An Insider's Guide to Japanese Honorifics

Don't Forget the Sama!

Actually he was just yawning, but on the inside people just might rage this much if you consistently use the wrong honorific with their name.
Actually he was just yawning, but on the inside people just might rage this much if you consistently use the wrong honorific with their name. | Source

What's an Honorific?

In Japanese, an honorific is basically the equivalent of Mr. and Ms., but instead of putting it before the name., we put it at the end. Four standard honorifics will come into the day to day life of every Japanese speaker, with many more that I refuse to mention in this Hub (I'm anti the complexities of Japanese). They are: San, Sama, Chan, Kun. Ridiculous, right? Not only 100% increase in honorifics daunting, but knowing when and where to use them can be pretty tricky as well, and it can certainly get you into some social trouble if you mess it up.

Below is a list, in order of most useful/common to the more obscure and less seen ones. Depending on your age and your profession, the order might not apply to you, but the information on when and where to use them will still be legit no matter where you stand in Japan's convoluted social hierarchy.

First, a quiz to see how much of an honorifics scholar you are.

Pre-Hub Honorifics Quiz

#1 San

San is by far the most commonly used honorific for the general population. I put it here because in my current life in Japan, I use this handy San just about everyday, and mostly when I address co-workers or acquaintances who are older than me. San is one of two relative equivalents to the English Mr. and M(r)s., but when you say something like "Nariumi San", it doesn't usually imply the same amount of social stiffness as saying "Mr. Nariumi". To expand on this point, people who are friends here can still use the San honorific and not have it be weird, whereas in America if you went around Mr.'ing everybody you might stop getting invited to things.

This may be confusing, so glance at the convenient table for appropriate situations in which to use San.

When to Use San

Person You're Addressing
Use San
Don't Use San
Your Friend's New Born Baby
Your Boss's New Born Baby
An Acquaintance (Older)
An Acquaintance (Peer)
An Acquaintance (Younger)
A Friend
Your Boss
X (Use nothing)
A Customer in a Store you Work For
X (Use Sama)
Your Sig. Other's Parents
Random Stranger With a Name Tag
A Student of Yours (Female)
X (Chan is the Alt. if Young)
A Student of Yours (Male)
X (Kun is the Alt. if Young)
With a friend, depending on how close you are, honorifics might still be used. If they're older than you, it can be a good idea to still use San, unless they specifically ask you not to. If they're younger, you're safe to not use it, but feel free

#2 Sama (Always With the Last Name)

Sama is for the professional out there, the person who likes to oust all elements of casualness out of the room and get down to mannered, polite, business. In Japan, you'll hear Sama in all sorts of businesses, from McDonald's (Okyaku sama ~ customer) to the headquarters of Honda Cars (Narita sama). It's basically a supercharged Ms. or Mr., and should be reserved for when you're doing a business deal, receiving money, serving someone a donut or a hamburger, and so on. Review the table, which will be simpler than the above one, for some examples of who to use it on.

Important information before the table!

As a last note, the "Boss" entry in the table has some tricks about it as to when to use Sama. For your own boss, you don't use Sama, and simply call them by their title (with their last name in front of it if you so wish)

Example~ Tanaka Buchou (田中部長) or Buchou (部長)

For a Boss of a different company, you can do two different things. 1 is saying their title and then their name with Sama at the end, or, 2, just adding their last name and then their title.

Examples ~1 Kachou no Abe Sama (The section chief who is Abe) (課長の阿部様)

2 Abe Kachou (阿部課長)

Unlike when it's your own boss, you wouldn't just call them "kachou" or "buchou"

When to Use Sama

Person You're Addressing
Don't Use
A Zookeeper
Nothing against ZKs
Your Boss
This one is tricky
Another Company's Boss
As is this one
A Person From Another Company
A Co-Worker
X (Use San)
A Salesperson at Your House
A Crying Child
A Customer

#3 Kun

This one and the next is where things get personal and friendly. Kun is used to address close males, usually younger boys, but can also sometimes be used on girls (though I've never personally heard this used). When it is used on older males (high school and above), the pattern is usually a girl saying it to a boy who she feels close to. For the most part, Kun isn't used between boys once they reach middle school. Regarding older people using Kun towards boys younger than them, it depends on the situation. If the older person wants to evoke a feeling of cuteness, they'll use Kun, if not, they'll just use San. Once again, a table for your convenience.

