Hello everyone!

We’re going back to some basics here. I know that for long time anime fans, Japanese honorifics have become something of a second nature. However, I remember that when I started watching anime, I was pretty confused with all the sans and chans and bokus… Ok so that last one isn’t an honorific, but you know what I mean. Japanese is a complex language and more and more, translations leave some of the original language in to better convey meaning. For that, it’s a good idea for new fans to get familiar with these little words. And us more practiced otakus could always use a refresher!

Megane Rini
ready for a refresher!

Let’s start with the more common ones. I am no expert by any means so please feel free to correct me in the comments. These are mostly what I’ve picked up from watching way too much, just the right amount of anime.

We probably all know -san. It’s usually translated as more or less akin to Mr. or Mrs. This is also often combined with family indicators to add a more respectful tone:

  • Oka-san: Mother
  • Oto-san: Father
  • Oba-san: Grandmother
  • Oji-san: grandfather

(sometimes Oba-san and Oji-san can be used to refer to elderly people one is not necessarily related to)

Nii-san: an older brother and Nee-san: older sister (again these are occasionally used for people that are not part of the speaker’s family)

-Chan and -kun. Broadly speaking, these are closer to terms of endearment than honorifics. They are used with people who are younger and usually denote affection. Generally -chan is used with girls but it is acceptable for younger boys as well, particularly family members. On the other hand -kun tends to be used exclusively for boys.

Nii-chan and Nee-chan are often used for younger brother or sister respectively.

Fancy Rini
you cal that a courtsey?

 -sama: The most formal honorific available. I don’t know if there’s an English equivalent but it’s what you would call the queen – or God (kami-sama). It is sometimes used in anime to mock people that think too highly of themselves as well.

-dono: this one is roughly used to mean “master”. It’s not quite as grand as -sama but considered more respectful than -san.

-bō and -chi extremely cutesy expressions. You don’t hear them much but occasionally very nerdy characte5rs use them towards the objects of their affection!

There are also common titles we hear a lot that depends on the setting. School set anime for instance use certain words to denote the speaker’s relation to the people around them.

Senpai. We all know this one right! It can be used both as a title or an honorific and essentially means senior. It is also used between coworkers.

Kouhai. This one means junior and for some reason is only used as a title.

little devil Rini
Kouhais are trouble

Sensei: In a school setting this refers to the teachers but it’s generally used for anyone that is considered an authority in their field, such as a doctor, artist, lawyer, vet and although this is probably not how it should be used, I would use it for a plumber as well. You don’t want your pipes leaking all over the place so show some respect!

Hakase: this one is less common and the first time I heard it I was really confused. From what I gather it can still be used for a teacher but I think it’s actually for people that have a higher education. Something like Ph.D. (i.e. doctor but not of medicine)

Adding to those titles, there are the positions available in work or club settings that are also commonly used to show respect and can be added at the end of a name as a suffix.

Sanchou: President (owner) This is the big boss, no one is higher in a work setting.

Kaichou: President or chairman. You sometimes see this for student council presidents in school set animes.

Kachou: Chief, it sounds a LOT like Kaichou and this is another one that confused me for a loooong time.

Bochou: I’m going to say manager. I see this a lot when characters have a part-time job at a convenience store or something like that and they call their immediate boss Bochou.

exhausted Rini
not done yet?

And then there are the pronouns. This one really had me scratching my head for a long time and wondering who exactly was this Ore person. So, for some reason, Japanese has a whole lot of ways to say “I”. What’s more, a lot of them are slang, that you won’t necessarily learn about in any reputable course, but you will hear in anime. Sure, subtitles ill help you along but if you’re trying to actually pick up words, this can really trip you up when you’re not used to it.

These are the ones I manage to notice through the years. There may be more. Let me know if there are any. Please note that this is from watching anime, not necessarily indicative of how the language is actually used in Japan!

Watashi: This is the one I learned in my Japanese courses. It seems to be the most basic. In theory, it’s supposedly mostly used by women, but I have seen male characters refer to themselves as such. Despite being the first I learned, I almost never actually here this one. I know Japanese often leaves out pronouns which are simply inferred from the situation, and this one seems to get dropped most of the time.

