敬称 Name Titles

A look at the many name titles in Japanese


Polite ‘Mr.’ Enders

If you have seen the Karate Kid movies, you know “Daniel-san.” The "san" is an example of what’s called 敬称 keishou in Japanese. 「さん」 may be the most useful example, but it is far from the only one. Each 敬称 has its own connotation and level of politeness. This short article will explore the most common 敬称.

Meanings: respect
On Readings: ケイ
Kun Readings: うやま・う

Common Jukugo:
敬語 keigo polite/honorific language
尊敬 sonkei respect

Meanings: praise
On Readings: ショウ
Kun Readings:

Common Jukugo:
称賛 shousan praise; applause
対称 taishou symmetry
称号 shougou a title; a name; a degree

In English we also use 敬称. Mr., Miss, Ms., Dr. are a few. But Japanese has many more and are used far more than their English cousins.

The most used 敬称:

  • さん san – most common and safest everyday 敬称; said to both men and women and typically between equals of any age or social status
  • sama – very polite; use with people of higher social status (age, guests, customers, higher rank, etc); said to both men and women
  • ちゃん chan – a cuter way to say san. Said to babies, girls, and sometimes young boys. A playful hybrid of chan and sama is ちゃま. Pets also often have ちゃん or ちゃま added to their names. 
  • kun – same kanji as kimi (you): Said to boys mostly or men under the speaker’s status (boss to employee, for example)
  • 先生 sensei – teachers, doctors, artists, pastors, lawyers, and other professionals who are experts in their field get this title; said to both men and women; can be used by itself without the person's name (helpful if you can't remember your teacher's name)
  • 博士 hakase – Dr. (doctorate, PhD); like 先生, it can be used by itself without the name; said to both men and women. 山内博士 yamauchi hakase – Dr. Yamauchi
  • shi – polite and formal; can be used to refer to an individual, a couple, or a clan/family: 朝倉氏 asakura shi – the Asakura Clan; 平氏 hei shi – the Taira clan
  • 先輩 senpai - senior work colleagues or students in higher grades

Less common, but still useful honorifics:

  • 殿 dono – used in official writings or letters.
  • okina – perhaps similar to the English "old man…" Used for elderly men who are respected or in mukashi banashi; 青木翁 aokiokina old man Aoki
  • 伯爵 haku shaku – count, earl For example: ドラキュラ伯爵 dorakyura hakushaku Count Dracula

And then you have common phrases/titles that use 敬称:

  • お母さん okaasan – mother
  • お父さん otousan – father
  • (お)兄さん niisan – older brother; also used by children when calling older boys and men whose names they don’t know
  • (お)姉さん neesan – older sister; you can also say 姉ちゃん; this is used to call young women regardless of the age of the speaker.
  • お嬢様 ojousama –Miss; young lady; someone's daughter; also お嬢さん; said to young women
  • お客様 okyakusama – honored customer; you'll hear this in every store in Japan! That and いらっしゃい! (welcome!)

I am sure as a beginner you were told over and over again don’t call yourself "san"!! While this is still good advice, there is at least one case where 敬称 is used in the first person:

俺様 oresama – I, me; The oft found-in-manga-but-not-in-real-life, “Mr. Number One”

There are many more in Japanese – for example 敬称 pertaining to the Emperor or the business world. But that would be going well beyond my knowledge. If you know of others and can give examples, please post them here. Corrections also welcomed.

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