sci.lang.japan FAQ / 13. Etiquette

13.5. 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, "Mr. Bookseller". A foreigner might be referred to as gaijin-san. (See also 6.3. Is 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.


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 typical of a kind of "baby talk" in Japanese where "sh" sounds are turned into "ch" sounds, such as chitchai for chiisai, "small".

Chan is also used for adults who are considered to be kawaii (cute). 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 9.1. 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 (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 9.1. 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 which san 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.

Other titles

Occupation-related titles

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 "farming experts".

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 other cases.

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 yōgisha (容疑者).

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 (有) in brackets.

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 company".

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

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