Japanese name suffix

  Difficulty: Introductory   Keywords: Culture & History

Table of contents

General guidelines

The Japanese have a name taboo; they avoid using names when possible. Using a name is rather intimate. Close friends, such as schoolmates, lovers, and family members, would use names. Omitting a title is either very friendly or very insulting, depending on the situation. The Japanese usually use the family name when they use names. Again, children are usually less formal, but the older the people involved, and the more formal the situation, the more polite the language becomes. It is perfectly polite and common in Japanese to address a complete stranger as ‘old lady’ or ‘grandfather’ or ‘elder sister’ or ‘Mr. Policeman’ or ‘miss’ or ‘boy’; one may also refer to one's boss as ‘boss’ without his name.

A complication is that the Japanese use more casual forms when talking about their own family or people associated with themselves, and more polite forms for others. In English, it is same as when I refer to my father as ‘Dad’ (casual) but I refer to your father as ‘your father’ (polite).

Using titles when learning Japanese

Learning to use titles correctly depends on developing a sensitivity to status and how it is influenced by gender, age, employment, situation, and so on. This sensitivity is invaluable in dealing with Japanese people, everything from seating arrangements to business negotiations depend on it. Younger people are less concerned about these details and are likely to be casual, while older people and traditional people will be more concerned about it.

Also note, that if you venture much beyond the standard -san, -sama, -kun, and -chan, you run the risk of offending somebody by using the titles wrong. The Japanese accord a considerable leeway to foreigners, but if you do try to play the game the Japanese way you might as well do it right. If you have a native Japanese speaker available they may not want to be your guinea pig either: it’s a lot of work to try and instruct foreigners in the Japanese language and they may be at a loss how to help you. Most Japanese are amazed that you know any of their language at all and will probably tell you that you’re doing fine no matter how badly you butcher it.

List of titles

N.B. External links of the form [ext]   are to Wiktionary; in some cases links to Wikipedia may be found there. Links of the form [ext] (no entry); indicate that Wiktionary had no lemma for the given element as of 2018-11-28.