Person Who You're Addressing
Don't Use
Any Male Above 16
If you're an acquainted girl then it's Ok.
A Girl
Like I said, know of it but have never heard it.
Anyone Older Than You
A Boy Playing with Nintendo DS
A Boy Wearing a Backpack With a School's Name on it
Any Male Above 16 Who You Intend to Mock

#4 Chan

The last one on the list, and also the cutesiest one. No doubt you've heard this word outside of Japan. Whether in online user names or in reference to Hello Kitty, it's pretty ubiquitous. This honorific's classic usage is for young girls (usually before elementary school and below), but also has a variety of other uses.

For a change of pace, this table will list all of the normal and odd uses one can apply to Chan.

Usages of Chan

Normal Usage
Unintuitive Usage
Girl playing with dolls
After any animal's name, or the name of species of animal (Momo (name) chan or Neko (cat) Chan)
An adult girl with whom you're close
After a sound that an animal makes to refer to that animal (Wan-chan for dogs, Kero-chan for frogs)
In the word for grandpa and grandma (jiichan and baachan)
For a greasy old man who runs a ramen shop (Tacchan Ramen)
The weird list goes on and on, but as long as you learn the actual usage and prepare for weird ones, you'll be fine.

An Honorifics Quiz to See What You've Absorbed

Sum Up

The rules for what honorific to attach aren't that hard, and the only time where it could truly affect your life is if you mess up where to put your Sama at your job. Apart from that, a lot of what honorifics you should use becomes based on your individual relationship with each person. Just because you hear someone else Yobi Suteru (to use someone's name without an honorific, or with the wrong one) a person you know, doesn't mean that it's Ok for you to do the same because their relationship could be much closer than you know. Follow these basic rules though and you should be fine. If all else fails, just use San outside of work and Sama inside of it until people go nuts and tell you the right thing to do. Thanks for reading!

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Comments 29 comments

Ruthcurley profile image

Ruthcurley 4 years ago from Bozrah, CT

well, I thought I had pretty much mastered this, but obvi not yet. My score did go up though! I loved the quiz. It was really fun, especially for us competitive types! Do it again! I never thought about it before, but honorifics for men are complicated and distinct, but for women, babies and animals its all the same. Hmmm....

Curleyman San 4 years ago

So help me out with this one. What honorific do I use to address a young Japanese man in his boxer shorts playing WoW at my dining room table 24/7 for about 8 months straight?? That’s a tricky one, I know ;-)

I originally suggested this topic because I was in an email thread at work with at least four clinicians at Pfizer in Japan and everyone was addressing each other with their names and the suffix “San”. That coupled with the countless times your mother screamed “Akiya Kun” at the top of her lungs at you made me wonder what all these suffixes were about. Your tables break it down in a very easy to follow manner although now I’m wondering why the Japanese clinicians were using “San” instead of “Sama” in their emails.

Great Hub, thanks for writing it.

THEHuG5 profile image

THEHuG5 4 years ago

No wonder this is the hub of the day, it's excellent! I'm glad to say that I passed the quiz with flying colors lol. I'm taking a Japanese class right now and I've learned a bit about this so far but reading what you've wrote explained it so much more. All of these different formalities are so interesting, I wonder how difficult they are to remember!

I enjoyed this hub from start to finish. This is well written, funny, and informative. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. Voting up, and sharing with my friends :)

Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 4 years ago from USA

Congratulations on hub of the day. Wow that is confusing, but you have made it much more clear and entertaining. I failed the first one of course, but did pretty well on the second one. Voted up.

starstream profile image

starstream 4 years ago from Northern California

Oh the complexity of languages! Thanks for sharing, though it would likely be best in this case for me to just nod and bow. A Ha!

hildred profile image

hildred 4 years ago from Oregon, USA

Just wanted to stop by and commend you on the tables. This is probably one of the most thorough explanations I've ever seen and will doubtlessly help a lot of people!

In my university in Japan lots of other young women called me "kun" (of course others called me "chan" too). Usually a derivative of Hi-chan/kun. Then again I was/am quite masculine compared to most of them so I think they thought it suited me or something. But yes, just vouching that it definitely happens. Even random strangers called me that because they heard that's what I liked for some reason, ha!

