Japanese honorifics can be something that takes a little while to get your head around when you’re learning the language.
But they’re an essential part of Japanese, so you must learn them.
Here’s why Japanese honorifics are important. If there’s one thing to know about Japanese culture and language, it’s that everything is extra polite. Watch any Japanese movie or show, and you’ll witness plenty of ways the Japanese show respect to one another. They bow, have set phrases to show appreciation, and add -さん (-san) to the end of names.
If you look at the subtitles while watching a Japanese movie, you might have noticed that -san translates as “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.” This is a Japanese honorific and the most common one.
But there are other Japanese name endings too? In fact, there are a lot of ways to show respect in Japanese with honorifics!
Let’s take a look at some of them, and how you can start using them in everyday speech.
How to Use Japanese Honorifics
Japanese honorifics have two main forms: prefix honorifics and suffix honorifics. Most of what we’ll be including here are Japanese suffixes because there are so many more of them.
Now, here are the four main things you should know when using honorifics:
- Use honorifics for others, but never use them when talking about yourself or your family
- When in doubt, use -san, or ask what the other person prefers
- You can be more informal with your peers (classmates or coworkers of the same status and age), but you need to be more formal with those above you or older.
- You will always add the honorific to someone’s last name unless they tell you otherwise or you have a close relationship with them.
The 4 Most Common Japanese Honorifics
San in Japanese
As I said earlier, -さん (-san) in Japanese means “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.” It’s gender neutral and is used regardless of marital status, which makes it easy! It’s the honorific most often used. You’ll use it for strangers, acquaintances, and coworkers. You’ll even say it in conjunction with job titles like お巡りさん (omawarisan, “police officer”) and 店員さん (tenninsan, “shop clerk”). You can’t go wrong using -さん.
Sama in Japanese
So what’s the -様 (-sama) Japanese meaning? There’s not a direct translation into English, but -sama adds a higher level of respect. It’s used for people of high ranks (like in a company), or customers. Yes, as a customer, the shop clerk will use your last name + -様 because customers in Japan are treated with the utmost respect.
From time to time, you may also hear -殿 (-dono) in Japanese. Traditionally, -dono means something like “master” or “lord” and it's less respectful than -sama. Nowadays, you’ll hear it in old samurai movies or as a joke between friends or family.
Chan in Japanese
This one can be tricky, only because of the wrong impression in the West from anime. You’ll often hear “-chan is for girls, and -kun is for boys.” But that’s not quite right. In reality, -ちゃん (-chan) is for anything cute. That means you’ll usually attach -ちゃん to girls names, young boys, babies, and even sometimes pets! But that’s not all – you’ll hear it used with celebrity names, boyfriends, girlfriends, close friends, siblings, grandparents… You get the gist.
Most often, you’ll hear it used with someone’s first name instead of their last, or with a shortened cute nickname. For instance, Usagi in Sailor Moon calls her boyfriend Mamoru “Mamo-chan,” a shortened form of his first name plus -chan. Japanese superstar Utada Hikaru is known as “Hikki,” but fans might call her “Hikki-chan.” And you might call your older sister “Nee-chan” instead of “Oneesan.”
Kun in Japanese
While -くん (-kun) is most often used for younger boys, it’s not exclusive. -Kun’s Japanese meaning expresses respect for someone of “lower” status than you or, most often, younger than you. That might mean they’ve worked at a company for less time than you have, they’re your junior in school, they’re a child, or a close friend. You can address a woman or girl by -kun, but it’s usually used by women to men. They might call their boyfriends or spouses -くん to show affection, like -ちゃん. Likewise, women often call children, especially boys, by -くん.
Prefix Japanese Honorifics
These are the Japanese honorifics that go at the start of a Japanese word.
There are only two prefix honorifics: お- (o-) and ご- (go-). And there are only a handful of instances where they're added before names, like お母さん (Okaasan, “Mom”) and お父さん (Otousan, “Dad”). The “o” at the beginning is an honorific that shows politeness to your parents, but it’s not uncommon to hear “Kaasan” or “Tousan” like yelling “Ma!” or “Pa!”
Besides familial names, the “o-” prefix can attach to royalty, martial arts teachers, or the head of state.
