The Japanese for older sister is 姉 (ane), while the word for younger sister is 妹 (imouto).
Unlike English, there is no general way to say sister in Japanese without implying age difference. However, there are a few ways to say sister in Japanese. Let’s take a look at the different ways to say sister and how to use them naturally.
1. お姉さん (Oneesan) – Big Sister, Older Sister, Young Lady
お姉さん (oneesan) can be used to refer to someone else’s sister or when talking to your own sister. You can also use this word to talk about someone else’s older sister, even if they are strangers or your superiors. It’s the most general way to refer to your own or someone else’s older sister.
However, oneesan is not a good word to use among your friends or peers if you’re talking about your own sister. If you refer to your older sister as oneesan to other people outside of your family, it can sound childish. You might hear kids in elementary school say this, but if you’re an adult, the better word to use is 姉 (ane), which is explained below.
Oneesan can also be used to speak directly to your older sister. While Japanese people don’t have an official word to call their younger sister —possibly a practice that holds its roots in the older hierarchy of Japanese families—older sisters are called oneesan instead of their names.
In fact, within families in Japan, you can only call your younger sibling (brother or sister) by their name. However, younger brother or sisters do not call their older siblings by their name. They almost always use お姉さん (oneesan) for their older sister or お兄さん (oniisan) for their older brother when talking to them directly or talking about them with other family members.
You could also use more affectionate versions of this word:
- お姉ちゃん (onee-chan) or 姉ちゃん (nee-chan): the English equivalent of “Big Sis.”
- お姉様 (onee-sama): A more honorific form of the title iswhich means “honored older sister.”
Finally, the word oneesan is often used to refer to young women in general. If someone wants to address a young woman they don’t know, they will call her oneesan. This rule is typically limited to strangers or new acquaintances; it would be a bit rude if you knew someone’s name and kept calling them oneesan unless you are close with that person and use it as a pet/nickname for them.
1. Big Sis! Can you help me with my homework?
(Nee-chan! Shukudai o tetsudatte kurenai?)
2. Excuse me, young lady, could I buy one of those flowers?
(Sumimasen, oneesan. Sono hana o ippon kaitain desu kedo.)
2. 姉 (Ane) – Older Sister
As previously mentioned, 姉 (ane) is the word for older sister in Japanese. Ane is used to talk about your older sister to other people. You DO NOT use it to talk about someone else’s older sister. If you want to talk about or refer to someone else’s sister, you would use お姉さん (Oneesan) talked about above.
This nuance and usage of 姉 is the same as 兄 (ani, big brother). Check out our article on how to say brother in Japanese for more details.
Ane is an example of polite Japanese. This word can be used in conversation with peers or with superiors.
1. My sister recently started dating a lawyer!
(Uchi no ane wa saikin, bengoshi-san to tsukiai hajimeta.)
2. My sister didn’t pack me a lunch today, so I have to buy something at the convenience store.
(Ane wa watashi no obentou o tsukuru no o wasureta no de, konbini ni kai ni iku ne.)
3. 妹 (Imouto) – Younger Sister
妹 (imouto) means younger sister in Japanese. Like ane, the word imouto is used when you talk about your own young sister to someone else (not in your family). Imouto is technically the only word for younger sister on this list!
If you are talking about someone else’s sister, add the suffix -さん (-san) to be more polite. Using the word imouto (and not imouto-san) when asking about someone else’s sister can sound rude.
However, you never add the -san when you’re speaking about your own sister, as it will make you (or your sister) “sound high and mighty.”
Within the Japanese household, younger siblings are called by their names, while older siblings may be called oneesan or お兄さん (oniisan, older brother). When you use the word imouto, it will most likely be in the presence of other people and not your immediate family.
1. My sister’s name is Alice.
(Imouto no namae wa Arisu desu.)
2. How old is your sister now?
(Imouto-san wa ima oikutsu desu ka?)
4. 姉妹 (Shimai) – Sisters
The word 姉妹 (shimai) means sisters in the plural sense. Japanese people tend to use the word 兄弟 (kyoudai) to say siblings, but this term is masculine. Shimai implies siblings are female, so if you wanted to tell someone that you have three sisters, shimai is the word you would use.
- I am one of three sisters.
(Uchi wa san nin shimai desu.)
5. 姉貴 (Aneki) – Big Sister
Formerly an honorific word, 姉貴 (aneki) has devolved into a familiar title for big sister. This is a word you would use with your big sister directly, or perhaps when speaking about her to a group of close friends. However, this sounds rather masculine, so it is mostly used by men.
If you want a little history, 姉貴 came from the word 姉君 (ane-gimi), which was a honorific word for 姉 (ane). 姉貴 (aneki) became an abbreviated version of ane-gimi. However, the 貴 (ki) in 姉貴 doesn’t really have a meaning. It’s mostly there as a phonetic equivalent (sounds like the “gi” in “ane-gimi“).
- Big Sister, did you bring me any souvenirs from Kyoto?
(Aneki, Kyoto de omiyage katte kite kureta no?)
6. 姉上 (Ane-Ue) – (Honorable) Older Sister
The title 姉上 (ane-ue) dates back to pre-Meiji Japanese language. Ane-ue translates to “sister above me” or “honorable sister.”
It was used as a title by younger siblings. Ane-ue might not be used in modern Japanese, but you may find it in period literature or other media depicting Japan’s samurai era.
- My older sister is with child.
(Ane-ue wa ninshin shiteimasu.)
7. 義理の姉・妹 (Giri no Ane/Imouto) – Older/Younger Sister-in-Law
If you have a Japanese spouse, or if someone else in your family has married into a Japanese home, you might hear the phrase 義理の姉 (giri no ane), or perhaps 義理の妹 (giri no imouto). 義理の (giri no) means “in-law” in Japanese, so both of these words equate to sister-in-law when you say them.
Just be sure that you’re using the right one, depending on whether that sister-in-law is older or younger than you are! If you are referring to many sisters-in-law, you can say 義理の姉妹 (giri no shimai). “Giri no” is a useful Japanese familial term that can be applied to any in-law, especially your mother- or father-in-law. Or could you say the official (and shorter) 義姉妹 (gi-shimai).
- I have two sisters-in-law.
(Giri no shimai ga futari imasu.)
8. 姉御肌 (Anego Hada) – A Sisterly Figure, A Reliable Young Woman
The word 姉御肌 (anego hada) is commonly used in Japanese to refer to reliable, warm-hearted young women. Anego hada means literally “sisterly skin,” implying that this person is so sisterly in their care of others that they may as well be wearing a sister’s skin.
While this isn’t technically a familial term, it’s referring to the Japanese image of a reliable older sister. If someone ever calls you anego hada, be sure to thank them. It’s a big compliment!
- She does such a wonderful job of caring for children! She’s a true sister-figure to them.
(Ano ko, kodomo no mendou o miru no ga jouzu desu ne! Anego hada de rippa na oneesan yo.)
There are quite a few words for older sister in Japanese, but only one for younger sister. Remember that not every word in this list is appropriate for formal company; if you’re feeling unsure, you can always use ane for older sister and imouto for younger sister.
How do you say sister in your language? Let us know in the comments! Thank you for reading!