Before I went to Japan I had seen old movies where the foreigners called the restaurant owners Mama-San, and had a vague understanding that san was something like Mrs. I had no idea that honorifics are part of everyday life in Japan, and that I would one day answer to カイリさん (kairi-san-my name- Kylie-san) カイリ先生(kairi sensei-Kylie teacher) and also to お母さん (okaasan-mum). On our second or third day in Kyoto, Mya, my daughter, was asked by her friends to call them Sen-chan and Lan-chan, because that is what friends call each other. They decided to call her Mya-san, as they thought it sounded better than Mya-chan. The girl’s mum, Maki-san, would call out Mya- saaaaannnnn in a very stern voice, making the girls roll around giggling.
So, where to start??? By far the most common honorific is san…. An honorific works as a suffix similar to our prefixes of Mr. Mrs. Ms. etc. This is reasonably formal and can be used in all situations, for men and women. It is still widely used, by everyone, unlike the decline in referring to people as Mr. and Mrs. in the West. (think teachers etc.)
The most formal honorific is sama （様）… This is used for Gods and Kings….. all gods (there are many in Shinto) are referred to as kami-sama. This honorific can also be used tongue-in-cheek. I call my friend Cath, Kasu-sama, the most venerable Cath….as a nick-name. It is a major faux-pas to refer to yourself attaching this to the end of your name.
The other formal honorific, and perhaps my favourite, is tono or dono ( 殿）This honorific is not so widely used anymore, and falls between san and sama. It is the honorific of samurai…. loosely translated as “Lord”. Although, without any attachment of sovereignty. (As much as I request it, my children will not use this honorific when speaking to me. LOL)
The more informal honorifics, those used with family and friends, are chan ちゃん and kun 君. There are others, but they are not so widely used. Chan is usually used for females, although it can be used for males as well. It is kind of cute and similar to diminutives in European languages. Kun is used for males, and both can be used for all younger people or very close friends and family.
The other two honorifics I want to talk about are sensei（先生）and senpai（先輩）. The kanji of sensei translates directly to “former born”. It is used for teachers, but also for anyone who has achieved a certain level of mastery over their chosen field. Doctors, authors and even animators are often referred to as sensei as a sign of respect. Senpai also denotes a level of respect. It is used for anyone who is senior to you, but not at sensei level. So, older students at school and more experienced colleagues in the workplace are referred to as senpai.
Honorifics may attach to first names or surnames and which you use would be dependant on how familiar you are with the person. (Don’t forget, if someone introduces themselves, they will say their surname first and first name second).
Featured Image credited to Bong Grit, Flickr Creative Commons