According to sociolinguistics, language and culture develop together and influence each other as the two evolve through time. This explains why language learners discover a lot about a country’s culture even just by studying its language.
If you are a Japanese language learner, you can probably tell by now that the Japanese culture is about respect. Non-verbally, Japanese people bow when they meet to express respect. Linguistically, the locals use “keigo” or honorifics in verbal communications to convey respect towards others. The most common honorifics are: “-san”, “-chan”, “kun”, and “-sama”. If you still struggle to recognize the differences between these Japanese honorifics suffixes and its proper usage, this article is for you.
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Four Must-Know Japanese Honorifics for Everyday Use – Suffixes
Throughout the world, honorifics are used in every culture and language. Sociolinguists define honorifics as a word or affix used presumably to express respect (or in rare occasions, disrespect). It is also used to denote the social status of the person you are speaking with. Although society has changed a lot, honorifics remain an integral part of social relations, especially in Asia.
As mentioned earlier, the most common honorifics used in Japan today are: “-san”, “-chan”, “kun”, and “-sama”. These honorifics are not to be used to refer to yourself, except when trying to be arrogant (“ore-sama”) or dramatic. Some people, however, do this for exceptional purposes such as teaching young children how to address the speaker.
Some might ask: should you use an honorific after the first or the last name? The answer depends on which is given. A good rule of thumb is to attach it after whichever name was last mentioned. However, when referring to one’s in-group or in formal writing, superiors can drop the honorifics.
This article is dedicated to studying the correct usage of the Japanese honorifics.
“-san” – The Default
Of all the Japanese honorifics, “-san” is most commonly used to express respect. Equivalent to “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and “Miss,” it is used in polite fashion towards strangers, elders, and/or colleagues.
It is generally fine to use this Japanese honorific for anyone, especially on the occasions when you are unsure which one to use to address a stranger.
On another note, some Japanese attach “-san” to occupation names such as calling a florist, “hanaya-san” or calling a bookseller, “hon’ya-san”. In Japan, you do not usually call someone you do not know—you—unlike a custom commonly practiced in the west. That is considered a bit weird or sometimes, rude. When in doubt, use “-san”.
“-chan” – The Cute One
“-chan” is used almost generally with girls, but it can also be used as an expression of endearment towards women, babies, toddlers, and even pets. On some occasions, this Japanese honorific may also be used for lovers, close friends, siblings, and grandparents to express familiarity and closeness.
When you use “-chan”, you use it with someone’s first name or shortened nickname instead of their last name. Let’s take the Japanese superstar Utada Hikaru’s name as an example: her shortened first name is “Hikki”. For a cuter version of “Hikaru-san”, her fans might call her “Hikki-chan” in a similar way Japanese people call their older sister “Nee-chan” instead of “Oneesan”.
“-kun” – For the Boys
The most common honorific used when addressing young men is “-kun”. This honorific is used in particular by men of the same or lower age or social status within a group, such as a colleague who has worked at a company for less time than you have, younger men/your junior in school, a child, or a close friend.
Additionally, Japanese women might also call their boyfriend or spouse “-kun” in special cases to show affection, in a similar fashion that “-chan” is used for women. Women almost always address young boys with “-kun”.
“-sama” – Moving on Up
When addressing people who hold utmost respectable status in Japan such as gods or deities, the emperor or the royal family, people who have high ranks (such as in the company), or somebody that you admire, “-sama” is the right honorific to use.
A formal version of “-san”, “-sama” adds a higher level of respect to the person you are addressing. In fact, some Japanese phrases contain this honorific term, such as “O-tsukare-sama” which means “Good work,” or “Gochisou-sama,” an expression said after one has finished a meal.
While some Japanese think that this honorific is purely reserved for deities, royalties, and high-ranking individuals, this is actually used on a regular basis mostly by shop clerks to show utmost respect to their customers.
Along with “-san”, “-chan”, “kun”, and “-sama”, there are many other honorifics used for various situations and towards different people. The aforementioned are the most common so learning these will help you to speak with the locals more comfortably.
It may take time for you to master all of the Japanese titles and formalities, but mastering the main four, “-san”, “-chan”, “kun”, and “-sama” brings you one step closer to being able to use more familiar and friendly speech.
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