Also thought I'd mention that even in my elementary-school aged classes, there's still lots of "sans" thrown around, especially towards other kids or kids who go to different schools. It's not uncommon for me to hear one 8yo call another one "san".

TENKAY profile image

TENKAY 4 years ago from Philippines

I enjoyed the quiz part but I doubt if I'll remember what I've read tomorrow. There's nobody to practice it with.

BlissfulWriter profile image

BlissfulWriter 4 years ago

That's very interesting. At one time in my workplace, all I know is that they told me to put "san" at the end of his name whenever I'm emailing him. I didn't know why. But now I do.

jacharless profile image

jacharless 4 years ago from Between New York and London

Nice honorific explanation Akiya.

A humorous thing was the unintuitive description regarding the sound an animal makes and an adult girl with whom you're close. Many things come to mind, which I shall not elaborate on. ~James.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

WOW--that is confusing, indeed. Well done, and congratulations on HOTD!

I did lousy on the quizzes. :-( Not something to pick up on one read-through, I guess.

Voted up, useful and interesting.

(Great cat photo, by the way! ;-) )

pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 4 years ago from sunny Florida

Thank you for sharing this... I was familiar with some of these as I lived in Japan for four years and traveled on the economy a LOT and loved it and long to return. And I did get in 'embarrassment' sometimes for misuse of the honorifics.

arusho profile image

arusho 4 years ago from University Place, Wa.

Great hub, very interesting, now I know why when I watch a Japanese movie they always say "San" at the end of a name!!

barryrutherford profile image

barryrutherford 4 years ago from Queensland Australia

I studued Japaense back in 1989 for a year & I still got the quiz wrong. Well done great hub...

StephanieBCrosby profile image

StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey

Great hub. I love watching anime and had quite a few Japanese friends in high school. So, I always wanted to learn Japanese. Suffice it to say I only know a few words and my Japanese dictionary is not too helpful (I have two of them). I guess I have to learn the old fashioned way and take a course.

Akbok profile image

Akbok 4 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan Author

THEHuG5: With comments like yours I feel like I could be an invincible Hub writer, immune to all criticism! Thanks for reading, and thanks for the unwarranted but still welcome boost in confidence :D.

Millionaire Tips: Thanks a bunch. I'm really glad you passed the second time, because otherwise my Hub would have been a complete failure haha.

starstream: The nod and bow! Perfect haha. It really is a fail-safe way to meld into Japanese society :).

hildred: Thanks for reading and also the anecdotal evidence to back up some of the stuff I said. Also, thanks for the comment about very young children using 'san', because I too have noticed that. It's really cute when little younglings use polite language.

TENKAY: Haha, don't be so pessimistic about it! You could always do Google image searches of various Japanese people and quickly assign kun, chan, etc to them. I know what you mean though about finding a free way to practice Japanese. There are a lot of affordable online conversation tools you can use though if you're serious about it.

Akbok profile image

Akbok 4 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan Author

BlissfulWriter: Well you got handed a nice "Get out of jail free" card by them telling you what honorific to use, so that was really lucky :). Thanks a bunch for reading, and I'm glad you now know at least partially one of the mysteries of the Japanese language!

Jacharless: Well James, thank you for reading and I'm happy that something in my Hub rang personal and true with you. Arabesque curiosity makes me wonder what exactly you're referring to at the end of your comment there, but I'm assuming you had a good reason to not disclose it :D.

DzyMsLizzy: Thank you for reading and THANK YOU for the compliment on the cat photo. Unfortunately he's now a spoiled and obnoxiously big grown cat, but I still love him. And honestly, if you did well on the quizzes after one read through, you'd be a genius, and I a miracle worker.

pstraubie48: Yeah Japan is great, and whenever I'm away for a while I long for a nice bowl of ramen and some good ol' fashioned Japanese courtesy. I'm sure you have some good stories about misusing honorifics, and thanks for reading!

arusho: Thanks for reading, and I'm glad my Hub has enhanced your movie watching experience :D.

barryrutherford: Haha, knowing how much a pain Japanese is, I'm not surprised, and I also recommend you take on none of the responsibility for failing the quiz. Thanks so much for reading!