Ore: So what I was told about Ore is that it’s a masculine pronoun and is reserved for people of a higher class. As such, referring to yourself with ore is somewhat pretentious. However, I have seen it more lately in anime and it doesn’t seem to carry the same connotations. Still seems to be used mostly by male characters but other than that, I haven’t seen much else implied by ore. If a character wants to seem standoffish, they usually use ore-sama.

Special Occasion Rini
in my head, I’m a Himesama

Boku: If you weren’t familiar with boku before, Boku no Hero Academia probably took care of that. Traditionally a pronoun for boys, as in younger and male, I’m seeing more and more female characters use it. Although I think it’s still supposed to mark them as tomboyish or “though”.

As for slightly less common ones. There seem to be some variations of Watashi used for girls. I have seen both uchi and atashi used as feminine pronouns. I’m not entirely sure about the difference between the two, but I decided that uchi is cute because *I* think it sounds cute.

Jibun: I’m not sure if this is either particularly formal speech or classic Japanese. I think I’ve only run across this pronoun with older/fancier characters. In any case, it also means I!

And that’s it. That’s all I manage to pick up. A whole bunch of words to refer to yourself a bunch of suffixes to sound more polite when referring to others. I think you are now prepared to move to Japan. Let’s go! If I’ve left any out, please let me know!

Phone Hello Rini
I’m listening

43 thoughts

  1. Very good article. I have made some of the same observations, but I bow to your expertise.

    Thank you Irina-sama … ha …
    … er …
    Iri-san … ?

    … na-chan?

    I have noticed that some of the subtitles I used to see on Netflix DVD anime, especially the older ones. They would leave off the ” -san ” in the name as it is shown on the subtitle print, when it is clearly said on screen.

    Some subs would drop the honorific and just use the name when translating to English. However, as you know, what and how the honorific is used says a lot about the relationship between the speakers.

    Just another interesting aspect about Japanese culture.

  2. There are a few errors with the post, but I think people have already addressed them.

    One pronoun that isn’t used much anymore is “wagahai”. It’s basically only ever brought up when you’re talking about or referencing Natsume Souseki’s “I Am a Cat” (Wagahai wa Neko de Aru) and it suggests the speaker is arrogant.

  3. Seconding the comments by Pete & others about oba/oji vs obaa/ojii. Plenty of releases have caused a lot of confusion by a translator who made that error and then someone older or younger than what people are expecting appear.

    Think other errors have been addressed.

    One thing I want to add is that for written works, the way a person’s “I” form is written is often the only clue to tell who is speaking. (Hopefully this Japanese text shows up.) 私、わたし、ワタシ are all “watashi”. In a manga/light novel/visual novel, three different people could each use a form so that even though they’re speaking the same word, readers have a visual clue as to who “I” is without having “said so-and-so” at the end of the line. Very confusing!

  4. Nice list! One honorific I’ve seen used extremely rarely is -chama. In fact, I’ve only seen it used in reference to one character, Rika Furude from Higurashi. My best guess is that it’s a combo of -chan and -sama, which would make sense in Rika’s case since she’s both a young girl and the shrine maiden in her village, so she’s got some ceremonial authority there. Even then, I think only the old folks in the village referred to her that way. I also have no idea if this one is used by real people at all or if Ryukishi07 made it up.

    1. I have heard it used among family members to indicate social seniority. As you surmised, it reflects an affectionate relationship. For example, “ojii-chama” (gramps) rather than “ojii-san” (grandfather) or “ojii-sama” (honorable grandfather).

  5. Otsukaresama deshita! お疲れ様でした。:-)

    I think you meant “shachou” 社長 , not “sanchou”, for company president.

    As mentioned, “dono”, as well as “tono” and “tonosama” are all archaic. “tono” means “daimyou/feudal lord.”

    “jibun” includes a sense of independent action. For example, “Jibun de itta” means “I went on my own (power/choice),” whereas, “Hitori de itta” means “I went alone (with no one else).” “Hitori” literally means “one person.”

