What are honorifics? Honorifics are words used to imply high status, politeness, or respect. The Japanese language has many different honorifics. One of the challenges Japanese language learners face is how to differentiate between the various honorifics depending on gender, social hierarchy, age, and other factors.
This article will explore common Japanese honorifics: san, sama, chan, kun, and much more. We will also learn when not to use any honorifics, known as yobisute. Lastly, this article will cover Japanese honorifics that are situation-dependent; at work, school, and politics.
- Common Japanese Honorifics (San, Sama, Chan, Kun)
- Rules for Using さん, さま, ちゃん, and くん Naturally
- 呼び捨て (Yobisute) – Knowing When NOT to Use Honorific Titles With Someone
- Other Common Honorific Titles
- Honorific/Polite Japanese Titles for Businesses/Companies
- Honorific Titles Within the Workplace in Japan
- Japanese Honorific Titles at School
- Japanese Honorific Titles for Your Family
- Japanese Honorific Titles in Politics
- Older Honorific Titles
- Other Useful Titles in Japanese
Common Japanese Honorifics (San, Sama, Chan, Kun)
These Japanese honorifics are commonly used in Japanese daily life. Because of its importance, it’s essential to understand what each honorific means and how to use it when speaking Japanese.
1. さん (San): Mr./Mrs., Sir/Madam
さん (san) is the most common and universal honorific used among Japanese people. The use of さん (san) is comparable to the use of Mr./Mrs. or sir/madam in the English language.
When さん (san) is used with a person’s name, it expresses politeness and can be used with any age group or gender. Since さん (san) is not specific to a certain age, gender, or social status, it is used when you talk to strangers or acquaintances.
In addition to names, さん (san) is also used to refer to some specialized shops and company names. For example, people might say “花屋さん (hana ya san),” meaning A flower shop + san or 本屋さん (hon ya san) for a bookstore. However, keep in mind that you don’t say this for general stores like a supermarket, shopping mall.
For company names, adding さん (san) is usually only done in business settings when speaking. It is to show respect to the company or its employees. For example, a businessman might say “ソニーさん (Sony san)” when talking about or referring to the company, their boss, or even any of its employees.
Lastly, children might use さん (san) with names of animals. For example, a child might say “ゾウさん” (zou san), which means elephant + san, comparable to “Mr. Elephant” in English.
Although it’s common and universal, people don’t usually use さん (san) for people close to them, such as family members or friends. さん (san) carries a meaning of politeness, creating a “psychological distance” in the relationship.
It would also sound silly if you used it to refer to yourself because people don’t express politeness and respect towards themselves in the Japanese language.
(Tanaka san, odenwa desu.)
“Mr. Tanaka, there is a call for you.”
(Honya san ni ikō.)
I’m going to the bookstore.
3. (Child to her/his parent) -「そとに、ねこさんがいるよ！」
(Soto ni, neko san ga iru yo!)
“Look, there is a cat outside!”
2. さま (Sama): Formal/Polite Version of San
さま (sama) is another common and universal honorific used among Japanese people. The use of さま (sama) is similar to さん (san). It’s not age or gender-specific. The only difference between さま (sama) and さん (san) is that さま is more formal and polite than さん. It’s used not only in business settings but also daily.
Japanese people use さま (sama) in both speaking and writing. Frequently, in writing, さま is written as様(sama) in kanji. If it was written using hiragana (さま), it becomes less formal.様 (sama) is preferred overさん (san) in businessemails and other types of formal communication.
Most Japanese people don’t use さま (sama) after a company name to refer to them directly. That’s because さま is a formal honorific suffix usually used to refer to one individual instead of a company as a whole. However, this not always the case. When a group employees from a company go out together (on a trip, staying in a hotel, eating at a nice restaurant, etc.), they usually make a reservation under their company name.
Some Japanese hotels, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), and restaurants have a display that lists all their expected guests for that day. This welcome display is often placed by the entrance of the ryokan or in the lobby area. 様 (sama) is used with both individuals and companies in this case. For example, you might see a company like パナソニック様 (panasonikku sama – Panasonic) on these welcome displays.
さま (sama) is usually not an appropriate honorific to use with oneself, friends, family members, relatives, colleagues, or people you have already established daily close relationships with.
1. (When checking into a hotel):
(Yamada sama, yōkoso okoshi kudasaimashita.)
“Mr. Yamada, welcome to our hotel.”
2. (In a business email):
(Suzuki Hiroko sama Ohayō gozaimasu.)
“Mrs. Suzuki, good morning.”
3. ちゃん (Chan): Cute/Affectionate Version of San for Girls, Children, Animals, and Celebrities
ちゃん (chan) is an informal and friendly honorific. It’s a cute, affectionate, and sometimes childish version of さん (san). It is used for babies, young children, girls, and occasionally female adults.
