Respect is one of the most cherished values of Japanese culture. And the Nipponjin express their respect to one another through Honorifics. Honorifics are representative of your status in society thus different suffixes are used in specific situations.
Informal suffixes are most of the time used to address people with the same social status as yourself and the opposite is true for Formal suffixes. It is very important to distinguish the difference between both to go through a conversation without offending the other party.
So let’s talk about the meaning and proper use of Chan, San, and Kun, since you are sure to come across one of them in most conversations.
Table of Contents
Japanese Honorific 101 – Everything You Need To Know
What does San mean in Japanese?
San is a unisex suffix that can be used for both males as well females. It’s a substitute for “Mrs.”, “Ms.”, or “Mr.”, a formal and informal suffix (subscript) used to address superior as well as equals or people you just met.
It is the most popular honorific and the easiest to use, a safe choice in moments of doubt. It is attached at the end of a person’s name, occupation, or official title. For example, if you want to address a proprietor (boss or owner of a business,) it can be “Mochinushi-san.”
You can even add this suffix to a company name as you refer to it, or an animal like for example Sakana-san meaning fish. San also has a more formal equivalent, “Sama” used to address people of higher social status or people you work for.
For example, a maid might call her master Goshujin-sama.
What does Chan mean in Japanese?
Chan is a derivative of San used exclusively for females. It can be for children, close friends, family members, lovers, and even animals. We can conclude that it is an informal suffix that is not used to address strangers.
Calling someone using Chan can be considered as a way of pampering or spoiling as you will use this honorific to address people, animals, or things you find Kawaii, cute.
It can be added at the end of the person’s name or a nickname. For example, Hinata might be called Hina-chan.
In rare circumstances, only for phonetic reasons, a boy might be addressed with Chan if this name does not sound good if the suffix Kun is added. For example, Tsubasa called Tsuba-chan may ring better in your ear than Tsuba-Kun.
What does Kun mean in Japanese?
Simply put, Kun is the opposite of Chan. It is reserved to address males instead of females. What differs is that it will most probably be used for young boys as older ones might get insulted to be considered cute. It also shows that the superior is addressing the inferior, so you have to carefully assess each person’s social status before using it.
In rare cases, a superior, in the workplace, may address his female employee by using Kun because this suffix is considered to be more respectful than Chan.
Also, a female might use Kun to address a male she is very close to and has a strong feeling for, like for example, her lover.
Those honorifics are only the tip of the iceberg, many more are worth mentioning since, we, anime fans, come across them daily. So let’s go over the most confusing ones.
What does Senpai & Kohai mean in Japanese?
Senpai refers to a person, not necessarily older, but a person who has more experience in a specific domain. Although it is mostly used to refer to a senior at school it can be used to address seniors at the workplace or in a sports club. The people who were there before you are your Senpai’s even if they are younger.
Well, you guessed it, Kohai is the opposite of Senpai. It refers to the juniors.
What does Sensei mean in Japanese?
A lot of people mistakenly use “Sensei” only for professors or teachers but “Sensei” is also descriptive for doctors and lawyers. Anyone that we look upon as an authority figure or a Master in a specific field. It is used to acknowledge someone that achieved a superior level of mastery and skill in a domain. This is why artists can also be addressed using “Sensei“.
What does Fujin mean in Japanese?
Like Chan, Fujin is allocated for women. It’s similar to “Mrs.” and mostly used to refer to someone’s wife. It is a prestigious honorific meant to address women of high status like politicians or celebrities.
What do Dono & Tono mean in Japanese?
I added those honorifics to the mix even if they are not used in the modern age because, frankly, I was very curious about them.
Turns out that those two honorifics mean the same thing. The same Kanji is used to write both of them and it means “Lord”. It was used in the paste between Nobles to address each other with the same level of respect and the servants had the liberty to use Dono, Tono, or Sama.
Since we started to mention royalty, let’s continue on this path.
Those are the most famous titles of royalty:
Heika means Majesty.
Denka means Royal Highness.
Kakka means Your Excellence.
To end on a special note, I just discovered that there are also honorifics to address criminals. For convicted criminals we use hikoku and for accused or criminals still on trial/awaiting trial the honorific yōgisha is more appropriate.
In a nutshell, honorifics are the Japanese way of being polite and they reflect the relationship between two individuals.
Being polite and respectful is a way to uphold your honor and the honor of your family.
If you are already familiar with the general Japanese culture, knowing which honorifics to use will be easier for you.
Appropriate honorifics have been created to match all kinds of individuals in all kinds of situations.
The Japanese have a very complex way of communicating but that’s what makes their culture and language so interesting and beautiful.
All the attention they give to reflect each person’s status is their way to show what they accomplished during their life even if it’s negative. Things they have the right to be recognized or persecuted for. If you think about it, everything related to the Japanese culture is very poetic and has a deeper meaning than what meets the eye.
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