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 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.
San (さん), sometimes pronounced han (はん) 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.
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 in Japanese is pronounced "san".
Kun (君 in Kanji , くん in Hiragana) is used by people 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.
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. Chan may be used for younger boys, but the name dies off unless you are his sister. It may also be used towards cute animals, lovers, close friends or any woman with youthful spirit.
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.
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 "born before me") 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.
Sama (様, さま) is a significantly more respectful version of san. It is used primarily in addressing or referring 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.
Shi (氏, し) 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.
Tono (殿, との), pronounced dono (どの) when attached to a name, roughly means "lord" or "master." It doesn't equate noble status, rather it is a term akin to "milord" or French "monsieur" and lies between san and sama in level of respect. This title is no longer used in daily conversation, but it is still used in some types of written business correspondence, as well as on certificates and awards, and in written correspondence in tea ceremonies. It can also be used as "mister" in some circumstances.
Euphonic Suffixes and Wordplay
In informal speech, some Japanese people may use contrived suffixes in place of normal honorifics. This is essentially a form of wordplay, with suffixes being chosen for their sound, or for friendly or scornful connotations. Although the range of such suffixes that might be coined is limitless, some have gained such widespread usage that the boundary between established honorifics and wordplay has become a little blurred. Examples of such suffixes include variations on chan (see below). Note that unlike a proper honorific, use of such suffixes is governed largely by how they sound in conjunction with a particular name, and on the effect the speaker is trying to achieve.
Baby Talk Variations
Some honorifics have baby talk versions - mispronunciations stereotypically associated with small children, and hence, cuteness. The baby talk version of sama is chama (ちゃま), for example, and in fact chan was a baby talk version of san that eventually became regarded as an ordinary honorific.
There are even baby talk versions of baby talk versions. Chan can be changed to tan (たん), and less commonly, chama (ちゃま) to tama (たま). These are popularly used in the names of moe anthropomorphisms, in which a cute female character represents an object, concept, or popular consumer product. Well-known examples include the OS-tan operating system anthropomorphisms and charcoal mascot Binchō-tan.
Words for family members have two different forms in Japanese. When referring to one’s own family members while speaking to a non-family-member, neutral, descriptive nouns are used, such as haha (母) for "mother" and ani (兄) for "older brother." When addressing one’s own family members or addressing or referring to someone else’s family members, honorific forms are used. Using the suffix san, as is most common, "mother" becomes okaa-san (お母さん) and "older brother" becomes onii-san (お兄さん). Sometimes the diminutive honorific chan or the reverent honorific sama are used instead of san. Meanwhile, whereas younger siblings address older siblings as "older brother" or "older sister," older siblings call the younger ones by name, usually without an honorific. Similarly, parents address their children by name, also usually without using an honorific.
- Otou-san (お父さん): father, or otou-sama (さま). From chichi (父).
- Oji-san (叔父さん／小父さん／伯父さん, おじさん): uncle (or middle-aged gentleman). -san can be replaced by -sama or -chan (ちゃん).
- Ojii-san (お祖父さん／御爺さん／お爺さん／御祖父さん, おじいさん): grandpa (or male senior-citizen). -san can be replaced by -sama or -chan.
- Okaa-san (お母さん): mother, or okaa-sama. From haha (母).
- Oba-san (伯母さん／小母さん／叔母さん, おばさん): aunt (or middle-aged lady). -san can be replaced by -sama or -chan.
- Obaa-san (お祖母さん／御祖母さん／御婆さん／お婆さん, おばあさん): grandma (or female senior-citizen). -san can be replaced by -sama or -chan.
- Onii-san (お兄さん): big brother (or a young gentleman), or onii-sama, or onii-chan. From ani (兄).
- Onee-san (お姉さん): big sister (or a young lady), or onee-sama, or onee-chan. From ane (姉).