    The rule of thumb is that Japanese honorifics and pronouns are markers for the social relations within a particular group or community. For example:
    • A person may drop the -san/-chan suffix when speaking to, or about, a close friend or family member.
    • Sibling terms always include their relative ranking—”niisan” (older brother), “ototo” (younger brother), “neesan” (older sister), “imoto” (younger sister). There are no stand-alone words for “brother” or “sister.”
    • “neesan” and “niisan” may be used as name suffixes to mark a social relationship. For example, “[name]-neesan” indicates someone is the older sister of a mutual acquaintence.
    • An unrelated woman would prefer to be addressed as “ojousan” (daughter) or “oneesan” (older sister) over “obasan” (aunt), and certainly over “obaasan” (grandma), because of the age differences.

    More “you” pronouns:
    • “donata”, formal term, used almost exclusively as a question or third-person reference.
    • “anata”, polite term, albeit with some pitfalls.
    • “kimi”, informal term, usually used senior → junior or man → woman, as in “Kimi to Boku.”
    • “omae”, informal/masculine term, like “ore” this is a bit rough, sort of like “[hey] you”.
    • “koitsu”, “temee”, “kisama (archaic)”, vulgar/masculine term, these are like a curse. “[hey] you [S.O.B./M.F.]. Characters using these are looking to pick a fight.
    • The pronoun “you” can also indicate an intimate/close relationship. Wives may refer to their husbands using “anata” to mean “sweetheart” or “honey.”

    A few words of caution about using these terms outside the anime setting. As many of your readers know, anime language tends to be colloquial, informal, and much ruder than what people use in the real world. It’s the nature of the medium, which is rooted in manga. It is also a good idea to pay attention to the age of the speaker because there are words children stop using when they grow up.

    BTW, be careful using the pronoun “you.” Even the polite term can be a rather blunt form of address—like verbally pointing your finger and staring at someone—so it is rarely used as a stand-alone pronoun in polite dialogue. For example, “Who are you?” is typically rephrased as some variation of “What is your name?” or “Who is this person?”

    Ah, yes… it’s all rather complicated. 😉 The good news is most native speakers are pretty forgiving and appreciative of your efforts.

    Whew, that was a long one, haha!

  6. I’m pretty good these days at navigating the closeness metre as expressed by how characters address each other in anime by this time, but I still get confused. For example, I have no clear intuition how to parse “chama” (which is a contraction of “chan” and “sama”). Often context (voice inflection, body language) takes care of this, but there are situations where I can’t tell whether someone’s being deferential, mocking or affectionate, or teasing, or any combination of them. Then there’s using formal but inappropriate honorifics… it’s an artform.

    Then there’s my own thought habits interfering. I know that name + chan is more polite than the bare name, but I have this weird fixation in my head that chan is cutesy and thus less formal, and after all this years of mentally correcting myself I still can’t quite break that thought habit. It’s vexing. (I think it doesn’t help that there are people using chan when you’d be expecting kun, which [I think?] falls into the formal but [slightly?] inappropriate category, I mentioned above.)

    And finally I have very little knowledge about when or how anime knowledge applies to Japanese real life. It’s not unconnected, but they are cartoons.

    1. American cartoons tend to be a gross exaggeration of every day life. I figure it’s similar.

  7. Learning Japanese has been a very slow grind and even after learning quite a bit of vocabulary I still struggle immensely with putting sentences together because the word order is really tough to remember. Still, I’ve found that when you learn common words, like the ones here, and a bit of general vocabulary, even when I can’t put my own sentences together I can pick up the main idea that someone else is talking about in anime these days, and that makes me very happy.

    1. I’m starting to be ok with reading (given infinite time) but talking is still a huge challenge. I need someone else to put the words together for me

  8. A friend of mine is preparing for a trip to Japan with her whole family next year, and she is learning the Japanese language which is quite a feat indeed. I’m going to show her this post, as I think she would really enjoy reading it (and I did as well of course 😊)

  9. I have a couple of corrections and additions! Hope you don’t mind 🙂

    There’s a distinction between “ojiisan” (grandfather) and “ojisan” (literally “uncle”) — note the longer vowel on the former. Both can be used outside of the family as a way of addressing someone without using their name. Ojiisan for elderly men (often localised to English as “geezer” or similar), ojisan for men considerably older than yourself.

