Japanese honorifics, like -san, -chan, and -kun are probably one of the most recognizable parts of the Japanese Language.
And at least for me, they are some of the most interesting ones. When I was younger I would just have fun messing around with peoples names. It was funny how easy Okaa-chan could change into aka-chan and how calling someone by -dono or -sama could make them give me a strange look. Good times…
In the past Japan was an extensive hierarchy with definite forms and ways (katachi) for doing things. These honorifics, along with polite speech (a whole different ballgame) laid the foundation for what is modern Japanese. Although the hierarchy is not what it was in Samurai times, it still exits today and a lot of the forms from it are also brought along.
Learning the Japanese Honorifics
For just visiting Japan, learning to use Last name+san is the first step towards greater Japan. For that purpose, here is a list of some of the currently used honorifics and their meanings:
Last Name+San is the most common, and safe-to-use honorific in Japan. (It’s also where the name of the site came from). Although it is often translated into Mr. Ms. or Mrs. in English, it’s a bit different. Actually, -san is more useful and common than its English equivalent. In the Kansai area, -Han is often used in place of -San.
- People older than you or with higher social status. (Nakamura-San, Suzuki-San)
- People you don’t know well (basically if you wouldn’t invite them over for dinner then you can still use -san)
- For many stores and the people that work there (Sushi-ya-San, Hon-ya-San *the “-ya” means “store”)
- For animals (usagi-san)
- When referring to other family’s members or talking directly to your own (Okaa-San=”Mom”)
“-Kun” is more of an informal honorific than -san, and is used mainly towards males (I still haven’t heard it used towards a female but my friend swears by it).
- From adults towards male children and teenagers. (very common)
- From a higher rankings towards a lower ranking person
- To male friends around the same age
“-Chan” is probably the most widespread of the Japanese honorifics besides -San. It’s used for making nicknames for both boys and girls, as well as acting a lot like -kun but for girls instead. It often has a playful tone.
- Complimenting Nicknames. Shouichi can become Sho-chan. Daiichi becomes Dai-chan
- Adding on to shorter names to show friendship. Emi becomes Emi-chan. Lee becomes Lee-chan.
- A kind of cute way to refer to you’re family members instead of using -san (okaa-san=okaa-chan)
- The word for baby is “aka-chan” (aka means red, maybe because babies have a red face?)
“-Sama” is an extremely polite and honorable Japanese honorific (get it?). It’s more polite than -san, and also has a stricter usage (but sometimes fun).
- Customers at the store are usual referred to ask “Okyaku-Sama”
- Religious deities and leaders usually have their names followed by -sama such as in “Tateishi-sama”
- People that are strongly admired. (Leo-Sama is a common way to refer to Leonardo DiCaprio)
- Business letters, packages, and so on and such are usually addressed to “insert name+sama”
- If you feel you really have to, -Sama can be used for extreme self arrogance, such as in the word “Ore-Sama) which would translate to I, but would be more in the essence of “The almighty I who is gracing your presence….”
Sempai and Kohai
These Japanese honorifics aren’t too hard to use after you know what they mean.
Basically, Sempai is used for your senior colleagues or mentors. This is applicable with sports also which means anyone that’s a higher rank than you, besides the Sensei, is a Sempai. You can use this word by itself to address them or attach it to their name. Either is ok.
Kohai is the opposite, meaning it is used for members that are a lower rank than you. However, unlike Sempai, this can’t be attached to the name as name+kohai (-kun would be used instead).
There are of course, more honorifics ranging from business titles all the way to prisoners. But the ones above, and their usages, should be more than enough for basic use in Japan. Good luck and try not to mess it up!-Lee-chan