What is the difference between san, sama, kun and chan?
In Japan, when talking about other people, one uses honorific
titles. These go after the person's name. The most common title is
san. It means all of "Mr", "Mrs", and "Ms." Mr Tanaka is referred
to as Tanaka-san, as is Mrs Tanaka, and their unmarried
daughter. Other common titles include sama, a more polite version
of san, sensei, for teachers, kun and chan. These
titles are placed after the name. These titles are not usually used
with one's own name.
Correct use of titles is considered very important in Japan. Calling
somebody by just their name, without adding a title, is called
yobisute (呼び捨て), and is bad manners.
Although titles are usually added to people's names, there are some
exceptions. They are not used when talking about a family member, or
another member of one's "in-group", to someone from outside the
group. At work, Ms. Shimizu calls her boss "Tanaka san" when she talks
to him, or about him to other people. But when she talks to a customer
from outside their company, she calls him just "Tanaka".
Common honorific titles
San (さん) is the most common honorific title. San is
similar to "Mr", "Ms.", "Mrs", and so on. There is no kanji form for
san, it's written in hiragana.
San may also be used with a characteristic of a person. A
bookseller might be hon'ya-san (本屋さん), "Mr. Bookseller". A
foreigner might be referred to as gaijin-san (外人さん). (See
also Is gaijin a derogatory term?)
San is also used when talking about entities such as
companies. For example, the offices or shop of a company called
Kojima denki might be referred to as Kojima Denki-san by
another nearby company. This may be seen on the small maps often used
in phone books and business cards in Japan, where the names of
surrounding companies are written using san.
San is also applied to some kinds of foods. For example, fish
used for cooking are sometimes referred to as sakana-san.
Both san and its more formal equivalent, sama, imply
familiarity. In formal speech or writing, the
title shi may be preferred.
Kun (君) is informal and mostly used for males, such as boys or
juniors at work. It is used by superiors to inferiors, by males of
the same age and status to each other, and in addressing male
children. In business settings junior women may also be addressed as
kun by superiors.
Schoolteachers typically address male students using kun, while
female students are addressed as san or chan.
In the Diet of Japan, diet members and ministers are called kun
by the chairpersons. For example, Junichiro Koizumi is called
Koizumi Jun'ichirō kun. However, when Takako Doi, a woman, was
the chairperson of the lower house, she used the san title.
|Schwarzenegger AKA Shuwa-chan|
Chan (ちゃん) is a form of san used to refer to children
and female family members, close friends and lovers. The change from
san to chan is a kind of "baby talk" in Japanese where "sh"
sounds are turned into "ch" sounds, such as chitchai for
Chan is also used for adults who are considered to be kawaii
(cute or loveable). For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger gained the
nickname Shuwa-chan (シュワちゃん).
Chan is sometimes applied to male children if the name does not
fit with the kun suffix. For example, a boy called Tetsuya
may be nicknamed Tetchan rather than Tekkun for reasons more
to do with phonetics than anything else.
Although it is usually said that honorifics are not applied to
oneself, some women refer to themselves in the third person using
chan. For example, a young woman named Maki might call
herself Maki-chan rather than using a first person pronoun like
watashi. Chan is also used for pets and animals, such as
usagi-chan. (See also What are the personal pronouns of Japanese?)
In the same way that chan is a version of san, there is also
chama (ちゃま) from sama. Other variations of chan
include chin (ちん), and tan (たん).
|Senpai and Kōhai|
Senpai and kōhai
Senpai (先輩) is used by students to refer to or address senior
students in an academic or other learning environment, or in athletics
and sports clubs, and also in business settings to refer to those in
more senior positions. Kōhai (後輩) is the reverse of this. It
is used to refer to or address juniors.
Sensei (先生) is used to refer to or address teachers, doctors,
lawyers, politicians, or other authority figures. It is also used to
show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in
some skill. It is used by fans of novelists, musicians, and artists.
For example, Japanese manga fans refer to manga artist Rumiko
Takahashi as Takahashi-sensei.
Sama (様) is the formal version of san. It's used in
addressing persons higher in rank than oneself, and in commercial and
business settings to address and refer to customers. It also forms
parts of set phrases such as o-kyaku-sama (customer) or
o-machidō-sama ("I am sorry to keep you waiting"). Sama
also follows the addressee's name on postal packages and letters.
Sama is also often used for people considered to have some high
ability or be particularly attractive. At the peak of his popularity,
Leonardo DiCaprio gained the nickname Leo-sama in Japan.
Sama is also occasionally used about oneself, as in the arrogant
male pronoun ore-sama, "my esteemed self", meaning "I". However,
this is not common outside fiction or humour. (See also
What are the personal pronouns of Japanese?)
