September 28, 2009

Bento Bako Weekly – Japanese Honorifics

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Written by: Kristin

Fubuki says: Address people in the proper manner, or else!

Japanese Honorifics: What they are and how they’re used

If you watch a lot of anime, especially in the original Japanese, you will hear these honorifics used constantly.  When the same shows are translated into English, they are often removed completely.  Occasionally a dubbing will include them (Ai Yori Aoshi sticks out in my mind, and even Ouran High School Host Club keeps some of them); more often they’ll be replaced by English equivalents (like Mr., Mrs., teacher, big brother, etc.).  Some manga translations will also include them.  If you read Korean manhwa, like I do, there’s a whole other set you’ll have to learn, and they’re a little different.  My goal here isn’t to teach you Japanese (I don’t know anything but honorifics and greetings, anyway).  Rather, I want to make sure that you as readers and viewers, when you come across these elements, understand their basic meaning.  It helps to define and identify the relationships between characters, which is pretty important.

Here are the commonly used Japanese honorifics, typically used as suffixes to names (ex. Kris-chan, Andy-kun):

San (sahn) – A respectful title akin to Mr., Mrs. or Ms.  It can also be used with nouns, like calling a bookstore worker “honya-san” (“bookstore-san”); referring to a company (“Sony-san”); or in a childlike manner when referring to an object (like calling your stuffed rabbit “rabbit-san”).  If I’m talking about a manga artist or anime director (etc.), I might refer to them with “san.”  For example, I might refer to the author of Fruits Basket (Natsuki Takaya) as Takaya-san.

Kun (with a long vowel, sounds like “oo” in “foot”) – Used to refer to someone of a junior status by their senior, or when addressing male children or male teens.  Females also use this when addressing a male they feel close to or have known for a long period of time.  It can also be used for females.  Example: In Fruits Basket, the adult Shigure calls teenage girl Tohru Honda “Tohru-kun”, and Tohru calls her male classmate Yuki Sohma “Sohma-kun.”  It can also be noted that Tohru is using Yuki’s family name to refer to him, which is more respectful (Tohru is simply exceedingly polite).  However, later in the series, after they become closer, she begins calling him “Yuki-Kun,” to Yuki’s great embarrassment (and also delight; he’d never admit it to anyone, but the more familiar tone makes him happy).  Yuki refers to Tohru as “Honda-san,” despite their friendship, because he’s very polite and formal.

Tohru calls Yuki by his first name for the first time, in volume 3 of Fruits Basket.

Chan (like “chahn” not “can”) – Used toward a person that you find endearing.  It should never be used to refer to a superior, as it’s considered very rude.  Generally it is used for very young children and girls.  Also cute animals, lovers and between close friends.  This suffix can be used in a childlike manner as well, typically by young women referring to themselves in the first person, or by anyone attempting to act cute.  For example, the 3rd year (senior), very adorable, Honey Mitsukini from Ouran High School Host Club, runs around calling everybody “X-chan,” because he’s meant to create a cute and child-like image.  The English equivalent would be like calling someone “dear,” “honey,” or “darling.”

Senpai/kōhai (pronounced exactly as written, except that senpai comes out sounding like (and is often Romanized as) sempai) – Senpai is used to refer to one’s upperclassman, senior colleague, senior club member, etc.  It can be used alone or with a name.  A kōhai is the opposite of a senpai.  Often translated into English as upperclassman/senior and junior/lowerclassman.

Sensei (sensay) – For teachers, doctors, and people of authority.  A respectful title for someone who is a master of a given occupation or skill, like the head of a dojo, or writers and artists.  For example, if you are a manga artist, you might refer to a manga artist that you really admire as “sensei.”  Like senpai, it can be used alone or with a name.

Sama (sahma) – A more respectful version of san.  Can also be meant as “lord” or “lady.”  Used to refer to people of much higher rank than yourself, one’s own customers, or someone you greatly admire.  It’s considered extremely arrogant to refer to oneself as “sama.”

Shi – For formal writing, or very formal speech, particularly toward someone you are unfamiliar with or have not met.

Dono – An older form and title of respect, meaning “lord” or “master,” similar to “milord.”  It is typically only still used in formal practices, like on certificates and in tea ceremonies.

There are many others that are more specific, making reference to occupations or standings within companies, official titles (for royalty or people like the Prime Minister), or for martial arts rankings.  An obvious example I can think of right now, is the title of Shishō given to Kyo Sohma’s foster father (a martial arts instructor) in Fruits Basket.  Then there are familial honorifics, like okaa-san (mother), oto-san (father), onii-san (older brother), onee-san (older sister), or oji-san (uncle).  Some of these can be used affectionately toward people you are not technically related to; like referring to a familiar, middle-aged gentleman as “oji-san,” or a close female/male acquaintance as “onee-san/onii-san” (-chan or -sama can be used instead of -san, depending on the nature of the relationship or the amount of respect you want to show).  They can also be used in a rude manner, like street slang.  For example, a man yelling out to an attractive woman “Hey, sister!” on the street (“Hey!  Onee-chan!”).  Oba-san (aunt) or obaa-san (grandmother) can also be used this way, by either jokingly or rudely calling an older woman “Oba-san.”  The lead character of Yu Yu Hakusho, Yusuke Urameshi, refers to his mentor as “oba-san” in the Japanese, which is translated in the English dub as “old lady.”

Some of these are used differently in different areas of Japan, or are substituted by different forms altogether.  This is where you come across things like the Kansai dialect (which usually refers to a way of speech in the area around Osaka).  Typically it’s not an issue in translations.  You may notice in some manga that the author will make note of these things in a side column, because in the original Japanese it’s evident; in the translation, if the translators bother, it may be written in a similar English dialect.  An example, as far as voice acting goes, is Ayumu “Osaka” Kasuga from Azumanga Daioh, an Osakan transfer student given a southern hick voice in the English version.  There was an anime I watched recently with a character who would switch back and forth between Japanese dialects (she wanted to seem refined, but would slip into what I think was the Kansai dialect when she got really excited or otherwise forgot herself); unfortunately I don’t remember the show, but it might have been Hayate no Gotoku.  In English this would usually be presented with a heavy accent (like Kasuga), or by using slang words.

Next week: A review of Matsuri Hino’s Captive Hearts manga.  I decided to hold off on the vampire titles until closer to Halloween, so make sure to check back for that near the end of October.




  1. I definitely needed this lesson! The phonetics key is especially helpful.

  2. Kristin

    Well, I hope it didn’t come across as too um…. Too much like a dictionary or something. I tried to spruce it up with some examples and pictures.

  3. Princess Powerful

    It didn’t. What you have is basic and the most apparent.

    Is it weird that I knew of those terms? ROFL I feel like a total dork XD

  4. […] that Sakae-chan will be attending the same art school as Takashiro.  (If you’ll recall my posting on Japanese honorifics, the suffix chan is typically applied to girls.)  Takashiro grows even more […]

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  7. Kristin


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