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San, Chan, Sama, or Kun? An Essential Guide to Japanese Honorifics

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Poppy has been living in Japan for over six years. She likes to read novels, write, and play video games.

Here's your go-to guide on Japanese honorifics.

Here's your go-to guide on Japanese honorifics.

Which Honorific Is Appropriate in Certain Situations?

Whether it's from anime, Japanese TV shows or movies, or something you've come across in your studies, most people have come across a Japanese honorific at some point.

It might be confusing to know which one goes with which situation and which is more appropriate according to age and gender. Is it san, chan, or kun? How about sama or sensei? How can you try out these honorifics without sounding silly at best or downright rude at worst?

This article is a guide on seven Japanese honorifics and when it is appropriate to use them.

1. San

You can add the honorific san for people you've just met, ideally with their last name (if they introduced themselves as such). San is used for strangers and for people with whom you have a neutral or professional relationship. Here are some more examples where -san is generally used:

  • Teachers, when addressing students.
  • Doctors, when addressing their patients.
  • Between strangers who just met in an informal setting.
  • Between coworkers of the same professional level.

As mentioned above, never refer to yourself using any honorific. This includes "san."

"San" is appropriate for someone you've just met.

"San" is appropriate for someone you've just met.

2. Chan

You may have heard chan used if you watch anime shows or read manga comics, though it is used in the real world, too! Here are some situations in which chan is used:

  • Between friends (often accompanied by the shortening of their name). For example, "Rinko" could be shortened to "Rin-chan," "Yukiko," "Yuki-chan," and so on.
  • Celebrities (for example, comedian Matsumoto Hitoshi is often affectionately referred to as "Macchan").
  • For those people find endearing or cute, such as children, babies, or pets.
  • For close relatives (for example, ojiisan is used to mean "old man" or "grandfather," but a person may call their own grandfather ojiichan to show affection).
  • Food! Especially when around young children, some types of foods can be referred to as "chan" for cuteness. This includes shrimp or ebi in Japanese.
Chan is usually used for children and other endearing or cute things

Chan is usually used for children and other endearing or cute things

3. Kun

Kun is used similarly to chan, but only for boys. Here are some examples where you might hear -kun.

  • For younger boys or baby boys.
  • For male pets.
  • Senior males to junior males (usually in school).
  • You won't usually hear kun in the workplace unless it's a very informal setting, and they get along remarkably well.

It's worth noting that there's no solid rule that kun is used for boys; there are instances where kun is used for girls, too. It's just more common to use it for younger boys.

Kun can be used between boys or for male pets.

Kun can be used between boys or for male pets.

4. Sensei

You may have heard of the word sensei if you've studied martial arts, but it's not only used for karate masters. Here are some situations where you'll hear and use sensei.

  • For school teachers or tutors. It goes at the end of their surname, or you can simply call them sensei.
  • For doctors and dentists.

5. Sama

Sama is used for someone considered higher ranking than oneself, usually in a professional setting. Here are some examples of where sama is used.

  • For customers (o-kyaku-sama). Kyaku means "customer."
  • For God (kamisama). Kami alone refers to one of the many gods in various faiths.
  • A long time ago, women added sama when addressing their husbands (goshujin-sama).
Sama is used for those in a higher rank, such as customers.

Sama is used for those in a higher rank, such as customers.

6. Senpai

This is another well-known honorific you might have heard if you watch anime or enjoy internet memes. Here are some real examples of where senpai is used in Japan.

  • A student in a higher grade in school.
  • Someone higher up or with more experience in a company.
  • Like sensei, senpai can be used by itself without the name attached.

7. Kouhai

Kouhai is the opposite of senpai. Unlike senpai, however, it isn't usually used to directly address someone but to refer to them in the third person. Here's an example.

Miyazaki: Thank you for helping me, senpai.
Tanaka: No problem, Miyazaki-san.
Nakao: What were you doing earlier, Tanaka-san?
Tanaka: I was helping my kouhai with some things.

Be sure never to refer to yourself with an honorific (this sometimes occurs when small children refer to themselves as chan, but in general, it isn't done). If you're unsure what to call someone, stick to san until told otherwise, and be sure to use sensei for your teacher or doctor!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Poppy