Sama, san, kun, chan: Japanese Honorifics and Titles Explained

Understanding of the Japanese honorifics and titles

Courtesy is very important in Japan, and this is reflected throughout the language – especially with the Japanese honorifics and titles. Hierarchy and respect for the elderly are very distinct in Japan. Since you like to watch anime, you have surely already met some of them. The most famous are san, kun, chan, sensei, and senpai.

The choice of the right suffix is a question of respect. To address the superior with chan, for example, would be extremely impolite! But don’t worry – don’t let the honorifics and titles confuse you. In this article, I introduce you to the honorifics and titles and explain when to use them.

In contrast to us, in Japan, you put the salutation behind the name of your counterpart. More precisely, usually after the surname (however, it is also possible after the first name). Remember that Japanese people typically introduce themselves first with their last name and then with their first name.

Therefore it is not surprising that first names are only used among goodclose friends and within the family. Calling a stranger by their first name is considered rude.

Now that we have clarified this, we come to the various forms of address. Which one you use depends on the following factors:

  • The social status of your counterpart
  • The age of your counterpart
  • The gender of your counterpart
  • Your personal relationship with your counterpart

If you listen carefully, you can already deduce a lot about the relationship between two people and their life situation only by the way they use their honorifics.

Not only the honorifics but also the type of language changes depending on the age and rank of the person being addressed. Examples are changed forms of verbs or the usage of “o” in front. For example, “niisan” – “big brother” becomes “oniisan”.

The main Japanese honorifics

San さん – If you are on the same level of the hierarchy (in terms of age and professional status) with a person, it is very simple: you add san to the surname – or, if you already know each other well, to the first name – the most commonly used suffix. This is comparable to “Mr.” or “Mrs.”: “Mr. Nakamura” becomes Nakamura-san, for example.

By the way, a no-go is to add the suffix san to your own name or that of a family member. Especially when it comes to your own name, you would call yourself an extremely respectable person – in Japan, modesty is a virtue, and self-praise is not appreciated.

Sama さま – If you want to treat a person with a lot of respect, you use the Japanese honorific sama. Customers are often called O-Kyaku-sama (Kyaku = Customer). This shows the high value that customers have in Japanese society.

But even in very formal situations such as a meeting, this form of address is often used, and if you don’t know the name of a person, you can also call them O-sama. Sama is only used for people of significantly higher age, or status and excessive use has a sarcastic effect. People who have a particularly high opinion of themselves are often ridiculed by using it excessively on them.

The written equivalent of sama is shi. In Japan, this suffix is used in very formal letters to people you don’t know personally. It is also often heard on the television news.

Chan ちゃん – The Japanese suffix chan often expresses endearment. It is, therefore, never used for people who have a higher social status. This suffix should generally be used for female persons. But cute animals or mascots can also be “chan”. Close friends or partners speak to each other in such an affectionate way. The origin of this honorific comes from the fact that children find it easier to pronounce chan than san.

Kun くん – In a way, kun is the male counterpart to chan. This suffix is also much less formal than san and is used for male persons. Either as a kind of nickname for couples, among very good friends or for children or boys.

In professional life, kun is often used by superiors to address the employees who report to them. In this case, this applies regardless of whether the employee is a woman or a man.

Sensei 先生 – Sensei is most often used as a suffix for teachers. Generally, however, this term refers to a respectable person who has achieved a high degree in a particular skill. Examples are doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other persons of authority. But also artists or writers may use this title. Sensei can also be used without the name.

Senpei 先輩 – It becomes more complicated when the person is older than you (even if only one year!) or is in a higher position. In Japan, older classmates, fellow students, or even employees who have been with the company for a longer time are referred to as senpai. Senpei can also be used without the name.

The Japanese honorifics within the family

Family members are rarely called by name but are instead addressed appropriately. The suffix san is mostly used: The father’s name is Otōsan, the mother’s name is Okaasan. The big brother is called Niichan or (O)niisan, the big sister Neechan or (O)neesan. The little sister, on the other hand, is called Imōto, and the little brother is called Otōto.

Grandma means Obaasan, and Grandpa means Ojiisan. But don’t confuse this with Ojisan and Obasan: these titles used for “uncle” and “aunt” have a short vowel.

By the way, when you talk about a family member of another person, use the same terms along with the respectful san. However, when you speak to someone about your own family, you use different words: for example, “haha” for mother and “chichi” for father.

To express a particularly close connection to your family, you can also use chan instead of san. For example, Otōsan becomes Otōchan, and Obaasan becomes Obaachan.

The polite prefix “O” is also not mandatory for your own family. For example, Otōsan/chan becomes Tōsan/chan.

To sum it up; Which honorific is appropriate in which case

  • san: for people of the same age and status
  • sama: for customers and higher ranking persons
  • sensei: among others for teachers, professors and doctors
  • senpai: for older classmates and colleagues
  • kun: for younger and lower-ranking persons
  • chan: for children, partners and close friends

Those were all the usual honorifics and titles in Japan, and I hope that you understand them a bit better now.