San, sama, or perhaps senpai? One word is enough for the Japanese to realise their interlocutor's attitude towards them. Learn the most common suffices which the Japanese use to express their respect for the elderly, recognition for masters and tenderness towards those they love the most.
The times of the samurai are long gone but the traces of the past social hierarchy and the related mechanisms still can seen in Japanese mentality. They are ingrained both in Japanese gestures, unintelligible to Europeans, and in language. Some of the most characteristic signs of attachment to past traditions are the suffixes added to first or last names in order to emphasise the speaker’s attitude to the addressee.
The most popular Japanese suffix, used to address both women and men. San is a common equivalent of English “Mr.”, “Mrs.,” which can be added to first and last names as well as to occupations (e.g. kokku-san = Mr. cook or toshokanin-san = Mr. librarian). It is used for the elderly, strangers and the newly met – even schoolmates, as well as with names of companies and workplaces (for example if the owner of a certain institution mentions the name of its competitor or a company it does business with). In a slightly less official form, san may be also combined with names of animals (e.g. inu-san = Mr. dog), or even food products or other inanimate objects. The expressions are then treated as childlike.
The word san is pronounced exactly like the Japanese number ‘three,’ which is why the suffix is often used for instance in online nicknames.
Sama is a formal and particularly polite form of san, used to emphasise the respect and humbleness towards the addressee. It is used to address people with much higher status, as well as in business contacts – to show the clients respect. The same suffix is used by Japanese Christians when they speak about Jesus (Iesu-sama), as well as by fans of the beauty and talent of celebrities, such as Leonardo DiCaprio (Leo-sama). Sama can be also found on envelopes or in official e-mails.
The informal version of san is used primarily towards children and women in the family environment but it can be often heard also as way to address friends, loved ones or pets. Chan is a tender, more feminine expression, used by Japanese parents for their daughters and by men for their wives or partners. It can be translated as ‘darling.’
Kun – the male equivalent of chan – is an informal honorific usually used to address men. When spoken by an older person to a younger one, it denotes the hierarchical order of social relations, and when used between people of the same age, it signifies closeness and familiarity. Just like chan, it is also a tender word used for sons, loved ones and husbands. It tends to be used to address women in business relations where an older man addresses a younger woman with a lower status.
Senpai is basically a colleague. The suffix is used in conversation with one’s senior – whether in terms of age or experience – colleagues, schoolmates or team mates. The opposite of senpai is kōhai (後輩), which denotes someone younger and less experienced. However, using this term in direct communications is considered impolite.
In a literal sense, sensei means “born before.” When used to addressed an elderly person, a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor or an artist, the term conveys respect for their knowledge, experience and mastery in a particular area. It can be used either on its own or together with the master’s name. For creators of martial arts, there is an even more respectful form – ō-sensei (翁先生), meaning “a venerable master.”
While the honorifics discussed above apply mostly to specific people, more or less known to the speaker, shi is usually used to address unknown audience, for instance in official speeches and communications. The term is also used by journalists and in official documents, publications or tales.
Dono, with a meaning close to that of shi, is currently very rare in spoken language. It usually appears in official letters, notices, on school and university diplomas and on various certificates. It can be translated as “gentleman”, “lady”.
Other Japanese honorifics
In addition to the popular terms used on a daily basis, whether in formal or in informal relations, Japanese has many other, less common, suffixes that reflect the social hierarchy and the respect for the addressee. There are a umber of expressions reserved for former and current rulers, politicians, diplomats and high-rank officials, as well as trainees, teachers and masters of particular martial arts. These are both suffixes added to last names and standalone expressions, such as meijin (名人) – master of go and shōgi, or... oyakata (親方) – master, boss or superior.
Even the English “sir/madam” can build a huge distance between interlocutors and establish certain framework for the relationship. Japanese is much more specific in this area. On the one hand, it allows us to express admiration or respect for the other person, but it can also quickly bring down to earth those with a slightly lower rank. Although it is hard to compare English language to the mentality and culture of Japan, one thing is certain – every one knows their place in the Country of Cherry Blossoms.