If you’re familiar with Japanese culture or the Japanese language, you may have come across Japanese honorifics. You may have heard of the words kun, sama, chan or san, but be unsure on their meanings. Whilst there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ rule for any of these honorifics, it’s important to know the kun, sama, chan, san meanings in order to be relatively informed in the language. We run through all Japanese honorifics and their meanings in this blog post so you can feel more confident using them in the future.
Common Japanese Honorifics Explained
Kun is a masculine suffix used for teenagers and young men. Usually, Kun is used when someone of a higher status is talking to someone younger than them, such as a classmate or younger brother. This term is still relatively informal, and can even be used with the opposite gender – but only if you’re close with them!
Chan is derived from children who couldn’t say ‘san’ properly, a cute mistake that has since spiralled into everyday vocabulary. You use ‘chan’ to refer to young women, children, babies, your grandmother or even sometimes animals you like. You should only use this term when talking about people you are close to, and that you’re fond of.
Senpai and kohai
Used mostly within schools, Senpai is used by students when addressing senior students in learning environments or sports clubs. Kohai, however, is used the other way round: senior students addressing junior students within a school environment.
You may have heard of the word Sensei, however, it has more meanings than you may originally think. Sensei can be used to address teachers, doctors, lawyers or any other authority figure. It implies a high level of respect to someone who has mastery in a specific skill, for example, famous musicians or artists. For those in authority positions referring to traditional art forms, such as calligraphy or tea ceremonies, the word ‘iemoto’ is used instead. To learn more about the culture of Japanese calligraphy
, read our blog post which outlines the history of the art form and it’s significance within culture.
Considered the most formal suffix, Sama is very special. This is a higher status version of ‘San’ and should be used towards people who hold great authority, such as Japanese deities. It implies superiority and is often used to refer to customers, as ‘the customer is king’ in Japanese culture. It can be used in a plural sense, such as addressing an audience or clients in a business meeting. Use it with care!
Mostly used in formal writing such as speeches, Shi refers to a person who I unfamiliar to the speaker, eg. A person the speaker has never met. Newsreaders use this often to disassociate personal relations, and it is commonly used in legal documents and academic journals.
San is the most commonly used honorific within the Japanese language. You can use it with anyone you don’t really know, regardless of gender or age. It’s a very neutral term and is considered non-offensive and fail-safe.
Occupation Based Japanese Honorifics Explained
Sometimes occupation-related titles may be used instead of general honorifics. For example, for an elite athlete, they may be referred to as their name + senshu, rather than ‘san’. Inside companies, it’s very common for people to refer to those in high ranking positions by their title, such as ‘shacho’ for company president, or ‘bucho’ for department chief.
How to Use Japanese Honorifics
In Japanese culture, people very rarely refer to each other using their first names. Due to this, Japanese honorifics are tied to peoples last names. However watch out – it’s very rude to call someone simply by their last name! They key to understanding honorifics is to grasp the hierarchal structure of Japanese society. Japan uses hierarchy to implement structure within everyday movements. A person’s job is a major influence as to where you are ranked in Japanese society.
Depending on your status level, this will denote how you speak to others, and how others speak to you. The more formal language, used by those in positions of high status, is called Keigo
Honorifics don’t only vary depending on the status of a person, but also based on their gender, background, education and gender. Honorifics are nuanced and complex, but must be respected as an integral part of culture.
When Not To Use Japanese Honorifics
Now you know all Japanese honorifics and their meanings, it’s important to understand when not to use them. You should never use honorifics when talking about yourself: honorifics are reserved for talking about others only. Similarly, if someone asks you not to use honorifics, you should respect their wishes politely. When you are talking with close family members, it’s unlikely that you will use honorifics due to your close relationship with them.
Well done – now you know kun sama chan san meanings, and the basics of Japanese honorifics and their meanings! The rules of honorifics are relatively basic when written down on paper, however their usage is complex and can be difficult to understand as a beginner. Don’t worry though – as a traveller or foreigner, you may be cut some slack! If you’re every unsure on what to say or how to use an honorific, simply ask. It’s much better to ask someone and be clear than accidentally offend somebody! Why not keep a note of the common honorifics your address book
? Alternatively, learn more about Japanese culture through our wide selection of Japanese books.
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