Additionally, ちゃん (chan) is often used for grandparents; おばあちゃん (obā chan) おじいちゃん (ojī chan). It’s not wrong to use さん (san) instead of ちゃん (chan) for grandparents, but it’s more natural with ちゃん since they are part of the family.
People even use ちゃん (chan) to refer to some celebrities, such as female pop idols and female singers.
Additionally, names of animals can be combined with ちゃん to express affection, such as うさぎちゃん (usagi chan). Young children usually say this.
ちゃん (chan) should NOT be used in any professional setting, either in speaking or writing. A possible exception would be if two coworkers are close and use ちゃん to call each other’s names during their conversations.
Occasionally, people call themselves their name followed by ちゃん, such as えりちゃん (Eri chan), rather than using the first-person pronoun. It’s a bad habit that some children obtain when they constantly hear others calling their name with ちゃん in their childhood. As children grow older, referring to themselves as chan should happen less and less.
(Obāchan, kaimono ikō yo.)
“Grandma, let’s go to the store.”
2.「 アリスちゃん、今日学校休んだ。 」
(Alice chan, kyō gakkō yasunda.)
“My friend Alice was absent today.”
4. くん (Kun): Term for Young Men and Women in Certain Situations
くん (kun) is another informal and friendly honorific. Anyone can use it to talk to male children. It can also be used to refer to male teenagers and adolescents.
Although the use of くん (kun) is generally informal and used for boys, the rules are not as strict. The suffix can be used by seniors when referring to younger ones in an academic or work setting.
くん (kun) also can be used to refer to a female, depending on the situation. An older male of senior status might call young female employees くん. Also, male teachers can address their female students using くん. In these situations, くん (kun) is more friendly than さん (san) and a lot more formal than ちゃん (chan).
Just like with ちゃん (chan), some boys grow up accustomed to people calling them by their name + くん (kun). Some boys may imitate this instead of using the first-person pronoun.
1. (A senior employee to a younger employee named Tanaka):
(Tanaka kun, kore insatsu shite kureru?)
“Hey Tanaka, can you print this out?”
(Tarō kun ga ame o kureta.)
Taro gave me candy.
Rules for Using さん, さま, ちゃん, and くん Naturally
The Japanese honorifics discussed in this section are honorifics suffixes that Japanese people use daily. Being able to differentiate when to use them is essential as each one suggests a different level of politeness and friendliness. Here are three rules to remember about these common Japanese honorifics.
- Rule 1: When you are not sure which honorifics to use, it’s best to use さん (san) as it’s polite and gender-neutral.
- Rule 2: If you refer to children, girls, or someone adorable, you can use ちゃん (chan), but make sure not to use it in professional settings as it’s not formal.
呼び捨て (Yobisute) – Knowing When NOT to Use Honorific Titles With Someone
呼び捨て (yobisute) means referring to someone with just their name, (either first or last name) with no honorific titles. Not using an honorific title implies friendliness and informality.
呼び捨て (yobisute) can be used between friends, family members, and others with whom you have close relationships.
If you are unsure whether or not you should use an honorific to refer your close friend, you could ask your friend if he or she feels comfortable being called by just their name with no honorifics.
呼び捨て (yobisute) should not be used to refer to someone who is older or has a higher status than you, such as your boss or teacher. It should never be used to refer to someone you don’t have a close relationship with, like someone you just met.
Other Common Honorific Titles
In this section of the article, we will discuss other common honorific titles. That includes 先生 (sensei), 先輩 (senpai), and 後輩 (kōhai).
5. 先生 (Sensei) – Teacher and Doctor
先生 (sensei) means teacher, tutor, and doctor; therefore, it’s often used at schools and hospitals. The word 先生 (sensei) describes someone who is an expert and has professional knowledge and skill. The honorific is usually followed by the person’s last name; 山田先生 (Yamada sensei).
先生 (sensei) can even be used with some politicians and lawyers.
(Tanaka sensei wa Nihongo no sensei da.)
Mr. Tanaka is a Japanese teacher.
(Netsu ga aru kara, Yamada sensei ni mite moraō.)
I’m going to see Dr. Yamada for my fever.
Similar to 先生 (sensei), there is another honorific; 博士 (hakase). 博士 also means someone who is an expert in a field. What differentiates 博士 (hakase) from 先生 (sensei) is that 博士 is more academic, like someone who has a doctoral degree and works at a university. 先生 (sensei) is a lot more commonly used than 博士 (hakase) for that reason.
6. 先輩 (Senpai) – One’s Senior (At Work & School), Older Person
The word 先輩 (senpai) means senior. When it’s used with a name to refer to someone, it implies that the person is older, is in a higher grade, or is more experienced. Using 先輩 (senpai) as an honorific gives a sense of respect towards the person for having more experience and being older. Respecting your elders (even someone who is just one year older than you) is one of the core values in Japanese culture.
