Your Honour? General Nonsense 27 JUN 2008

GeikoIf you’ve ever come across some Japanese manga or anime, you may be familiar with the idea of the Japanese honourific, usually taking the form of a suffix added at the end of the person’s name. The Japanese culture is (or at least was if you take a look at today’s youth culture) a culture grounded in politeness, social status and etiquette and as such the use of honourifics in their everyday speech is an absolutely essential part of the Japanese language.

While we also use a form of honourifics in English in way of titles (for example: Mr., Mrs., Ms or Dr.), these tend to be more informative than anything else and don’t really say much about the relationship between the two people who are communicating. Japanese honourifics on the other hand are often expressions of respect or endearment, but most importantly they always give that all important insight into the nature of the relationship between the two people.

What follows below is a list of the main honourifics that you might encounter should you ever make contact with the Land of the Rising Sun:

-san: this is the most common honourific that you will encounter and is equivalent to our ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, or ‘Ms’. Basically an all-purpose honourific which is used in any situation where politeness is required.

-sama: -sama is one level higher than -san and is used to confer great respect.

-dono: coming from the word “tono” which means “lord”, -dono conveys utmost respect and is placed even higher than -sama.

-kun: -kun is used at the end of boy’s names to express familiarity or endearment. It can also be used towards male friends.

-chan: this is used to express endearment, mostly towards girls but can also be used for little boys or pets, or even between lovers. Basically it is considered childishly ‘cute’.

[blank]: If you think it a bit funny to have this included here, it is probably one of the most important points that you should remember should you ever address a Japanese. Lack of an honourific is considered a great compliment if you are very close or intimate to the person that you are talking to, but conversely, a MAJOR insult if you are not on such terms with the person you are addressing!

And while I’m going on about honourifics, it might be prudent to add these few titles to the list as they are also quite common in the Japanese culture:

Bozu: The English equivalent to this would be “kid”, and is basically just an informal way to refer to a boy.

Sempai: Sempai is used to address any senior in a group or organisation. It is most often used in the school environment when addressing your seniors.

Kohai: The direct opposite of sempai, kohai is used towards underclassmen in school or newcomers in the workplace. Basically it denotes that the person being addressed is of a lower station.

Sensei: This title literally means “one who has come before” and is used for teachers, doctors, or masters of any profession or art.

So there you have. Now you should be well-equipped to deal with the fact that your Japanese sparring partner or business contact keeps calling you Craig-san instead of just Craig! (And why Oyama-san instead of just Oyama is a must if you want to keep the peace!)

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About Craig Lotter

South African software architect and developer at Touchwork. Husband to a cupcake baker and father to two little girls. I don't have time for myself any more.