When you’re learning to speak Japanese, you will come across some suffixes used to address people called honorifics. While these may seem confusing at first, they aren’t that difficult to learn. Here, Ann Arbor, MI teacher Elaina R. breaks down Japanese honorifics for beginners…
Japanese honorifics aren’t as scary as they seem. Think of them like the English title prefixes (Miss, Sir, Dr., etc.). Japanese honorifics are simply a collection of suffixes that get tacked on to the end of names, titles, and other labels.
There are dozens of Japanese honorifics, but since not all of them are common, let’s focus on the honorifics that you’re more likely to use.
Japanese Honorific Prefixes
If you have some experience with Japanese, you may have noticed that lots of Japanese titles start with “o.” An “o” at the beginning of a Japanese title is usually an honorific prefix.
Removing the “o” makes the title more colloquial, and in some cases, rude.
For example, the word for mother, with honorifics, is oka-san. Without the prefix, it becomes ka-san, which is more like “mom” than “mother.”
Keep this in mind as you learn about Japanese honorific suffixes.
Formal Japanese Honorifics
1. – sama
The most formal honorific suffix is -sama, and it’s used for God (kami-sama) and royalty (ohime-sama).
You can also use -sama to flatter people or to be sarcastic. For instance, if you attach the suffix to the slang male term for “I” (ore) to create ore-sama, this basically means “my royal self.”
The most common formal honorific is -san, and it translates (approximately) to Ms. and Mr..
It’s used among peers and in public settings, like offices or schools (unlike in the United States., coworkers and fellow students usually refer to each other formally). It’s also used for acquaintances.
*Note: When in doubt, use –san.
Informal Japanese Honorifics
This is an endearing female honorific. While it’s most commonly used for children, it’s also used fairly widely among family and friends.
All of the women in my family refer to each other as –chan, even my grandma (oba-chan).
You can also use –chan for males; one of my second cousins, Tatsumi, has always been Tat-chan instead of Tat-kun, probably because it just sounds better.
This suffix reminds me of the diminutive –chen in German; lieb means love, but liebchen, which technically means little love, actually means darling.
You can use -chan the same way, to add a sense of cuteness to names and titles.
This is the male equivalent of –chan; it’s used for kids and between peers and friends.
While all of the women in my family refer to each other as –chan, we don’t usually use the –kun suffix (or any suffix at all) for grown men in the family. It could be interpreted as a little too “cutesy.”
This suffix is more cutesy than –chan and –kun.
It’s OK to call an adult male –kun, but it’s definitely not OK to call him –bō, which is reserved for little boys. It’s a derivative of obbochama, which means something like “little lord.”
Familial Japanese Honorifics
In general, the Japanese refer to their older family members with honorifics instead of names. It’s very similar to how, in the U.S., we refer to older individuals with titles (Mom, Dad, Grandma), and those younger than us by name.
Nowadays, it’s possible to refer to elders with informal title prefixes and suffixes without being rude. I’ve included acceptable iterations in the chart below. There are other titles, but it’s best to avoid them if you don’t want to accidentally call your Grandpa something like “Pops.”
Formal Japanese Honorific Titles/Suffixes
A few Japanese honorifics can be used as stand-alone titles as well as suffixes. Think of the English prefix Doctor: you can call your doctor “Doctor”, or you can call her “Doctor Smith.”
Sensei: Used for teachers
Senpai: Used to refer to upperclassmen in school or a sports club.
Japanese Honorifics Made Simple
This may seem like a lot of information, but there aren’t too many suffixes you need to remember to learn how to speak Japanese.
When in doubt, stick with -san, and call your Japanese teacher Sensei. The rest of the suffixes will work their way into your brain with time, practice, and a few Japanese lessons.
Photo by Lovely Playground