    Nii-chan and nee-chan are used *by* a younger sibling to refer to their *older* sibling. Younger brother and sister are otouto and imouto respectively. They don’t tend to get used as honorifics, though; younger siblings are typically addressed as name-chan or name-kun.

    Nii-san, nii-chan, nee-san and nee-chan are also sometimes used by an individual to address someone who is not directly related, but who fulfils a similar role to an older brother or sister. You sometimes also hear “aniki” used to refer to a male who is older/of superior status, too; that derives from ani, another word for “older brother”. That latter one is used a bit more among “cooler” men in particular; you might hear a subordinate in the Yakuza refer to a friend who is older or of superior status as “aniki”.

    With all the brother and sister gubbins, you can also add “o” to the beginning of all of them to make them more polite and respectful… or cute. Onii-chan, onee-chan, onii-san, onee-san.

    One additional form of self-address commonly heard is “watakushi”, which is a more archaic form of “watashi”, typically used by rich girl types to make them sound like a princess. Typically adds an extra “wa” to the verb at the end of sentences, most commonly heard as “desu wa”.

    I’d add a few more to your titles, too:

    Shishou – “master”, in the sense of “teacher”, usually. Someone training under someone else would refer to their superior as “shishou”. Can sometimes be abbreviated as the suffix “-shi” — see Hotaru in Dagashi Kashi, who refers to Saya as “Saya-shi” after witnessing her innate talents at various things.

    Goshujin-sama – “master”, in the sense of “master of the house”, employer of (typically) maids and/or butlers. A maid will address her master as goshujin-sama.

    Masutaa – “master”, in the sense of “someone who knows a lot or owns something”. Someone attending a coffee shop might refer to the proprietor as “masutaa”.

  10. That’s waaaaaaaay too much to remember! (The great thing about being old is that no one expects me to remember! And when I screw up, I get the “old an confused” pass.)

  11. That was a nice refresher. Definitely took me back to my Japanese language class days. The Watashi/Atashi one has it’s own weird debate. I know Watashi is gender neutral and Atashi is feminine. I wasn’t that familiar with Uchi, but Atashi tends to have more of a ladylike connotation when spoken. At least that’s the vibe I get. One interesting usage of the different pronouns was one of the Kino’s Journey movies which delves into the title character’s backstory more. She always used “Atashi”, but switched to “Boku” when she felt comfortable with her new self.

      1. That’s something I’ve noticed a bit, too. Sure, I’ve heard tomboyish anime characters use it, but the fact that some more feminine characters use it too is quite fascinating.

  12. I think you mean “buchou” for your “bochou” section… it will usually mean either section head (like a director) or club president (like at a high school).

    Jibun is neither formal nor classical Japanese. It just means “self, ” depending on context myself, yourself, his/herself etc. For example, “Jibun de yatta = I did it myself.”

    “Dono” is actually archaic and usually only shows up in (samurai) period pieces or to make something sound old-timey.

    Uchi literally means “inside.” It isn’t a pronoun. Instead, it usually refers to the home or family. For example, “Uchi no imouto = my little sister.”

    Bo and chi (and pi and ki and ma and anything that sounds cute…) are diminutives, not honorifics. They are used for nicknames, like John(ny). It’s mostly used for and by children. For example, I know a kindergartener named Mayu that goes by Mayuppi with her friends. The common joke when otaku use it then is that they sound like arrested-development manbabies.

    1. Good to know
      I do hear Dono a lot in mordern set anime though. Maybe it’s meant as a joke of sorts mind you. I actually just hearditin Bungo Stray Dogs. Mori uses it although admittedly to refer to Fukijawa so that still fits with the context.

      1. I haven’t watched Bungou Stray Dogs, but just looking at his (Fukuzawa’s?) picture, he’s still dressed like he’s stuck back in the Edo Period. Old-timey. Plus, in real life, he was a literal samurai, so there you go, I guess.

  13. Learning the Japanese language is quite fun! You can try and study it more. Some dialogues in anime that have deeper meanings can greatly increase the impact of the scene if you know the origin of the words used. I recommend it. 😀

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