Japanese uses a broad array of honorific suffixes for addressing or referring to people. These honorifics are gender-neutral and can be attached to first names as well as surnames.
When addressing or referring to someone by name in Japanese, an honorific suffix is usually used with the name. Dropping the honorific – referred to as yobisute (呼び捨て) – implies a high degree of intimacy and is reserved for one’s lover, younger family members, and very close friends, although within sports teams or among classmates it can be acceptable to use family names without honorifics. When referring to a third person, honorifics are used except when referring to one’s family members while talking to a non-family-member, or when referring to a member of one’s company while talking to a customer or someone from another company. Honorifics are not used to refer to oneself, except to be arrogant (see ore-sama, below), to be cute (see chan), or sometimes when talking to small children, to teach them how to address the speaker.
Chan (ちゃん) is a diminutive suffix; it expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. Thus, using chan with a superior’s name would be condescending and rude. In general, chan is used for babies, young children, and teenage girls. It may also be used towards cute animals, lovers, close friends, or any youthful woman. “Chan” in general is for females who know each other well.
Although traditionally honorifics are not applied to oneself, some young women adopt the childish affectation of referring to themselves in the third person using chan. For example, a young woman named Kanako might call herself Kanako-chan rather than using a first person pronoun.
Tan means the same thing as chan, except that it is often used by children when they mispronounce the word. It can be used to make things seem more cute when added to a name.
Kun (君【くん】) is used by persons of senior status in addressing or referring to those of junior status, or by anyone when addressing or referring to male children or male teenagers. It can also be used by females when addressing a male that they are emotionally attached to or have known for a long period of time. Although kun is generally used for boys, that isn’t a hard rule. For example, in business settings, young female employees may also be addressed as kun by older males of senior status.
In the Diet of Japan, chairpersons use kun when addressing diet members and ministers. An exception was when Takako Doi was the chairperson of the lower house: she used the san title.
Sama (様 【さま】) is a markedly more respectful version of san. It is used mainly to refer to people much higher in rank than oneself, toward one’s customers, and sometimes toward people one greatly admires. When used to refer to oneself, sama expresses extreme arrogance (or self-effacing irony), as with ore-sama (俺様, “my esteemed self”)..
Sama customarily follows the addressee’s name on postal packages and letters and in business email.
Sama also appears in such set phrases as o-machidō sama (“sorry to keep you waiting”), o-tsukare sama (an expression of empathy for people who have been working long and hard), and go-kurō sama (an expression recognizing someone’s labors), but although this is written with the same kanji, it is semantically distinct from the sama used as a term of address.
Tama and Chama are the child-like versions of sama when children mispronounce the word.
San (さん), sometimes pronounced han (はん?) (Kansai dialect) in the Kyoto area, is the most common honorific and is a title of respect similar to “Mr.”, “Miss”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.” However, in addition to being used with people’s names, it is also employed in a variety of other ways.
San is used in combination with workplace nouns, such that a bookseller might be addressed or referred to as honya-san (“bookstore” + san), and a butcher as nikuya-san (“butcher shop” + san).
San is sometimes used with company names. 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 can also be attached to the names of animals or even inanimate objects. For example, a pet rabbit might be called usagi-san, and fish used for cooking can be referred to as sakana-san. Both uses would be considered childish (akin to “Mr. Rabbit” in English) and would be avoided in formal speech. It’s also not uncommon even for married couples to refer to one another with san.
Online, Japanese gamers often append a numeral 3 to another player’s name to denote san (e.g. Taro3 conveys Taro-san), since the number three which is written 三 (さん, san) in Japanese is pronounced “san”.
Senpai and kōhai
Senpai (先輩 【せんぱい】) is used to address or refer to one’s senior colleagues in a school, company, sports club, or other group. So at school, the students in higher grades than oneself are senpai. Students of the same or lower grade are not senpai, nor are teachers. In a business environment, colleagues with more experience are senpai, but one’s boss is not a senpai. Like “Doctor” in English, senpai can be used by itself as well as with a name.
A kōhai (後輩 【こうはい】) is a junior, the reverse of senpai, but it is not normally used as an honorific.
Sensei (先生 【せんせい】) (literally meaning “former-born”) is used to refer to or address teachers, doctors, politicians, and other authority figures. It is used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill, and is also applied to novelists, poets, painters, and other artists, including manga artists. In Japanese martial arts, sensei typically refers to someone who is the head of a dojo. As with senpai, sensei can be used not only as a suffix, but also as a stand-alone title.
Sensei can be used fawningly, and it can also be employed sarcastically to ridicule such fawning. The Japanese media invoke it (rendered in katakana, akin to scare quotes or italics in English) to highlight the megalomania of those who allow themselves to be sycophantically addressed with the term.
Shi (氏 【し】) i is used in formal writing, and sometimes in very formal speech, for referring to a person who is unfamiliar to the speaker, typically a person known through publications whom the speaker has never actually 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. 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.
Dono (どの) is an old honorific used today. It has two uses: one that is more respectful and one that is a little less respectful than -sama, only because it keeps the speaker on the same level as the one they are speaking to.
The submissive version was used in feudal times where it meant lord or master. This was used to show great respect, often from someone of lower standing speaking to someone with a higher standing.
The equal version, which is used in some ways today and in the past, is for people who are higher up and are equals or view the other as their equal.