StephanieBCrosby: Yeah, using a dictionary without a good solid foundation can be kind of frustrating. I know lots of instances where people relied solely on dictionaries/translators and embarrassment was almost a guaranteed result. This isn't to say that we weren't breaking our sides laughing while listening to their stories though :). Courses are great, and especially those where the instructor focuses more on speaking than the written language. If you do take a course, I'd definitely look for a class like that. Good luck, and I'll keep writing Hubs on Japanese to hopefully help you on your journey!

truthfornow profile image

truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

Only heard of San before so this was a great article with lots of useful information. Great fun to read and I love the picture of your cat.

TheMagician profile image

TheMagician 4 years ago from Tampa, FL

This is really great! I've always wondered what was up with the whole "San" thing, and this taught me so much more than just that. Thanks for the awesome hub! Definitely deserving of Hub of the Day!

Akbok profile image

Akbok 4 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan Author

Truthfornow: Thanks for reading my Hub, and especially for the compliment of my cat! Also, I'm glad the San monopoly has been broken with the introduction of a few more neat suffixes for people.

TheMagician: San is definitely used A LOT, so I'm happy that my Hub has made a really prevalent word more clear. Thank you for reading, and for the great comment!

Susan Ng profile image

Susan Ng 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Kawaii neko-chan! Hehe. He/she looks like a baby version of one of my cats. :D And thank you for this hub. I feel like you're personally tutoring us on the intricacies of Japanese honorifics. :)

Ruthcurley profile image

Ruthcurley 4 years ago from Bozrah, CT

LOL, James. Funny

Akbok profile image

Akbok 4 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan Author

SusanNG: Thank you for always reading and commenting on my Hubs! Also perfect use of the chan there :D, but I'm sure you already knew all about its uses.

CurleyMan: Well, such a character would seem to me to be a genius/future CEO in disguise, so I'd probably be safe and go with 'sama'. Regarding your email list, it's probably because they all were in the same 'in group', but if they were from different companies it's a bit weird that they only used 'san'. Thanks for the suggestion though, as clearly this Hub wouldn't have existed without it :).

Susan Ng profile image

Susan Ng 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

I'm always looking to learn more and more about the Japanese language, so thank YOU for sharing your knowledge. :)

By the way, I've finally mastered hiragana! I'm so happy! It's such a rewarding feeling to be able to read sentences written in Japanese. ^_^ I'll be taking on katakana soon. After that will be kanji. It shouldn't be too alien since Chinese was one of our subjects from kindergarten until high school, right? :)

RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada

Nicely done - congratulations on your "hub of the Day" accolade. I enjoyed the quiz - did fairly well on the first, but much better after your explanations.

Akbok profile image

Akbok 4 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan Author

SusanNg: Yeah, if you already have a basic knowledge of kanji then you should learn it way faster than someone who's going into it without any foundation. You should consider yourself lucky, because the hardest part of written Japanese will be the easiest for you! What material are you using to go about learning reading and writing?

RedElf: Thank you, and I can only hope that what's explained here will be applicable to a real-world scenario involving Japanese language :).

Susan Ng profile image

Susan Ng 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

I'm using a software called Human Japanese, flash cards, a lot of writing drill sheets, and worksheets to practice transcribing romaji into hiragana and vice versa. For reading practice and also vocabulary building, I'm using material from the website of Meguro Language Center. :)

Would you happen to have any recommended materials? :)

Akbok profile image

Akbok 4 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan Author

Susan Ng: Sorry about the late response :(. I haven't heard of the Human Japanese software, but I know lots of students of Japanese who use Anki for flashcards. What you're doing seems to be legit though for learning Japanese. As for recommended materials, I've seen lots of people who swear by Heisig's Remembering the Kanji, but since you should have a good grasp on kanji already, you probably don't need it. Besides that, an app for google chrome called 'Rikai Kun' is great for quickly defining stuff you read online :D. Good luck with your journey, and I'll try to publish a new Hub soon.

Susan Ng profile image

Susan Ng 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Thanks, I might try looking up those materials you suggested. :) I actually just bought the book "Let's Learn Kanji: An Introduction to Radicals, Components and 250 Very Basic Kanji (Kodansha's Children's Classics)" after reading good reviews about it. It still hasn't arrived though. :O

I'm looking forward to that new hub. :)

mikeydcarroll67 17 months ago

Never knew there were so many different honorifics and titles to use! This is way different from Korean!

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