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Japanese Honorifics: The Ultimate Language Guide!

Thalia HarrisThalia Harris
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March 15, 2024
Three people in a room who most likely use Japanese honorifics.

Japanese honorifics are titles people use to show respect! It’s an essential facet of language learning, and it can make your experience much smoother if you ever visit! Here’s a quick guide to everything you need to know: honorifics in the Japanese language!

What are honorifics?

Honorifics are unique words used in different cultures to show respect, politeness, and social hierarchy when talking to someone. They can be titles, words added to names, or pronouns that show the relationship between people, their status, or the level of formality. 

They are significant because they show that you respect the person you’re talking to and their position. Different languages and cultures have honorific systems that show their values and traditions!

A geisha with a full face of makeup.
Japanese honorifics are a way to show respect. Image via Shutterstock

For example, in English, honorifics include “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Miss,” and “Ms.” These titles are used to show that you respect the person you’re talking to. Professional honorifics like “Dr.” and “Rev.” also show that someone is a doctor or a reverend. And some people have titles like “Baroness” or “Sir” that show they have done something extraordinary. 

In formal settings, people use titles like “Sir,” “Madam,” and “Miss” to show respect to men, older women, and younger women. Now, let’s talk about some crucial honorifics to know in Japanese!

“-san” and “-sama”

In Japan, people use “honorifics” to show respect and politeness when talking to each other. The two most common honorifics are “-san” and “-sama”. “-San” is like saying “Mr.” or “Ms.” in English and is used for both formal and informal situations. It can be used between people of any age and even for animals or occupations! However, it is not used for close people, like family members or best friends.

Two business people bowing to each other, who most likely do Japanese honorifics.
“San” is the most common Japanese honorific. Image via Shutterstock

“-Sama” is a more formal and respectful version of “-san” and is used for people of higher rank or status. For example, it respects customers, guests, or admired people. It is important to understand when to use each honorific because it shows how well you know Japanese culture and respect the other person.

“-kun” and “-chan”

There are also two particular words people use to show familiarity, respect, and affection: “-kun” and “-chan”. “-Kun” is used for boys or young men to show closeness or friendship. It is usually used when talking to someone younger or of a lower status, but it can also be used among friends or colleagues in the workplace.

A Japanese family hanging out in the living room.
“Kun” and “chan” are for more familiar people. Image via Shutterstock

On the other hand, “-chan” is for girls or young children to show endearment and affection. It is often added to a girl’s name or pet name or used by close friends or family members to show love and warmth in relationships. Knowing when to use “-kun” and “-chan” appropriately is essential because they show how familiar you are with the other person.

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“-senpai”

People use “-senpai” in social contexts, particularly in schools and workplaces. This word refers to someone with more experience or senior to you in a group, organization, or field of study. By using “-senpai,” people show respect and recognition for the knowledge and guidance more experienced people provide.

Two Japanese schoolgirls who most likely use "senpai" one of many Japanese honorifics.
The senpai (senior) and kohai (junior) experience is very important in the school and the workplace. Image via Shutterstock

This word is common in Japanese schools, clubs, and workplaces to acknowledge the hierarchy. Understanding the role of “-senpai” is essential because it demonstrates respect for seniority and appreciation for the mentorship and leadership offered by those with more experience.

“-sensei”

A male Japanese teacher.
“Sensei” is for a person of expertise. Image via Shutterstock

People “sensei” to show respect and admiration for someone who is a teacher or an expert in their field. It’s like calling someone a “pro” or a “master” in English. You can use “-sensei” to address doctors, professors, artists, martial arts instructors, and anyone who has worked hard to become good at what they do. Using this word is essential because it shows you appreciate the hard work and knowledge of the person you’re talking to.

Why should I learn about Japanese honorifics?

Understanding Japanese honorifics is essential because it’s a significant part of Japanese culture. It’s a way to show respect, politeness, and social hierarchy. Using honorifics correctly is crucial to avoid unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings.

A woman holding up a card that has the word "Nihongo" written on a card.
What other Japanese honorifics do you know? Image via Shutterstock

By using the correct honorific based on someone’s age, position, and relationship with you, you can ensure you’re respectful and aware of Japanese culture. Do you know any other Japanese honorifics? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments below.

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Thalia Harris

Writer living in Tokyo who likes stories, music and video games. <3

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