O- and go- prefixes are normally used for nouns that are significant in Japanese culture, or life-giving (and have kami, or a god-like nature). In this respect, they’re tied to Shinto traditions. Here are a few examples:
- お神様 (okamisama): God, or gods
- お茶 (ocha): tea
- お酒 (osake): rice wine
- お金 (okane): money
- お水 (omizu): water
- ご両親 (goryoushin): parents
- ご家族 (gokazoku): family
The general rule is if the word is Japanese in origin, it uses “o-”. And if it’s Chinese in origin (using the Chinese, or on-reading of kanji) then you use go-.
But don’t worry too much about memorizing this! You’ll just pick it up as you use the words.
The few mentioned here are most common, and many others you hardly hear. Even if you use the wrong prefix, don’t fret. Japanese speakers will still understand, and they know you’re learning.
Other Japanese Formalities You Should Know
Besides the main four honorifics you use on a personal level, there are other honorifics used based on specific job titles, relationships, and social situations. You can still always get by with -さん (-san), but sometimes more specific honorifics are more appropriate. Some even take place of the other person’s name altogether.
Japanese Honorifics at Work
In the office, you can call your coworkers -さん (-san) or even -ちゃん (-chan) or -くん (-kun), but what about your boss? When talking to your boss, you’ll call him 部長 (buchou). This means “manager,” and you can use it with their last name or without. For example, you can say “Tanaka-buchou” or just “Buchou.” Both are respectful. Same goes for the company president, which is 社長 (shachou).
But, when you’re referring to someone else’s boss or president who works at a different company, you would use -様 (-sama).
Japanese Honorifics in Newspapers, the News, and Formal Documents
You will rarely hear this one in spoken speech outside of the news, but it’s a good one to know: -氏 (-shi). This one refers to you, the reader, as well as all the other readers of a formal letter, document, academic research paper, or newspaper article. It also refers to a famous person or person of interest in a news article or segment, whom the speaker has never met. Once it’s been used with the person’s name (for instance, “Tanaka-shi”), it's used by itself to refer to the person.
Japanese Honorifics in School
In school, you can address someone simply by their status title. You can call you teacher 先生 (sensei) or attach it to their name, like “Tanaka-sensei.” Even teachers who have a PhD, like in college, are often still called sensei. Sometimes you might hear these professors referred to as 博士 (hakase), or “Tanaka-hakase*. This isn’t common, but it translates as “Dr. Tanaka.” It’s more common in American schools to change the address of a teacher with a PhD, though.
Besides teachers, there are also Japanese formalities for students above and below you. If you’re talking to an upper-classman, you would call them 先輩 (senpai), or “Tanaka-senpai.” For those in the class below you, you could say 後輩 (kouhai). But unlike senpai, which shows respect, kouhai can be a bit condescending. So, it’s not really used as an honorific suffix.
Japanese Honorifics at Home
Like I mentioned before, you use the o- prefix when talking to family members. Here’s a list of all those familial honorific titles:
- Mom: お母さん (Okaasan) / 母 (Haha)
- Dad: お父さん (Otousan) / 父 (Chichi)
- Older brother: お兄さん (Oniisan) / 兄 (Ani)
- Older sister: お姉さん (Oneesan) / 姉 (Ane)
- Younger brother: 弟さん (Otoutosan) / 弟 (Otouto)
- Younger sister: 妹さん (Imoutosan) / 妹 (Imouto)
- Uncle: 叔父さん (Ojisan) / 叔父 (Oji)
- Aunt: 叔母さん (Obasan) / 叔母 (Oba)
- Grandfather: お祖父さん (Ojiisan) / 祖父 (Sofu)
- Grandmother: お祖母さん (Obaasan) / 祖母 (Sobo)
You’ll also use these terms when talking about someone else’s family, such as 田中さんのお母さん (Tanakasan no Okaasan, “Mr. Tanaka’s mother”). But, for your own family, you use the “o-” prefix names only when talking to your family members, or about a family member to another family member. When talking about your own family to others outside your family circle, you would use their humble names. So, from above, “Okaasan” is formal and you call your mom by that name, as well as anyone else’s mom. When talking about your mom to others, you say “Haha.”
