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Japanese Honorifics Guide: San, Kun, Chan, Sama and More

Have you ever felt confused about all those -kun, -chan and -senpai you hear when watching anime? I am sure you have wondered about the meaning of these Japanese suffixes. After reading this post your Japanese will sound more natural as you will learn how to use Japanese honorifics!

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japanese honorifics suffixes san kun chan sama sensei senpai kouhai

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Most languages use them: “Mr.”, “Mrs”, “Sir”, “Dr”… But in Japanese there are more of them, and they are a lot more nuanced. They are often attached to a name as a suffix, but some can stand alone, such as sensei.

In Japanese there are both formal and informal honorifics, plus some familial honorifics. The use of honorifics is considered very important in Japan, and calling somebody by just his name without adding a title is a lack of good manners.

Here is the list of 10 Japanese honorific titles and how to use them!

-San (さん), the most common honorific, equivalent to “Mr.” or “Mrs.” It’s a title of respect between equals, so it’s okay to use for anyone, especially if you are not sure which honorific to use. It can also be attached to occupation names. For example, ‘bookstore (本屋) + san (さん) = “bookseller” (本屋さん).’

-Kun (くん), the most commonly used honorific in anime. It is used to address young males. It is also used by superiors to inferiors and male of the same age and status.

-Chan (ちゃん), most frequently used for girls and between them, children, close friends, or lovers. This can be used when somebody finds a person, a pet, or something adorable and cute. You don’t want to use it with a superior, unless you want to be fired! -Sama (さま), the more formal version of san. Usually used to refer to customers who are deserving of the utmost respect status in Japan, people of higher rank, or somebody you admire.

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-Niisan/Neesan (兄さん / 姉さん), is used when referring to one’s older brother or sister, or any relative or close friend. -Jisan/Basan (じさん / ばさん), is used when referring to one’s uncle or aunt or any middle-aged adult the user is already acquainted with. Also there is Jiisan/Baasan (じいさん/ばあさん), which literally refer to one’s grandfather and grandmother, and is also used to refer to older adults the speaker is acquainted with. Neither of these are seen as insulting, but watch out not to use them with a person sensitive about his/her age!

-Dono (どの), roughly means “lord” or “master”, and lies below sama in its respect level. It’s a title that has almost gone out of use in daily conversation. When it is used, it is usually as a joke expressing an exaggeration of age.

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Here are some honorific titles that can stand on their own:

Senpai (せんぱい), the equivalent of “senior.” This is used for classmates in higher grades and all people with more experience than yourself either at work, club, or in any kind of group.

Kōhai (こうはい), the equivalent of “junior” and the opposite of senpai. As it can appear condescending, it is not used as a suffix.

Sensei (せんせい), is used to refer to teachers as well as people who are experts in their respective fields, whether doctors, artists, or lawyers. It shows respect to someone who has mastered some skill.

To go further and master this lesson:

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Now that you mastered Japanese honorific suffixes you can move on prefixes! This video lesson is already available on our website and you will learn why and how to use Japanese prefix!

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