Common titles

  • -san (さん, contraction of sama [ext]  ) ≈ Mr/Mrs/Ms/Miss: The -san suffix serves as a mark of respect. A person may be addressed with the -san suffix if the speaker does not know the subject well, but the speaker does not wish to be rude to the subject, or when the subject has a higher social rank than the speaker. Nobody can reasonably take offense at -san. (Well, some people can be offended by anything, but that is a different issue.) -san is used for both males and females. Girls become -san when entering high school, boys become -san when leaving high school. Obviously, individuals may have different experiences, but we’re talking about a rule of thumb. "Daniel-san!" – Mr. Kesuke Miyagi (Karate Kid 1984)
    • -han: Kansai (e.g. Osaka) dialect form of -san, probably equivalent in meaning.
  • -sama (様 [ext]  ): Sama is used as a polite term of address to someone noticeably older or of higher status than yourself. Thus clerks and waiters and other service sectors employees will call just about everybody -sama, probably as ‘o-kyaku-sama’ (Ms Guest, or Mr Guest). O-sama is also used as a stand-alone title. It’s very polite and shows either that the person you are addressing outranks you by a large margin, is much older than you, or you are in a very formal situation – or maybe you don’t know their name and need a polite address. It is sometimes translated into English as ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’, but it is more like ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. I can’t explain in which cases you call someone -sama other than the obvious cases: oto-sama (otō-sama) – instead of oto-san (otō-san) – to call your father if you have a rich family and have to show very very big big big respect to him; or when talking to a ‘Lord’ – so if you have more info about it, feel free to provide details. It is also used when referring to kami-sama (kami = god/paper/hair ; choose the one that fits ;) ). A good example is a maid calling her master Taro-sama (Taro is used as a Japanese generic name. Nothing to do with Taro Hanaukyo (花右京太郎 Hanaukyō Tarō), a character from Hanaukyo Maid Team :) ). I think this is rarely used nowadays. It can also be sarcastic. The title shi may be preferred.
    • okage-sama (おかげ様 ‘helpful person’ [ext] (no entry)) as in the expression ‘okage-sama de’ (Engl.: ‘thanks to you’; note that ‘you’ here is an inaccurate translation. Another person known to both speaker and listener could be meant.) The reason for using -sama here, I believe, is to express gratitude. (mdm)
  • -chan (ちゃん [ext]  ): An informal and/or affectionate version of san used to address children and female family members. Children under about 10 years of age are -chan, and it continues to be used as a term of endearment, especially for girls (e.g. among schoolgirls), into adulthood. Parents will probably always call their daughters -chan and their sons -kun. Adults will use -chan as a term of endearment to women with whom they are on close terms.-chan is also used with pets and animals mostly by children and young women. It is also used as a way of describing someone for who you have strong feelings towards such as a girlfriend or a crush that you would only address as chan while talking to friends.
    • Sexist Japanese men will also use it to address waitresses and other junior women. This is still quite common in Japan and is usually considered acceptable; feminism in Japan has had less effect than in the West.
  • -kun ( [ext]  ): Less familiar than -chan, generally for male children but also used a fair amount for girls. Also could be used when addressing a male of lesser status. High school boys are kun, but -kun can also be used a term of address by an older man to a younger man, or among friends and equals. Thus a boss can address a junior male employee as -kun, but the employee will address the boss as Kacho, or maybe -san or -sama, depending on the situation.
  • -senpai (輩 ‘elder male student’, pronounced and often spelt -sempai [ext]  ): Used to address senior members in an academic environment or in sports clubs. It is sometimes seen in business environments. Note that the kanji for ‘sen’ is the same kanji in both sensei and senpai – it originally means something like ‘wizard’. A senpai is specifically a male student more senior than the speaker. Elder students have a leadership role with junior students and ‘senpai’ recognizes that. However, not all young men show the maturity and knowlege that results in them being called ‘senpai’. ‘Senpai’ can be addressed as either -kun or -san depending upon their age and their relationship with the one addressing them. An older man would never call a younger man senpai, it is always from a junior student to a more senior male student. Recently senior female students have started to be addressed as senpai, but this is not yet widespread. The word is frequently spelled sempai according to the original version of Hepburn. NOTICE ME SENPAI!!!!!- (from Yandere Simulater ^^ Kawaii means cute. Kawaii~>_^
    • ShinGensou: The word ‘senpai’ is not exclusive to males; it is used by women towards other women as well.
  • -kohai ( kōhai [ext]  ): Used to address juniors, the reverse of senpai.
  • -sensei (先生 literally ‘born before’ [ext]  ): Means teacher. It can be used as a suffix -sensei, or as a stand-alone title, Sensei. You call someone that teaches you a particular subject -sensei. It is also used for an M.D. A sensei is therefore a subcategory of -sama. That is to say, not all -sama are sensei, but all sensei are -sama. Either sensei or -sama is correct for a teacher, but sensei is probably preferred, especially if the speaker has benefited from or hopes to benefit from the teacher’s knowledge.
  • -shi ( [ext]  ): Used in formal writing to refer to a person unfamiliar to the speaker. Shi is often used in newsreaders, legal documents, and academic journals.
  • kacho (課長 kachō, ‘boss’, literally ‘supervisor’ [ext]  ): Used to refer to one’s boss; it is acceptable to refer to them as ‘Kacho’ without their name. Note that in large businesses there are ranks above the kacho, and people use their bosses’ actual titles.

Uncommon titles

  • -dono or -tono (both written 殿 [ext]  ): A title that literally means ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady,’ and also ‘milord’ and ‘milady’. It is obsolete, if you try to use it with modern Japanese they will think your brain has been addled by watching too many samurai movies. Some people, wanting a term of intermediate politeness between -san and -sama have adopted -dono, but this modern usage deviates from the old sense: -dono, as well as the stand-alone titles Dono and O-dono (お殿) are much higher status than -sama or -san, which are both relatively modern words.
  • -ue (, ‘above’ [ext]  ): Like -san, it is used to denote respect for someone. It is no longer very common. Sometimes it is used to refer to one’s own or another person’s mother (母上, haha-ue [ext] (no entry)) or father (父上, chichi-ue [ext] (no entry)).
  • -iemoto (家元 [ext]  ): A more formal version of sensei used to refer to important persons at events related to traditional Japanese art forms such as calligraphy or a tea ceremony.

