If you have watched Japanese anime with other language’s subtitles, you would hear “san”, “kun”, or “sama” with someone’s name. That is actually one of honorifics in Japanese. Politeness has always been very important part when we talk about Japanese culture. Ever since 封建時代(houken-jidai, the feudal era), when Japan was highly stratified society, use of honorifics has played an essential role in the Japanese language since honorifics can be defined as polite speech that indicates people’s relationship or status. When addressing someone in Japanese, an honorific usually takes the form of a suffix attached to one’s name. (example: “Risa-san”) It is used as a title at the end of one’s name, or appears in place of the name itself. For example, 先生(sensei) means teacher, so students call their teachers “Family name +sensei” or simply “Sensei”.
Honorifics can be expressions of respect or endearment. In contexts of manga and anime, honorifics give insight into the nature of the relationship between characters. Today, I would like to talk about Japanese honorifics briefly.
～さん(-san): This is the most common honorific and it is equivalent to Mr., Miss, Ms., or Mrs. It is all-purpose honorific that can be used for both men and women despite that they are married or not. Usually, Japanese people use “Family name + san”. Although you can use “first name + san”, you should use “family name + san” in business.
～様(-sama): This is one level higher than “-san” and is used to show great respect. We use “family name + sama” in business e-mails, and direct mails always show “Family name + first name + sama.” We usually don’t use “-sama” in daily conversations, but it is an exceptional case when we talk about Japanese imperial family.
～君(-kun): This suffix is used at the end of boys’ names to express familiarity or endearment. It is also used by men among friends, or when addressing someone younger or of a lower situation. I remember that most of teachers in schools which I had attended called students “family name + san” for girls and “family name + kun” for boys. I usually call my male friends “first name + kun” or nicknames, since I feel that there are some distances if I use “family name + kun”. “First name + kun” sounds that the relationship is closer than that of using family names.
～ちゃん(-chan): This is used to express endearment, mostly toward girls. It is also used for little boys, pets, and even among lovers, and it gives a sense of cuteness. It is also common that parents call their daughters “first name + chan” and it doesn’t change even after their girls grew up and became adults. (Although I’m already twenty-eight years old, my parents still call me “Risa chan”.)
～先輩(-sempai/senpai): This title suggests that the addressee is one’s senior in a group or organization. It is most often used in schools, where underclassmen refer to their upperclassmen as “sempai”. It can also be used in the workplace, such as when a newer employee addresses an employee who has seniority in the company. “Family name + sempai” is the most common way, but “first name + sempai” is also okay depending on how close you and the addressee is.
When I was a high school student, my friends who are younger than me used “Ri-chan sempai” (“nick name + sempai”) when they called me. Most of my friends of the same grade called me “Ri-chan” which is short for “Risa chan”, and my younger friends added “sempai” to my nickname instead of using my family name to show both of their familiarity and respect.
～先生(-sensei): 先生 literally means “one who has come before”, and this title is used for teachers, doctors, or masters of any profession or art. “Family name + sensei” or simply “sensei” is very common.
-[blank]: It is the most significant difference between Japanese and English. The lack of honorific means that the speaker has permission to address the person in a very intimate way. Usually, only family, spouses, or very close friends have this kind of permission. Known as 呼び捨て(yobisute), it can be gratifying when someone who has earned the intimacy starts to call one by one’s name without an honorific. But when that intimacy hasn’t been earned, calling can be insulting.
Honorifics for siblings
If you have read some Japanese manga, you may notice that some characters don’t say their siblings’ names but use different words such as onii-chan, or onee-chan. There’re are many ways to call siblings.
兄 Big brother: お兄ちゃん(onii-chan), お兄さん(onii-san), 兄さん(nii-san), 兄ちゃん(nii-chan), お兄様(onii-sama), 兄様(nii-sama), etc. “お”(O) is an honorific prefix.
Polite > Casual
Onii-sama > Nii-sama > Onii-san > Nii-san> Onii-chan > Nii-chan
姉 Big sister: お姉ちゃん(onee-chan), お姉さん(one-san), 姉さん(nee-san), 姉ちゃん(nee-chan), お姉様(onee-sama), 姉様(nee-sama) etc.
Polite > Casual
Onee-sama > Nee-sama > Onee-san > Nee-san> Onee-chan > Nee-chan
弟Little brother and 妹 little sister: Unlike big brother or big sister, people don’t use honorifics for their little brother or sister, and using their first name is common.
I call my little sister “first name + chan”, and she calles me “Risa-chan”. My mon taught her to do so, because she doesn’t like the idea of not calling names.
How do they use honorifics in Fullmetal Alchemist? (Some examples)
“nii-san”: Alphonse of Fullmetal Alchemist calls Edward “nii-san”. We can see Alphonse is polite character from how he calls his big brother. If Alphonse called Edward “onii-chan” or “nii-chan”, we might have an impression of childish or immature.
“Sensei”: Both Edward and Alphonse call Izumi simply “sensei”, but Kiri, one of Dr.Tim Marcoh’s patients calls him “Marcoh sensei”.
“-kun: Riza Hawkeye uses “-kun” when she calls Edward and Alphonse. (like “Edward-kun”, and “Alphonse-kun”) This is very natural since Riza is older than they are. Even though Edward is a state alchemist and Alphonse talks politely like an adult, she knows they are still children.
“-sama”: Mei Chang calls Alphonse “Alphonse-sama” since she had believed that Alphonse is Fullmetal Alchemist since she heard the humor of the heroic episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist. Father of Homunculi is called “お父様(otou-sama) in Japanese. This is very respectful way, but at the same time, it sounds like there are some distances between father and children.
“-chan”: Gracia, the wife oway, Maes Hughes, calls Winry “Winry-chan”.
I hope this article will help you to understand Japanese honorifics. I’m sure it will be more interesting to watch anime or read manga in Japanese if you know about those expressions.