You can call people by either their first or last name, followed by 先輩 (senpai). Often, people use 先輩 at schools and in the workplace. You’ll hear students use it with their older schoolmates or workers to refer to people with more seniority than them.
You should not use this honorific for someone younger or in a lower grade, as it contradicts its meaning. Also, it would be weird to call a stranger who is older than you 先輩 (senpai) because although the person is older than you, you don’t have an established relationship with them.
(Kono kaisha de hataraki hajimeta toki, Yamada senpai ga adobaisu o kureta.)
When I started working at this company, a senior, Yamada, gave me advice.
(Hanako senpai wa, watashi no otehon da.)
My senior coworker, Hanako, is my role model.
7. 後輩 (Kōhai) – One’s Junior (At Work & School), Younger Person
The word 後輩 (kōhai) means the opposite of 先輩 (senpai); one’s junior or a younger person. Just like with 先輩 (senpai), you can often hear 後輩 (kōhai) being used in schools or the workplace. However, unlike 先輩 (senpai), people don’t combine 後輩 (kōhai) with first or last names. Instead, they use this word to describe someone younger or who has less seniority than them. It is never used to refer to someone directly. You would never say, “Hey kōhai!” as that would be considered very rude.
(Kōhai no Takashi wa, yasashii seikaku da.)
My junior, Takashi, is kind.
(Emi wa, shokuba no naka de, watashi ga ichiban ki ni itteiru kōhai da.)
Emi is my favorite junior at work.
Honorific/Polite Japanese Titles for Businesses/Companies
There are honorifics for businesses or companies too. Earlier in this article, we mentioned that some businesses will use 様 (sama) to refer to groups of people from a company. Let’s look at other ways you can politely refer to your own or someone else’s company.
Referring to Someone Else’s Company
1. 御中 (Onchū): Honorific Term Used in Writing
This is an honorific title people can use to express respect towards a group of people, organization, department, or a team.
御中 (onchū) is a polite way to refer to another company. It is only used in writing and as a respectful title (like Mr. Mrs. Dr.). It is very commonly used with the company’s name on envelopes, faxes, documents, and emails. This is to show respect to the company you are writing to.
2. 貴社 (Kisha): Polite Way to Address a Company (That You Don’t Own or Work For).
While 御中 (onchū) is mainly used for documents, envelopes, and faxes, 貴社 (kisha) is used when you write an email or letter to the company. 貴社 (kisha) means “your company” and is a polite way to refer to a company you are communicating with. Since this is not a title, it is used within a sentence rather than the beginning.
Example: An Email or Letter
(Jika, kisha ni okaremashite wa masumasu goseiei no koto to oyorokobi mōshiagemasu.)
Wishing you and your company health, success, and prosperity.
3. 御社 (Onsha): Honorific Words Used When Speaking
There is another word that is a honorific way to say “your company.” The word is 御社 (onsha). The difference between this word and 貴社 (kisha) is that 御社 (onsha) is used when speaking with people who are associated with the company.
(Senjitsu, onsha ni ukagatta sai, shain no katagata no jinsoku na taiō ni taihen kandō itashimashita.)
When I visited to your company the other day, I was so impressed by your employees’ prompt replies.
Humble Ways to Refer to Your Company/Employer
If you would like to talk about the company you work for, here are a couple of humble words that when used, are very polite (and natural).
1. 弊社 (Heisha): Humble Way to Refer to Your Company/Employer
弊社 (heisha) is the word you will use to talk about the company you own or work for to other people. 弊社 (heisha) is used in writing and speaking.
(Honjitsu wa heisha no ibento ni gosanka itadakimashite, makoto ni arigatō gozaimasu.)
Thank you very much for attending our event today.
2. 当社 (Tōsha): Polite Way To Refer to Your Company/Employer
Another word for “my company” is 当社 (tōsha). While it has the same meaning as 弊社 (heisha), it has a different nuance. It is a polite word, but it is not a humble word. Therefore, you would not use it when talking to other people about your company. 当社 (tōsha) is used internally when you need to make presentations or talk about the company.
(Tōsha no sengetsu no uriage wa 〇〇chō en deshita.)
Our sales were ○○trillion-yen last month.
当社 (tōsha) can also be used to talk about your company neutrally (when giving statements, dealing with complaints, etc.)
(Saikin masukomi de wadai ni natteiru ken desuga, tōsha wa issai kankei shite orimasen.)
With regard to the hot topic in the media recently, our company has nothing to do with it.
Honorific Titles Within the Workplace in Japan
This section lists specific Japanese honorific titles that people use at the workplace.
- 社長 (shachō): This title is how the CEO of a company is addressed.