Titles for females

  • o-nee-san (お姉さん, ‘elder sister’ [ext]  ): A young woman older or more senior than the speaker. It is extremely common for familial names to be used for all categories of people. Boys can be addressed as ‘elder brother’ and ‘younger brother’, girls as ‘elder sister’ and ‘younger sister’, etc.
  • o-jo-san (さん, ‘miss’ [ext]  ): Acceptable when addressing an adult woman, since it uses ‘-san’.
  • o-ne-chan (お姉ちゃん o-nē-chan [ext] (no entry)): Also means ‘miss’ but is very informal; it corresponds pretty well to the English term ‘girl’. O-ne-chan is acceptable as a form of address for a young girl (under 10). Many older men to address waitresses as ‘o-ne-chan’, but see the remarks under -chan.
  • o-ba-chan (ちゃん ‘grandmother’ [ext] (no entry)):

Older terms still used for women by some older speakers:

  • -jo (¿嬢, ‘older sister’ [ext]  ?): Used to be used for single women, but now usually replaced by -san.
    • Patrick Traill: This is the only missing Japanese form I have been unable to find with the help of Wiktionary as of 2018-11-28; I suppose it may be the central part of o-jo-san, but the [ext] Wiktionary page does not say it can be used as a suffix nor does it make clear to me that it can be read as jo.
  • -fujin (夫人 [ext]  ): Used to be used for married women, but now usually replaced by -san.

Titles for older people

A male in a generation older than the speaker could be addressed as ‘uncle’ and a woman in a generation older than the speaker could be addressed as ‘aunt.’ Note that ‘aunt’ is not acceptable to many young women as they feel it suggests a rather matronly figure. Note also that the titles ‘father’ and ‘mother’ are rarely used, men and women of this generation are usually addressed as ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’. However, it is common to address old people as ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandmother’.

Other terms used in names

  • no (, ‘of’ [ext]  ): Used in old fashioned speech after the family name: Fujiwara no Sai is the old-old fashioned form of Fujiwara Sai.

Version history

2003-03-11 Charles Matthews: Moved Sensei here.
2006-01-07 Vicious Man: Merged much material originally written by Moonprince from Japanese Titles to this page.
2018-11-27 Patrick Traill: Cleaned up formatting; removed duplicate text; supplied more headings and TOC; supplied some missing kanji; added links to Wiktionary (on which I relied heavily, as I know barely any Japanese).

Discussion and comments

Note from moonprince: (I have made my girlfriend laugh more than a few times with my fumbling efforts. Thank goodness she laughed when I tried out ‘uwaki’ which I had been told was a term for a girlfriend. Ooooooooops.)

moonprince: We can spend a lot of words on Japanese titles and their proper usage, so I’m trying a new page for that discussion. JapaneseTitles

Scartol: I wasn’t sure where to put this question, so if there’s a more appropriate place, please move it.

Can anyone provide a brief explanation of how extension names work in Japanese? I’ve been reading HikaruNoGo and I’m a bit unsure about when to call someone -san, -kun, etc. I understand the sensei protocol, but that’s about it. Thanks.

HolIgor: Well, it depends. At the moment people of the same age (Shindo, Toya, Waya) do not use any honorific. But if Waya’d call Hikaru sensei, that would mean something sort of "fella".

Isumi is several years older therefore he is Isumi-san. Tsubaki was Tsubaki-kun for a moment to a great embarassment of the judges. But what amazed me that Mitani’s sister was "Mitani no onee san" as if she had no name of her own. And the girl in the go club was simply "onee san" (elder sister). Girls become "san" much sooner than boys, because Tsutsui-san called Akari "Fujisaki-san" though she is the same age as Hikaru. And Tsutsui is one or two years older so he is rightly "Tsutsui-san".

By the way Sai is Fujiwara no Sai as if he was owned by Fujiwara family.

  • Note from ViciousMan: The above applies to the Japanese versions of Hikaru no Go. In the English manga Akari calls Kimihiro "Kimihiro", and I think Kimihiro calls her "Akari". Characters address each other differently in the English manga and most likely will in the English anime.

Bill: Fujiwara no Sai is the old-old fashioned way of saying Fujiwara Sai. "No" (of) does not denote ownership, any more than "de" (of) in Hernando De Soto or Jeanne d’Arc.

splice: Actually, I disagree to some degree with Bill’s statement. It makes a lot of sense to me that Hernando De Soto would mean Hernando of the Soto family, and Fujiwara no Sai would mean Sai of the Fujiwara family. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the origin of the old way of naming people. It does not necessarily denote ownership in any way, but it does denote inclusion in a group.

