Honorifics

Part of the Weebing 101 Series

“Okay, neat. What do I need to know to *get* anime though?”

Good point. There’s a lot of Japanese culture in anime that doesn’t get explained in every single show because why would you? Could you imagine if at the beginning of every TV show they explained the significance of Thanksgiving or school-structure? Yeah, no. So, let’s start with “honorifics.”

In English, the closest we have to this is “Mr., Miss,” etc. The way you address people in Japanese is a lot more nuanced and carries more weight with it. In Japan, names are said Family name first, then the given name. If your name is John Smith in America, you’d be “Smith John” in Japan. Some translations will change the order to Family name last, some won’t, so it can get confusing (especially since Japan just began an initiative to have their names be represented family name first worldwide). Just remember that family names are used far more than given names. After someone’s name, you’ll generally hear an honorific added, unless it’s a very personal relationship (you wouldn’t call your boss’s boss’s boss by their first name upon first meeting them, it follows the same principle).

San – This is the standard polite honorific to use, most closely associated with Mr. or Miss in English. It’s gender-neutral so Maria-san is Miss Maria and John-san is Mr. John.

Chan – a form of “san” used to refer to children, female family members, close friends, and lovers. Also used for adults that are considered “kawaii” or cute. Other informal versions of this already somewhat informal honorific are “chi”, “chin”, and “tan.”

Sama – This is a very respectful/formal term used for those much higher above you in social status/rank. The closest English has would be Lord/Sir, and Lady. You’d most likely use Sama when addressing someone who is either several ranks above you (boss’s boss) or otherwise distinguished. Or if you just want to be very respectful.

Kun – Generally used when addressing young males, such as boys or juniors at work. Used by superiors to inferiors, by males of the same age/status as each other, or when addressing young male children. In business settings junior women may also be addressed with Kun by superiors.

Dono – This is hardly used anymore, most like “Don” in Spanish. It used to be used for like, feudal lords and stuff, and is technically less of an honor than Sama. This is basically only used if you want to make fun of someone for being old.

These next ones can be applied as honorifics, or simply to refer to others without using their name at all.

Senpai – Used by students to address or refer to senior students in an academic or other learning environment. Also used in business to refer to those in more senior positions. Kouhai is the reverse of senpai, but is not used very frequently as an honorific.

Sensei – Used to refer to or address teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, or other similar authority figures. Also used to refer to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in some skill or trade.

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