Honorific suffixes, or simply honorifics, are appended to the names of people who you are addressing or referring to. Although not technically part of Japanese grammar, correct honorific usage is an essential component of proper Japanese cultural etiquette. Improperly using honorifics can result in everything from a minor misunderstanding to a major faux pas.
An honorific is normally used when referring to one’s interlocutor (the person being addressed) or when referring to a third party who is not present. While the honorifics themselves are gender neutral, some are more commonly associated with a particular sex. Omitting an honorific implies a high degree of intimacy and is normally reserved for one’s spouse, younger family members, social inferiors, and very close friends.
When referring to a third party, you should only drop honorifics when speaking about members of an in-group to members of an out-group. This includes referring to a family member when addressing a non-family member and referring to a member of the company you work for when addressing a member of another company. You should also omit honorifics in formal writing. Never use an honorific when speaking about yourself. Attaching an honorific to your own name makes you sound arrogant and self-centered.
Common Japanese Honorifics
For the sake of clarity, we’ll be using English transliterations of the honorifics. The original Hiragana and (where applicable) Kanji for each honorific will appear once in parenthesis.
Sama (様 [さま]) is an extremely polite and respectful honorific. You should use sama when referring to people of a much higher rank than yourself, toward your customers, and when speaking about someone you greatly admire. Sama is also customarily used with an addressee’s name on postal packages or in business emails. Sama sometimes appears in certain phrases expressing recognition or empathy, but these expressions are distinct from its use as an honorific.
San (さん) is a derivative of sama. The most commonly-used honorific, san is a polite but not overly formal title appropriate for addressing your equals. San can basically be thought of the Japanese equivalent of Mr., Miss., Mrs., and Ms. Unlike these English titles, san is almost universally appended to a person’s name, both in form and informal situations.
San has a variety of other uses. For example, you can use san with a workplace noun to address a person working there. (Essentially you’re addressing an employee as “Mr. Bookstore” or “Ms. Coffee Shop.”) Depending on the context of the conversation, san can even be used with company names, inanimate objects, and animals.
Chan (ちゃん) expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. Thus chan is generally used to refer to babies, young children, teenage girls, and grandparents. Sometimes it is also used to refer to animals, lovers, close friends, or a young (adult) woman. Using chan to refer to a man implies either extreme condescension or intimacy, depending on the context. You may occasionally hear a young woman use her own name with chan in an attempt to be “cute.” Unless you are actually a young woman and you want to come across as immature, you’re better off not doing this.
Kun (君[くん]) is used when addressing male children and teenagers and by people of senior status when addressing their juniors. Kun can also be used to address a close personal friend or family member of either gender. In situations such as an office or a classroom, older males in senior positions may address both male and female juniors with kun. Chairpersons of the Japanese Legislature (the Diet) use kun when addressing their fellow Diet members, regardless of gender.
Senpai (先輩 [せんぱい]) is used when referring to a senior colleague or classmate. Senpai can be used as either an honorific or a stand-alone title. In either case, it implies that you respect the person you are referring to as an informal mentor or big brother-type figure. A college freshman would use sempai to address a senior student but not another freshman. Likewise, you’d use senpai for a more experienced coworker but not one with a comparable level of experience to your own. You would not use senpai to address someone in a formal position of authority over you, such as a boss or teacher. Also note that the reverse of senpai, kōhai (後輩 [こうはい]), is normally not used as an honorific.
Sensei (先生 [せんせい]) is the honorific you’ll want to use when addressing individuals in formal positions of authority, such as doctors, lawyers, politicians, and teachers. Sensei shows respect for someone who has achieved mastery of a particular field or skill. Sensei can be used as both a suffix and a stand-alone title, much as “doctor” can be used both before a name and on its own in English. Native speakers can sometimes get away with using sensei sarcastically (as a way to mock people who don’t really deserve the title or those who use it inappropriately), but as a non-native Japanese speakers you should only use it sincerely.
Shi (氏 [し]) refers to a person whom the speaker is unfamiliar with. One example would be if the speaker has read the work of a particular author but has never actually met said author. Shi is typically only used in formal writing and very formal speech, including legal documents and academic journals. Shi can be used like a stand-alone English pronoun once a person has been introduced with name + shi provided no one else is introduced with the same honorific.