Bill: Actually, splice, we agree. :-)

MrKoala: Just an historical point about Jeanne d’Arc. She used to bear her father’s name ("D’Arc"), which comes from the village around which he was born ("Arc en Barrois" or "Art sur Meurthe", two close villages). I’m not sure about Hernando de Soto either, but I agree about Sai-sensei :)

Karl Knechtel: As I have remarked on KGS and elsewhere, I would be quite pleasantly amused by a translation of HikaruNoGo which rendered Sai’s name as "Sai McFujiwara". ;)

About Japanese, the term for the elder sister is "onee-san" (With two "e" and one "n"). Anyway, here is my experience about Japanese titles :

KarlKnechtel: I don’t know who contributed the original bit here, but I am assured that -kun is used a fair bit for girls too, and is more to do with the supposed (believed-to-be-required) level of respect. Supposedly -chan indicates more familiarity, but the schoolgirls call each other -chan, no problem. As for Tsutsui-san referring to Akari as -san, again I think that boils down to a matter of respect - and not wanting to be interpreted as being attracted to her.

All of this business can make some anime very difficult to understand - especially (IMO) Fruits Basket, where the animation is such that it’s already hard to tell everyone’s gender.

I am told there exist anime series where schoolgirls who fall in love with each other (and themes like homosexuality certainly do figure more prominently in animation on the other side of the Pacific) revert to addressing each other as -san!

  • -chan = little : You say that to someone you have affection for. You generally kindly call a little child "-chan". As an example, I think that Sai-sensei once said "Why don’t you buy Akari-chan some beginner books ?". You can also call a person you’ve known since childhood that way. That’s can also be the "-kun" for the girls. If you have real affection for your elder sister, you can call her (o-)nee-chan. But it can also be used the reverse way, that is calling "-chan" someone you disrespect so much that you consider him as a child.
  • -sensei = teacher : You call someone that teaches you a particular subject "-sensei". As far as I know, it is also used for an M.D.
  • -sempai = elder : in the sense of classmate or fellow or of the same group.
  • -kohai = junior: underclassman or of a lower rank within peers
  • -"blank" = close friend: Nowadays more people offer to have you call them by their first name only, but this is only used in relationships of notable intimacy. Close friends, family members (usually), lovers, etc. It’s considered an honor for someone to allow you to use that level of intimacy with them.

Karl Knechtel: I’ve also seen "senpai". Is that the same thing? "Sensei" is a "teacher", but carries the connotation of being "first (eldest) among students", from what I understand - a bit of humility appropriate for the culture.

Zarlan: Senpai is the correct spelling, but it is pronunced (and therefore often spelled) sempai. When the lone N is followed by a B, P or M, it is pronunced M. Sensei doesn’t actualy mean teacher. It is used for teachers, but also doctors or other important people. Examples from HikaGo: Kuwabara-sensei (he is hardly teaching the whole institiute, now When Akira is taking the pro-exam Ichikawa-san gets worried that people will insist that she should call him ‘sensei’.

If some people have information about the "-han" suffix (e.g. used in kendoka families), please tell me. I know it also means "half" (like in "gomokuhan", five moku and a half), so is "Ranma-han" a play-on-words or not ? Some information about "-dono" and "-shi" would be nice also.

But I think you have to feel these titles. As a general principle, I think you call someone according to the respect YOU want to show her (for the sake of what you are to and/or what you’re feeling towards the person you are referring/talking to). If you want to insist on the fact that he/she teaches you go, you will call her "sensei". You can also think : "There’s been a long time since I haven’t seen this man and he used to teach me go back then and I used to call him "sensei" for this reason. I’m happy to see him again and my respect for him as my former teacher hasn’t changed, so I will call him "sensei" again."

Incarlight: "-han" is the Kansai dialect version of "-san". I don’t think there’s a practical difference between the two other than that. "-dono" is an older suffix not used much nowadays (that I can think of). I’m not entirely sure where it lands on the politeness scale, but it should be somewhere around "-sama". And after some googling, I found that "-shi" lies between "-san" and "-sama". It’s used for professionals like engineers or lawyers.

ChaoSpectre: If I remember correctly, "-dono" infers a personal loyalty or respect, like a samurai would use. "-dono" means lord, and is above "-sama" in that respect.

BobMcGuigan- "Sensei" literally means "born before" and can be used with anyone older than the speaker. It does not specifically mean teacher, but it is also used that way, as in "high school teacher". In the context of martial arts and go it is used for teachers or anyone one wishes to show respect to for their skill. Even though Kikuchi Yasuro is not a professional go player, he would undoubtedly be addressed as sensei out of respect for his age, his teaching of many professionals, and his skill in go.

