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!
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.
-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.
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.
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.
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!