November 11, 2022

What does san mean in Japanese: Name Honorifics in Japanese: Going beyond さん

さん San is equivalent to the English "Mr." or "Miss" or "Mrs." or "Ms.," etc.

In other words, 「さん」 (san) is used by both males and females and is the most common name honorific.

If you have seen the original Karate Kid movies, you know “Daniel-san.” The "san" is an example of what’s called 敬称(けいしょう) (name honorific) in Japanese.

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

Common Jukugo:

  • 敬語(けいご) polite/honorific language
  • 尊敬(そんけい) respect

Meanings: praise
On Readings: ショウ
Kun Readings:

Common Jukugo:

  • 称賛(しょうさん) praise; applause
  • 対称(たいしょう) symmetry
  • 称号(しょうごう) a title; a name; a degree

「さん」 is the most useful example, but it is far from the only one. Each 敬称(けいしょう) has its own connotation and level of politeness. This short article will explore the most common of these name honorifics.

As the name implies, an honorific is a title that conveys esteem or respect for someone’s position or rank. Japanese honorifics also convey your status and relationship to that person.

Remember These Points:

  • Most title honorifics work with both males and females (we'll mention a few exceptions below)
  • The honorific follows the name (the opposite of English): 田中(たなか)さん → Mr. Tanaka
  • Never use an honorific for yourself. I.e. Don’t ever say, “yourname-san.”
  • さん is the go-to honorific. It works with both genders and is sufficiently polite to use in most situations.
  • Usually, add the honorific to the person’s last name—especially if you don’t know the person well, but it can also be after the first name. クレイさん → Mr. Clay
  • People with a higher social standing may drop honorifics when speaking to subordinates. 
  • Very close friends and family members may also drop honorific suffixes. This is called ()()て (literally, “calling” + “cast aside”). It is a sign of informality and / or intimacy.

The most used title honorifics:


•   Used to refer to both males and females

•   さん shows respect between equals and is by far the most common honorific in Japanese.

•   Sufficiently polite to be used in most situations, although when speaking to someone higher up, such as your boss, it’s best to use their title instead of their name with さん.

•   Never, never, never use さん san to refer to yourself. Did I say never?

•   Can be added to workplace nouns such as 本屋(ほんや)さん (bookseller) or 電気屋(でんきや)さん (electronic store clerk).

•   Use さん unless it is clear you should use something more polite or casual.

田中(たなか)さん → Mr. (or Ms.) Tanaka

クマのプーさん → Winnie the Pooh

本屋(ほんや)さん → Bookseller

(used with occupation titles for politeness)


•   This is a more respectful honorific for addressing people of higher social position than yourself.

•   Used with both males and females.

•   As with any honorific, never use it to label yourself unless you are joking or really want to sound important. One such example, often found in anime, is 俺様(おれさま).

•   Some usages have almost become stand-alone words:

  • 客様(きゃくさま) is commonly used to refer to “honored customers” or “honored guests.”
  • 王様(おうさま) king
  • 姫様(ひめさま) princess
  • 神様(かみさま) God
  • 皆様(みなさま) everyone (polite)
  • 奥様(おくさま) wife [used when referring to someone else’s wife.]
  • 嬢様(じょうさま) (another person’s) daughter
  • 殿様(とのさま) feudal lord from Japanese history
  • 子様(こさま) (someone else’s) child
  • 日様(ひさま) the sun


客様(きゃくさま) → honored customer


•   This is the “cute” honorific used as a term of endearment.

•   Unlike most other name honorifics, ちゃん is almost always used with first names (not family names).

•   Chan is used with babies, young children (of both genders), close friends and family, youthful looking women, and even cute animals such as pets.

•   Usually ちゃん is used with girls, but it can be used for small boys.

•   Chan implies youth, petiteness, and cuteness.

•   Do not use ちゃん with people you have only known a short time.



(a cute way to say doggie)


•   Uses the same kanji as きみ ( you)

•   Usually used with boys and young men, but can be used for girls, for example, a professor calling on a female student.

•   Usually implies youthfulness.

•   It is used with higher-ups speaking to junior members.

•   It is also used generally for Japanese Diet (legislative body) members so every elected official is called with the same level of politeness.



  • This is a title honorific which means it not only expresses politeness but also expertise.
  • This is used with teachers, doctors, artists, pastors, lawyers, and other professionals who are experts in their field
  • Used with both men and women
  • It can be used by itself without the person's name (helpful if you can't remember your teacher's name)
  • Literally, this means “born before.”




  • Also pronounced 「はくし」
  • Dr. (doctorate, PhD) 
  • Like 先生(せんせい), it can be used by itself without the name; said to both men and women. 山内博士(やまうちはかせ) – Dr. Yamauchi


山内博士(やまうちはかせ) Dr. Yamauchi


  • Used in formal writing or speech, academic journals, and legal documents to refer to someone the speaker or writer has not met. 
  • Can be used to refer to an individual, a couple, or a clan/family: 朝倉氏(あさくらし) – the Asakura Clan; 平氏(へいし) – the Taira clan



  • Used to address one’s elder in school, club, business, or anyone who has more experience than you in a subject.


Less common, but still useful honorifics:

  • 殿(との) – used in official writings or letters.
  • (おきな) – perhaps similar to the English "Old Man (name)” Used for elderly men who are respected: 青木翁(あおきおきな) Old Man Aoki
  • 伯爵(はくしゃく) – count, earl For example: ドラキュラ伯爵(はくしゃく) Count Dracula

And then you have common phrases/titles:

  • (かあ)さん – mother
  • (とう)さん – father
  • (お)(にい)さん – older brother; also used by children when calling older boys and men whose names they don’t know
  • (お)(ねえ)さん – older sister; you can also say (ねえ)ちゃん; this is used to call young women regardless of the age of the speaker.
  • 嬢様(じょうさま) –Miss; young lady; someone's daughter; also お(じょう)さん; said to young women
  • 客様(きゃくさま) – honored customer; you'll hear this in every store in Japan! That and いらっしゃい! (welcome!)
  • 部長(ぶちょう)  section chief of an office: 山田(やまだ)部長(ぶちょう) the section chief, Yamada
  • 選手(せんしゅ)  athlete: 山田(やまだ)選手(せんしゅ) the athlete, Yamada

These words are important and in use, but you may not have heard them as much.


Literally means “above.” This is used to show great respect for one’s own family members. Just as you would with other family titles, use these in place of the name.

  • 父上(ちちうえ) father
  • 母上(ははうえ) mother
  • 姉上(あねうえ) older sister

National Leadership

  • 陛下(へいか) Your Majesty; used to refer to the emperor.
  • 大統領(だいとうりょう) President; used to refer to the president of any nation (such as the United States).
  • 総理大臣(そうりだいじん) Prime Minister; used to refer to any Prime Minister (such as the UK or Japan)

Religious Titles

  • 牧師(ぼくし) Protestant pastor
  • 神父(しんぷ) Orthodox or Catholic priest
  • 神官(しんかん) or 神主(かんぬし) Shinto priest
  • 僧侶(そうりょ) or (そう) Buddhist monk or priest

Remember, never use 「さん」 with yourself, but there is at least one case where an honorific is used in the first person for comic value:


I, me 

The oft found-in-manga-but-not-in-real-life, “Mr. Number One”

There are many more in Japanese – for example pertaining to the Emperor or the business world. But that would be going well beyond the goal of this short lesson.

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