"San" is the universal suffix of politeness. Unless you are very close to someone (e.g. family member) you must use a suffix to avoid risking rudeness. "Kun" is used by males about or to a male subject when the speaker is older or the same age as the subject, and where there is a strong relationship such as fellow student. A boss might use "kun" with a valued, close subordinate. "Sama" is rarely used nowadays except in formal letter writing. "Sama" was common in feudal times when a vassal spoke to or about a lord. Forms of address are complicated by such things as relative social status of speaker and hearer and subject. You can’t go far wrong in ordinary speech if you use "san". "Sensei" for teachers or doctors is OK, too.

Zarlan: I believe "Sama" is a bit more common than that. Isn’t it sometimes used when talking about idols?

"Kun" is also used a bit more and I am quite certain about that. I’ve heard it used (in anime) by and about/to female subjects. I don’t think it is used that much about/to female subjects ""Perhaps"" a little less used by female speakers too.

And now more the important issue of Sai’s name: The no-particle has been used after surnames, sure. Now I am a mere animefan that is trying to learn a bit of Japanese, but wouldn’t that mean that you would then write it as "surname"+"no"+"given name"? I’ve seen a few subtitled episodes of the anime, and there they write Fujiwara no Sai, as apposed to the manga at [ext] toriyamaworld, where they write Fujiwarano Sai. Is that because the animetranslators assumed that the name was "Sai of Fujiwara" and the mangatranslators understood that it is Fujiwarano Sai?

‘Fujiwara’ is definitely the surname. The name is indeed "Sai of Fujiwara" in the same way that "Ronald McDonald" is "Ronald of Donald". The Japanese habit of putting surnames first works harmoniously with the Japanese grammar (post-positions rather than prepositions) in this case. Running "Fujiwarano" together like that is an attempt to make the name look "normal", I presume - so that "no" isn’t interpreted as some weird sort of middle initial or something. Similar perhaps to putting "Jeanne d’Arc" rather than "Jeanne de Arc".

Sai’s name is according to [ext] jump, [ext] tv-tokyo and [ext] studio pierrot http://jump.shueisha.co.jp/hikaru/imgs/chara/n_sai.gif. When I checked it in a good dictionary (edict) the result was a couple of names. Including Fujiwara, but also Fujiwarano

BTW... Is the only way to write stuff in Japanese here that IE-specific thing where you write the unicode-number? (which I don’t know how the heck your supposed to use)

HTML character entities for Unicode are not IE-specific. The encoding in normal HTML source looks like &#<character number, in decimal>;, where the character numbers range up to 65,535. (Unicode is consistently 16-bits wide, except with UTF-8 which uses a sort of Huffman-coding scheme to represent common characters - ASCII 0 through 127, actually - in one byte at the expense of using three for some others.) In Wiki source here, you can (now) just include those entities directly. (Italicized comments from Karl Knechtel)

This is a common misconception about 16-bit Unicode. UTF-16 is not always 2 bytes wide. Occasionally characters are 4 bytes wide. These are called surrogate pairs. They make UTF-16 just as cumbersome as UTF-8. (Italicized comments from David Hunt?)

mdm: Another use for -sama would be okage-sama (engl.: helpful person) as in the expression okage-sama de (engl.: thanks to you; note that you here is an inaccurate translation. Another person known to both speaker and listener could be meant.) The reason for using -sama here, I believe, is to express gratitude.

ViciousMan: The following comments were originally posted at Japanese Titles.

ShinGensou: The word ‘senpai’ is not exclusive to males. It is used by women towards other women as well. It is a deferential term, acknowledging that the subject is of a higher status than you - usually having to do with number of years of participation in a club, company or other organized entity.

Jhereg: I have a question. I’ve always called my grandmother O-ba-chan. You have said that ‘chan’ is used for children. If this is so, why am I using ‘chan’ when refering to my grandma?

Jhereg: Ummmmm....ok...if you want to answer, my email is musicgirl51@hotmail.com thanx.

kokiri chan is a soft term and can be used in a friendly way - your grandmother would be a good example unless you’re in a particularly old fashioned family. I have male friends who are usually called, e.g. take-chan and if I were chatting up a girl in her 20’s, I’d almost certainly call her ne-chan; a bit too friendly? - maybe but sexist, not really.

Jhereg: Ok, arigatou kokiri. I was worried there for a minute that I’d been calling my grandma a kid :)

han: -san in the Osaka dialect

Japanese name suffix last edited by PJTraill on February 16, 2019 - 12:04
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