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. While not entirely informal, oneesan isn’t the word to use for sister if you’re talking with strangers or with your superiors.
However, oneesan is an acceptable word if you’re among friends or peers; you can use oneesan to discuss your own sister or someone else’s older sister in such a case.
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 may be called oneesan instead of their names.
An even more affectionate version of this title is お姉ちゃん(onee-chan) or 姉ちゃん (nee-chan), the English equivalent of “Big Sis.” A more honorific form of the title is お姉さま (onee-sama), which 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.
- My sister didn’t pack me a lunch today, so I have to buy something at the convenience store. – お姉さんは私の弁当を作るのを忘れたので、コンビニに買いに行く。 (Oneesan wa watashi no bentou o tsukuru no o wasureta no de, konbini ni kai ni iku.)
- Big Sis! Can you help me with my homework? – 姉ちゃん！宿題を手伝ってくれない？ (Nee-chan! Shukudai o tetsudatte kurenai?)
- Excuse me, young lady, could I buy one of those flowers? – すみません、お姉さん。そこの花を一本買いたいんですけど。 (Sumimasen, oneesan. Soko no 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.
- My sister recently started dating a lawyer! – うちの姉は最近、弁護士さんと付き合い始めた。 (Uchi no ane wa saikin, bengoshi-san to tsukiai hajimeta.)
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.
- My sister’s name is Alice. – 妹の名前はアリスです。 (Imouto no namae wa Arisu desu.)
- How old is your sister now? – 妹さんは今いくつですか？ (Imouto-san wa ima ikutsu 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. – うちは姉妹三人です。 (Uchi wa shimai san nin 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.
- Big Sister, did you bring me any souvenirs from Kyoto? – 姉、京都でお土産買ってきてくれたの？ (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. Specifically, it was used in the Edo Period by samurai families. 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. – 姉上は妊娠しています。 (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.
- I have two sisters-in-law. 義理の姉妹が二人います。 (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. – あの子、子供の面倒を見るのが上手ですね！姉御肌で立派なお姉さんよ。 (Ano ko, kodomo no mendou o miru no ga jouzu desu no. 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!