Japanese honorifics are a huge and important part of Japanese socialinguistics. If you have watched any sort of Japanese show or anime (in Japanese of course!) you’d probably be familiar with some of the most common honorifics used.
Unlike in many other cultures or languages, a name is almost always followed by an honorific. The only cases when honorifics are not used are: when addressing your spouse, younger family members, or extremely close friends. Dropping honorifics, called yobisute (呼び捨て) implies a high degree of intimacy. That, or you can purposely trying to come across as being arrogant.
Fans of Arashi would know that Nino is always being ‘tameguchi (タメ口)’, or using casual speech when talking to highly respected senpai. Unless you are trying to act the role of an arrogant brat (and have good reason to do so), don’t drop the honorifics. Particularly so if you are in Japan as a visitor, or trying to find work. Being polite and showing respect is an integral part of the Japanese society, and as in any other country, you’ll find yourself in much friendlier company if you offer the same respect to others.
So, which are the honrifics used and what do they mean? Using the wrong honorifics can be embarrassing or down right disastrous. Here’s a list of commonly used honorifics.
This is the most common honorific in Japanese. The closest English equivalent would be Mr./Ms./Mrs./Miss. This honorific is both age and gender neutral. It is respectful and formal, and would be the honorific to use for addressing your boss/superior, people you meet for the first time, or people whom you are not very familiar/close to. You can say this is the ‘foolproof’ honorific to use. When in doubt, use -san.
Because -san is the most common honorific, it’s also often used used as a suffix for workplaces to refer to the person working there.
For example, a ramen shop would be ramen ya (ラーメン屋).
If you add -san to the back, you would be referring to the owner of the ramen shop as in ramen ya-san (ラーメン屋さん)
様 (さま, -sama)
Like -san, -sama is also age and gender neutral. It’s also a formal honorific, and it basically is a much more respectful version of -san. It’s used to refer to people with vastly highly social rank than oneself, and towards guests or customers. Deities are also referred to as -sama, e.g. kami-sama (神様).
君 (くん, -kun)
-kun is used to address people of lower status, or boys and male teenagers. It has a more masculine connotation and is generally used to refer to males, however it is not actually wrong to call a female with a -kun honorific. It is not a hard and fast rule.
While you may think that -chan is just the feminine version of -kun, the usage for -chan is actually a lot broader. Apart from being used to call girls and female teenagers, it can be used to address all children, regardless of gender. It’s a term that expression endearment for the person you are referring to, so it’s used between friends, lovers, or even when calling (cute) animals. The honorific carries a more playful and cute connotation.
先輩 (せんぱい, senpai)
Senpai basically means ‘senior’. The term is used both on it’s own, and as a suffix to the senior’s name. It can refer to a person’s senior at school, or work. Just as you don’t call your teacher or your boss your senior, you don’t call them a ‘senpai’ in Japanese either.
後輩 (こうはい, kouhai)
Similar to senpai, except… you guessed it, kouhai means junior. Unlike ‘senpai’ though, I hardly (if ever) see this word used as an honorific. It’s mostly used as a word on it’s own.
先生 (せんせい, sensei)
Sensei means teacher, master, or doctor. The term can be used on it’s own, or as an honorific for teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians and other figures of authority.
博士 (はかせ, hakase)
Hakase as a term on it’s own refers to a doctorate or PhD. As an honorific, it is used when referring to people of high academic expertise, such as professors.
氏 (し, shi)
Shi is used in very formal speech (e.g. news reporting), or formal writing. It’s used to refer to people whom the speaker has not met before (i.e. strangers). It’s a gender neutral term and indicates distance between the speaker and the referred.
殿 (との, tono)
Tono, or dono when the word is used as a suffix roughly means lord or master. It does not indicate nobility, but it’s use is similar to ‘milord’ in English. It’s as respectful as -sama though. This term is rarely used in normal conversation, though it makes quite an appearance in animes and mangas.
上 (うえ, ue)
Literally meaning above, this term is hardly used as an honorific in modern times. The most common use of this honorific would be as a respectful and polite way for referring to one’s father and mother.
父上 (ちちうえ, chichi ue) – father
母上 (ははうえ, haha ue) – mother
Job related honorifics
Job titles are often used as an honorific. Here are some examples.
部長 (ぶちょう, buchou)
Buchou means department head/chief. In school, it can also refer to the head of a school club or team.
社長 (しゃちょう, shachou)
Shachou means company president, manager, or director.
選手 (せんしゅ, senshu)
Senshu, or literally ‘chosen hand’ or ‘chosen one’ means player or athlete.
The term can be used to describe sports players, or board game professionals (e.g. 囲碁 igo, a type of board game also known as go, weiqi and baduk)
Criminals, suspects, and victims
Unless you are a lawyer, policemen, or journalist or newscaster, bulk of the time you’ll only hear these terms in the news, or when reading news articles. Hopefully none of the terms will be applied to you, ever. These terms can be used on its own, or attached behind a name.
容疑者 (ようぎしゃ, yougisha) – suspect
被告 (ひこく, hikoku) – defendant; accused
受刑者 (じゅけいしゃ, jukeisha) – prisoner; convict
被害者 (ひがいしゃ, higaisha) – victim; injured party; sufferer
Both san and sama can also appear in set phrases to make the whole phrase more polite.
Thanks for the hard work.
Tsukare (疲れ) actually means tired; exhausted. A literal translation of the phrase would be “You’ve been tired”. Since it’s usually said at the end of work, it’s thanking people for tiring themselves out at work.
Thanks for the efforts.
This is actually really similar to the earlier phrase. Go (御) is just a polite/humble prefix, while here san (さん) is used as a polite suffix. Kurou (苦労) means troubles; hardships. So the phrase is literally just thanking someone for the trouble they went through to get a particular job done.
Thank you very much for the efforts.
Like the second example, the phrase is essentially the same, only that the even more polite suffix sama (様) is used instead of san (さん).
When introducing oneself, the honorific is always dropped. Unless, of course, your intention is to purposely come off as being arrogant.
In the case of job related titles, instead of calling yourself ポール社長 (Paul shachou, Director Paul), you move the title to the front instead, like 社長のポール (literally Paul of the company director). It’s a bit tricky when it comes to translating these terms in a way that conserves their full Japanese meaning, but just remember Paul shachou is for others to call you, when naming yourself, it’s Shaochou no Paul. Or whatever your name is.