The reason for that change? Japanese people like to show respect to their family and other people. But they prefer to be humble when talking about themselves and their family to others. That’s why you’ll never add an honorific to your own name when talking about yourself. And why you drop the respectful “o-” prefix names and opt for the humble names when talking about your own family.
Japanese Honorifics in Relationships
For boyfriends and girlfriends, you’ll often use -ちゃん or -くん, or call them by their name. You can also call them 彼 (kare, “he” or “boyfriend”) and 彼女 (kanojo, “she” or “girlfriend”) when talking to others. If you want to be especially romantic, you can use the person’s name plus のきみ (no kimi, like “Tanaka no kimi” or “Ayumi no kimi”) to say “My beloved.” It’s a bit heavy, and it’s mostly used in love letters.
If you’re married, you can call your husband 夫 (otto) to others, and 旦那さん (dannasan) when talking to him. Dannasan is respectful, but also a bit “cute.” It’s almost like a form of PDA in Japanese, so usually, it’s said behind closed doors, while using “otto” in public. The same is true for 妻 (tsuma) and 奥さん (okusan). Tsuma is how you refer to your wife in public, while “okusan” is a cute, respectful term used when addressing your wife at home.
If you’re talking or asking about someone else’s husband or wife, though, you would refer their husband as ご主人 (goshujin) and their wife as 奥さん (okusan).
Japanese Honorifics With Kids
When talking with children, it’s common to say -ちゃん or -くん, but there are a couple other cutesy names you can use! Especially for babies.
-たん (-tan) is a form of baby talk, a mispronunciation of -chan by young children. It’s an affectionate term you can use for young children, especially toddlers. Like -chan, it’s used a bit more for girls than boys.
Then there’s -ぼう (-bou), a cuter form of -kun used for young boys and toddlers. This one is only used for boys though because it means something like “little prince.”
Japanese Honorifics in Religion
In some faiths, you have priests and pastors. In Japanese, a priest (司祭, shisai) goes by 神父 (shinpu), which translates to the title of “Father” in English. In English, a Catholic priest can be just “Father”, of you can add their name, like “Father Dominic”. The same is true in Japanese. You can say Shinpu or ドミニク神父 (Dominiku-shinpu).
In Protestant faiths, the church leader is 牧師 (bokushi), which means “pastor.” As with shinpu, you can use bokushi by itself to address the pastor of the church, or use it with their name like ドミニク牧師 (Dominiku-bokushi).
Japanese Honorifics in Politics, Royalty, and Leadership
There are a lot of titles for politicians, world leaders, and royalty. But the most common you’ll hear in Japanese are:
- 首相 (shushou): prime minister
- 大統領 (daitouryou): president
- 皇帝 (koutei): emperor
- 皇后 (kougou): empress
- 閣下 (kakka): excellency, for heads of state, ambassadors, and other high-ranking dignitaries
- 殿下(denka): royal highness
For example, 安倍首相 (Abe-Shushou, Prime Minister Abe) and トランプ大統領 (Toranpu-daitouryou, President Trump). For royalty, there's イギリスの殿下、エリザベス女王 (Igirisu no denka, Erizabesu-jou, “Her Highness of England, Queen Elizabeth”). And Emperor Akihito is 秋人皇帝 (Akihito-koutei) and his wife, Empress Michiko is みちこ皇后 (Michiko-kougou).
There aren’t many left in the world, but a sovereign king or queen is 陛下 (heika) instead of denka, which is used for non-sovereign royalty. But 陛下 is still used when formally announced the emperor of Japan.
For royal family members, you would say -王 (-ou) for king, -女王 (-jou) for queen, -王子 (-ouji) for prince, and -王女 (-oujo) for princess. Such as ハリー王子 (Harii-ouji, “Prince Harry”).
Mastering Japanese Honorifics Takes Time but Goes a Long Way
Phew! That’s a lot of Japanese titles and formalities. It takes time to master them all, but this is a good, large chunk of all the major ones you’ll hear in different social situations or while reading the news. If you master the main four you should know – san, sama, chan, and kun – you’ll be one step ahead and sure to make others happy with how polite you are in Japanese!
Ready for more? Check out these amazing Japanese resources.
Which honorifics do you use most? Have you tried to start using a few of them? Let me hear your experience with honorifics in the comments!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.