- 部長 (buchō): The word 部 (bu) means a department/group in an organization. 部長 implies someone is a leader in a department of a company. It’s similar to a chief manager.
- 課長 (kachō): 課長 is lower in rank than 部長 (buchō). This position still holds authority and responsibility.
- 主任 (shunin): A 主任 is a leader among the working employees. After certain years of dedication, an individual can become a 主任 through their hard work.
These honorific titles that you hear at work are usually used with someone’s last name (Last name + 社長, 部長, etc.).
Japanese Honorific Titles at School
This section lists specific Japanese honorific titles that people use at schools.
校長先生 (kōchō sensei): This is the principal or the school’s headmaster.
副校長先生 (fuku kōchō sensei): 副 (fuku) implies an assistant, so this title means assistant principal. Depending on the school, they may use the term 教頭先生 (kyōtō sensei) instead. It can mean the same as thing as 副校長先生 (fuku kōchō sensei).
However, in recent times (and depending on the area), some schools have 校長先生 (kōchō sensei), 副校長先生 (fuku kōchō sensei), and a 教頭先生 (kyōtō sensei). In this case, the person with the most authoritative power would be the 校長先生, followed by the 副校長先生 , and then the 教頭先生. In this case, the 副校長先生 (fuku kōchō sensei) would have the title of “vice-principal” while 教頭先生 (kyōtō sensei) would have the title of “assistant principal” or even “head teacher” in some schools.
Some schools have just a 校長先生 (kōchō sensei) and a 副校長先生 (fuku kōchō sensei), while others have a 校長先生 (kōchō sensei) and a 教頭先生 (kyōtō sensei).
These honorific titles that you hear at schools can be used with someone’s last name (Last name + 校長先生, 副校長先生, etc.).
If a school has just one principal and one vice-principal/assistant principal, you can refer to them with just their honorific title (no name).
Japanese Honorific Titles for Your Family
This section lists specific Japanese honorific titles that people use for family members.
- お母さん (okāsan): Mother
- お父さん (otōsan): Father
- おばあちゃん (obāchan): Grandmother
- おじいちゃん (ojīchan): Grandfather
- お姉ちゃん (onēchan): Older sister
- お兄ちゃん (onīchan): Older brother
- 妹 (imōto): Younger sister
- 弟 (otōto): Younger brother
In most Japanese families, people use these honorific titles to refer to each other (no names, only the titles). However, there are two exceptions: You would never call your younger sister 妹 (imōto) or your younger brother 弟 (otōto). This would sound weird, as these terms are only used to talk about younger siblings to a third party. If you have younger brothers or sisters, you would use 呼び捨て (yobisute), which means just calling them by their name without any title.
Japanese Honorific Titles in Politics
This section lists specific Japanese honorific titles that people use in politics.
- 内閣総理大臣 (naikaku sōri daijin): Prime minister
- 副総理 (fuku sōri): Vice prime minister
- 大臣 (daijin): Minister (the head of a government department)
- 副大臣 (fuku daijin): Vice-minister
- 政務官 (seimukan): Parliamentary secretary / officer
- 長官 (chōkan): A commander / director / chief
- 副長官 (fuku chōkan): A deputy chief / secretary; senior vice minister
Older Honorific Titles
Here are some older Japanese honorific titles that originated in Japanese history.
1. 殿 (tono/dono): This honorific title has been used for a long time. If you are familiar with old Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji was published around the beginning of the 11th century, and the word 殿 (tono/dono) was used to express respect towards people of high status. 殿 is used with someone’s last name (last name + 殿) or their full name in official documents, emails, and letters. It’s also used on awards/honorable certificates (full name + 殿). The honorific title “殿” that is used in business nowadays, is typically pronounced as “dono.”
2. 上 (ue): This title means “above.” Although it is not commonly used, you can use it to imply that someone is above you, such as:
- 父上 (chichi ue): father
- 母上 (haha ue): mother
- 姉上 (ane ue): older sister
- 兄上 (ani ue): older brother
There is also the word 上様 (ue-sama / jō-sama) that is sometimes used on some Japanese receipts. This word is used to refer to the customer.
Other Useful Titles in Japanese
- 氏 (shi): This word is combined with someone’s full or last name to show respect for the person in either formal writing or formal speech. It can be used to refer to someone with whom the speaker/writer does not know well or with people they have a close relationship with.
Example: In a Formal Interview
(Takizawa shi to watakushi wa chiisai koro kara kyūchi no naka de gozaimasu.)
Mr./Ms. Takizawa and I have known each other since we were children.)
What did you think of these Japanese honorific titles? Although it might be overwhelming to remember all the titles mentioned in this article, the key is to be aware of the situation.
If you encounter a situation where you have no idea which title to use, using さん (san) would be a great idea.
I hope this article helps you! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave us a comment!