Written by Maciamo on 9 May 2004
First of all, watch out for preconceived ideas. Contrarily to what many foreigners and Japanese alike usually think, "san" is not the equivalent of "mister" or "mrs". For example, "san" can also be used for animals, and not just for cats and dogs, but for any animal. Even a spider can be called "kumo-san" (especially by children). It also works with pictures, so that you could call a tiger or monkey on a painting "tora-san" or "saru-san". Cockroaches (gokiburi), which most Japanese strongly dislike, seem to be the exception that confirms the rule, as almost nobody will give them a suffix at all.
Let us say that Japanese suffixes are simply untranslatable into English. The reverse is also true, as "Mr", "Mrs", "Miss" or "Ms" are also untranslatable in Japanese.
Besides, Japanese prefixes can be used either with first or last names, while "Mr" and "Mrs" are not normally used just with given names in English.
Interestingly, Japanese language does not differentiate gender, while Japanese have always attached a lot of importance to gender roles separation in the society, and still believe strongly in it nowadays. Could it be that the absence of gender nuance in the language reflects by a stronger traditional rift between men and women ?
Gender notwithstanding, Japanese suffixes show various levels of respect, which we could compare to English as follow :
- san (さん), sama (様) => Mr, Mrs, Miss
- dono (殿) => Sir, Madam
- kyou (卿) => Lord, Lady, Dame
Nevertheless, "sama" is used for Shintō gods ("kami-sama"). But as there are millions of them, they do not necessarily deserve the same respect or fear as the single and omnipotent Judeo-Christo-Islamic god.
The most referential titles are "denka" (殿下) and "heika" (陛下). The first one means "His/Her/Your Highness" and is used for royal/imperial family members. The second means "His/Her/Your Majesty" and is used for the Emperor or Empress - or King and Queen, in other monarchies around the world.
In everyday life, "san" is the most common suffix. "-chan" is a more affectionate term, used mainly with friends, family members and children. "-tan" is a kind of slang version. "-kun" is usually reserved for boys or young men, but can sometimes be used for girls or young women too. There is also "-shi" (氏), which is an intermediary form between "san" and "sama" in terms of politeness, and is mostly used for professionals like engineers or lawyers.
Then comes "sensei" (先生), which is used for anybody with a knowledge superior to ours. It is most common for doctors, teachers and professors, but can also be used for politicians, martial arts masters, etc. Contrarily to other suffixes so far, "sensei" can be used alone, without a name before it, just like "doctor" or "professor" in English. So, one can say "Nomura-sensei" or just "Sensei", like one could say in English "Professor Nomura" or "Professor".
"Sempai" (先輩) is another very common way of addressing someone with more experience or a hierarchical superior. It can be used alone or after a name, like "sensei".
It is possible in Japanese to change the suffix, and politeness level attached to it, you use with one particular person. That means that "politeness" in Japanese is situational and not a fixed status given to someone like in most European languages. You could call a friend or relative alterning the suffix "-chan", "-kun", "-san", "-sama", or even "sensei" if that person is in a position of greater knowledge than you in that situation and teaching you something. A husband teaching his wife how to drive a car or use a computer could be called "sensei" by her at that particular time. She could very well change suffix in the course of the same conversation.
Name short-forms and noun combinations
It is very common for Japanese to use the first syllable of someone's name and combine it with a suffix. For example, "Mi-chan" could be the short-form of Miki, Michiko, Miko, Misa, Minato, Mickey, Minnie, etc.
Suffixes can also be used with some common nouns referring to a person. E.g. "kyaku-san" or "kyaku-sama" (customer, client, guest), "okaa-san" (mother) or, more informally, "okaa-chan" (mum, mom).
Suffixes can also be combined in a more or less humoristical manner, like "-chama" (chan + sama), as in "obaa-chama" for "grand-mother", which is both affectionate and respectful. There is a lot of freedom in the possible combinations, which is the absolute opposite of "Mr, Mrs, Miss" in English, which are fixed and non interchangeable.
Situational & emotional VS logical and systematic
In addition, nobody will call a friend or family member "Mr" or "Mrs" in English, while it is habitual in Japanese and has no real meaning. Like many cultural differences between Japan and Western countries, Japanese suffixes do not have a logical meaning or usage, but give an emotional dimension which rely on the situation. It's the same as with the sentence ending "da yo", "da ne", "da yo ne", "da zo", etc.
In other words, we could say that the Western way of thinking is logical, accurate and systematic, while the Japanese (and other East Asian ones) are emotional, vague and situational.
Other less polite suffixes also exist. Their intensity depend a lot on the intonation and context, like "-baka" (馬鹿), or the ever ruder "-yarou" (野郎) - and combination "bakayarou", which is however normally used alone as an insult.
So, "kyaku-yarou" would be a very impolite way of talking about a customer someone strongly dislikes. These can also be used individually, like in "ano yarou !" ("this a*shole !") or "baka !" ("mor@n" !)