai-society Japan.
As it can be rude in some situations and there are safer alternatives, it’s better to avoid it unless you know exactly when to use it.
For example, a beginning of a letter might be started with:
Dear Mr. Sato
Note: In a Japanese context this is much more polite than saying “Dear Mr. Sato” in English.
御中 – Onchuu
This is a particular honorific used when you are sending mail to organisations instead of individuals.
In these cases sometimes there will be a return envelope with 行 after their name. 行 which means “to” is very casual so when sending back the envelope it is respectful to cross out the 行 and add 御中 to be more polite. Here is an example:
東和銀行 行 —-> 東和銀行
Touwa ginkou iki —-> Touwa ginkou
To: Touwa Bank
氏 – Shi
氏 is sometimes used in situations when referencing or talking about a third person in a formal way.
Tanaka shi wa kyonen nooberu shou o jushou shimashita.
Mr. Tanaka won the Nobel prize last year.
夫人 – Fujin
This is similar to the English concept of “Mrs.”. It’s usually used to refer to the wife of a man who is a high society figure. Some examples would be the wife of a prime minister, political figure, or an important person in the company.
Mr. Satou is the company president and when referring to his wife you might say:
Sato fujin wa kinou paatii ni kimashita.
Mrs. Sato came to the party yesterday.
Finally, Observe and Practice Honorifics!
The best way to figure out how honorifics work is to see them used in real-life situations. It can be a fun exercise to observe the way that Japanese people interact using honorifics through in-person conversations, T.V., or in movies etc…
However, be careful with anime and manga, as the characters sometimes don’t follow social norms. This can help you learn more about the complex social cues involved with using them. Also, don’t be afraid to practice and ask questions to native speakers. Be sure to keep an eye out for new ways of using honorifics as you delve deeper into the language and culture!