Shi (氏) is used in formal writing, and sometimes in very
polite speech, for referring to a person who is unfamiliar to the
speaker, typically a person who the speaker has never met. For
example, the shi title is common in the speech of newsreaders. It
is preferred in legal documents, academic journals, and certain other
formal written styles because of the familiarity
or sama imply. Once a person's name
has been used with shi, the person can be referred to with
shi alone, without the name, as long as there is only one person
being referred to.
|Director Yasujiro Ozu|
Instead of the above general honorifics, it is fairly common to use
the name of the person's job after the name. It is common for sports
athletes to be referred to as name + senshu (選手) rather than
name + san. A master carpenter called Suzuki might have the title
tōryō (棟梁), meaning "master carpenter", attached to his name,
and be referred to as Suzuki-Tōryō rather than
Suzuki-San. Television lawyer Kazuya Maruyama is referred to as
Maruyama Bengoshi (丸山弁護士) (literally "Maruyama-lawyer")
rather than Maruyama-san.
Inside companies, it is also common to refer to people using their
company rank, particularly for those of a high rank, such as company
president, shachō (社長) or other titles such as
buchō (部長), department chief, etc.
Honorific job titles
The name of a job may have two versions. For example, "translator" may
be hon'yakuka (翻訳家) or hon'yakusha (翻訳者). Job
titles ending in ka (家), meaning "expert", usually imply some
kind of expertise, thus, by the rules of modesty in Japanese, they are
not usually used for oneself. The plain form with sha (者),
meaning "person", may be used by the person or in plain text, such as
the book title. Use of the ka ending implies respect. Similarly,
judo practitioners are jūdōka (柔道家), or "judo experts", and
manga authors are mangaka (漫画家) or "manga experts".
In the case of farmers, the old name hyakushō (百姓) (literally
"one hundred surnames") is now considered offensive, and farmers are
referred to, and refer to themselves as, nōka (農家), or
Honorific job titles such as sensei, which is applied to teachers
and doctors, also have plain forms. For example, in plain language, a
teacher is a kyōshi (教師) and a doctor is an isha (医者)
or ishi (医師). The polite versions are used when addressing or
talking about the person, but the plain forms of the jobs are used in
"Mrs Dewi" or "Madam Dewi"
Fujin (夫人) is a title similar to "Mrs" in English, used to
specify the wife of a couple. It tends to be used with persons of high
status, such as television celebrity Dewi Fujin (デヴィ夫人),
former wife of Indonesian president Sukarno.
Titles for criminals and the accused
Convicted criminals are referred to with the title hikoku (被告)
instead of san. For example, Matsumoto hikoku of Aum
Shinrikyo. Suspects awaiting trial are referred to by the title
Titles for companies
As mentioned above, companies often refer
to each other's offices informally using the company name plus
san. In correspondence, the title onchū (御中) is added to
the company name when the letter is not addressed to a specific person
in the company. Furthermore, the legal status of the company is
usually included, either incorporated, kabushikigaisha (株式会社), or limited, yūgen gaisha (有限会社). These may be
abbreviated with the kanji kabu (株) or yū (有) in
There are also separate words for "our company", heisha (弊社),
which literally means "clumsy/poor company", and "your company",
kisha (貴社) or onsha (御社), meaning "honoured
Organizations that provide professional services, such as law or
accounting firms, may have sha substituted by jimusho (事務所), meaning "office".
Dono and tono
Dono and tono, both written "殿" in kanji, roughly mean
"lord". This title is no longer used in daily conversation, though it
is still used in some types of written business correspondence. It is
also seen on drug prescriptions, certificates and awards.
Ue (上) literally means "above" and, appropriately, denotes a
high level of respect. While its use is no longer very common, it is
still seen in constructions like chichi-ue (父上) and
haha-ue (母上), reverent terms for father and mother.
Iemoto (家元) is an even more polite version of sensei used for the highest ranking persons in traditional art forms such as calligraphy or the tea ceremony.
Titles for royalty and others
- Heika (陛下) is affixed to the end of a royal title, with
a meaning similar to "Majesty". For example, Tennō heika (天皇陛下) means "His Majesty, the Emperor" and Joō heika (女王陛下)
means "Her Majesty, the Queen". Heika by itself can also be used
as a direct term of address, similar to "Your Majesty".
- Denka (殿下) is affixed to the end of a royal title, with
a meaning similar to "Royal Highness" or "Majesty". For example
Suwēden Ōkoku Bikutoria Kōtaishi denka (スウェーデン王国 ビクトリア皇太子殿下) "Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Victoria of the
Kingdom of Sweden".
- Kakka (閣下) means "Your Excellency" and is used for
ambassadors and some heads of state.
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