Japanese Honorifics: Formal & Informal Name Suffixes

Japanese honorifcs

When learning to speak Japanese, you’ll come across suffixes used to address people called “honorifics.” While these may seem confusing at first, they aren’t that difficult to learn. Here, we break 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 onto 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.

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By choosing the right suffix when you speak to coworkers, friends, or family, you can make your Japanese sound much more natural (and of course, avoid offending someone).

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.”

2. -san

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

1. –chan

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.

2. -kun

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.”

3. -bō

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.”

japanese honorifics chart

Formal Japanese Honorific Titles/Suffixes

A few Japanese honorifics can be used as stand-alone titles as well as suffixes. Here are two examples.

  • Sensei: Used for teachers
  • Senpai: Used to refer to upperclassmen in school or a sports club.

Japanese Honorifics Made Simple

If you’d like more help understanding honorifics, try taking Japanese lessons or check out group Japanese classes for free at TakeLessons Live. Group classes are an excellent way to get some language immersion and work on Japanese honorifics. When in doubt, stick with -san, and call your Japanese teacher “Sensei.” The rest of the suffixes will become a natural habit with time and practice!

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24 replies
  1. Mei S
    Mei S says:

    Hi, I am Japanese and there were some things that I wanted to point out.
    You can use -chan when you calling your relatives, for example kachan(which is casual way to say mother, but usually used by little boy). However, you cannot call adult female or male with their name using -chan or -kun.
    I think it’ll be easy if you think that -chan and -kun can be only used for children or teenagers.
    If you use -chan or -kun to adults, it is considered to be awkward and rude.

    One more thing, -bo was used for little boy long time ago. If you watch some Japanese movies about old time in Japan, it might be used, but I don’t listen people using -bo at all anymore.
    Some people might use -bo as a nickname, but it’s not really common.

    I hope this helps y’all learning Japanese honorifics, thank you.

      • Brent Barnhart
        Brent Barnhart says:

        This is completely wrong advise….. I am an American married to a Japanese woman and have a Japanese family. I have friends all over the country and travel as a musician. “Chan” is used ALL THE TIME to refer to ADULT females. I call my wife Mitsue-chan and it means “My sweet girl” or My little girl or My little loved one and MY FRIENDS call my wife Mitsue-chan because she is YOUNGER than them, and they are close friends AND it is because I call her that. In return because THEY call my wife Mitsue-chan I CALL there wife THE SAME. Yuko-chan. Adult males are refered to by KUN at work as a fond way of referring to somebody UNDER you. Masahiko-kun could be used to refer to my Vice-President if I am the President of the company. Not sure what Japanese Island you live on….. I live on a completely different one.

  2. Tyson
    Tyson says:

    Is it weird that I learned and knew what the honorifics meant by only watching anime? I only came here to make sure lol

    • Blank42
      Blank42 says:

      No, I am here for the same reason. I thought to myself “I wonder if I have figured out all these honorifics yet” and came here to confirm. I had indeed, just as you have, learned them solely through anime.

    • RA K.
      RA K. says:

      Same, I learned almost all of them from anime or manga, mainly anime. It’s not weird, a lot of people learn just from anime and i’m writing a story about Naruto right now so I came here to know what to write

    • Alex
      Alex says:

      Likewise, with anime as my main source of learning. I actually wanted to make sure I used them right in, of all things, the Azur Lane game. As I wed various shipgirls, I’m giving them custom names. When I get to Ayanami, Akagi, Kaga, Nagato, Takao, and Yuudachi, I’m thinking of giving them nicknames ending in -chan (like Aka-chan or Yuu-chan) and wanted to check on the usage. 🙂

  3. RA K.
    RA K. says:

    i’m writing a story about Naruto so i came here to find out how to use the correct honorifics and this really helped. thank you!

  4. Mana
    Mana says:

    Thank you for your contribution! It is a good intro to jpn honorifics, but I wonder if you (or anyone) could help me with something specific.

    I’m writing a fic and am trying to figure out a way, how to address someone who is (kind of) your uncle, but also your teacher. They aren’t related by blood, since the kid (a boy) is adopted, and the teacher isn’t a blood relative of either of the parents, but they are all very close. The parents live away from their families and have this strong support group of friends that are really more like their family, especially another couple that they are close with. It’s one of those little, dysfunctional, but warm and welcoming families that don’t get enough support in life.

    Obviously kid calls his teacher sensei in most official and public settings, and adds -san when they have outings and stuff to address him when they talk, and they’re on formal speech, but I’m looking at some kind of subtle difference, a detail that would denote that sensei is a bit more than that, maybe something kid can call him in his head. Got something for me?

  5. ACatStories
    ACatStories says:

    Thank you! This helps a lot. I writing anime fanfiction at the moment and I couldnt quite figure out what prefixes to use.

  6. Anthia
    Anthia says:

    Ok. But what about for anyone younger than you? Like a cousin or sibling or in some cases a younger aunt and uncle. Would the honorifics still be the same or does that change?

  7. Eric
    Eric says:

    We are an American company who has been purchases by a large Japanese company. 2 executives are now going to have offices here. San seems too familiar to use and sama too much. Is there a recommendation?

  8. George
    George says:

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  9. Evelyn
    Evelyn says:

    This is the MOST helpful Honorifics Explaination I’ve found! Thank you so much, this has probably helped me more than any of the other websites I’ve visited. 😀


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