What’s the difference between San, Sama, Kun, & Chan?

I know this will be really basic for a lot of you, but recently, I’ve noticed a lot of people having trouble with which honorific to put on the end of a name. Not only have I gotten several emails specifically asking what the difference between them, but I’ve also had a barrage of folks using the wrong ones when referring to me. I’ll give you a hint, only one of them is truly appropriate.

Let’s go down the list of name honorifics and review each one separately. It’s really good to know how to use each of these (if you don’t), since you can come across as pretty rude when you make a mistake!

San:

Overview: This is the most common. It can be used on boys or girls. It can be used in formal and (somewhat) informal situations. Pretty much, san is your fail safe when you don’t know which one ot use. You probably won’t get in trouble if you use this one, so it’s good to use with frequency.

Do Not: Refer to yourself as [your name]-san. This is very rude. You might as well start asking people to get on their knees and bow down to you. Only use this on other people.

Other Uses: You can also attach san to some nouns, usually jobs. For example, booksellers are called honya-san. I know that some uses like this are more common than others so I’d say it’s best not to jump to conclusions and start turning every noun you see into name-honorific enders.

Trivial Fact: Ever notice how a lot of Japanese usernames on the net end with three? I just read this on Wikipedia, and it completely makes sense. Since the number three in Japanese is san, some people use this to end their names. I think it’s clever, anyways.

Also, in the Kansai area of Japan (they speak a different dialect, kind of like how people in Texas would have “southern accents” in America), some people use han instead of san (apparently). I can’t confirm this from experience, but that’s what I read.

Sama

Overview: Most likely, you’ll never run into an appropriate situation to use sama, unless of course you want to be a little sarcastic. The only time you’ll be using sama is if 1) you’re working for a company and you’re talking to a customre, or 2) you want to be sarcastic about someone who thinks really highly about themselves.

Do Not: EVER refer to yourself as sama…well, that is, unless you’re making fun of yourself. Otherwise, there’s no reason to do it, and if you do it with a serious face, people will think you’re a big stuck up snob.

Trivial Fact: Aparently, there’s also a “Chama” version of sama. Typically, you would use this when talking to someone who is older.

Kun

Overview: This is where you start getting more casual. Kun is primarily used when refering to other males, usually by someone of high status to someone younger / lower status than them. A good example would be a teacher talking to a (usually male) student. Some (masculine) females get called (name)-kun, though this is less common.

Do Not: Use this on someone of higher status than you. That means teachers, people that are older than you, parents, etc. You get the picture. If you aren’t sure, then just use san – at least you’ll be safe that way.

Chan

Overview: Now we’re in deep waters. Chan is primarily used on children, female family members, lovers, and close friends. Really, it’s a term of indearment. Often times, one’s name will be shortened to add chan to it. For example, I get the Ko-chan treatment instead of Koichi-chan, which just sounds awkward.

Do Not: (once again), use it on anyone of higher status than you. If you are using chan, the person should be much younger, or you better know that person really well.

Trivial Fact: Unlike all the other name honorifics, it’s actually not too horrible to refer to yourself and add the chan to the end. Children do this a lot, but so do some adults. Adding chan to a name can sometimes become a nickname that’s used instead of the real name, at which point it becomes acceptable to refer to yourself while using the honorific.

Another interesting thing about chan is that it is paired up with ojii and obaa (oji-chan / oba-chan), roughly meaning grandma and grandpa. Once Gma and Gpa get old, they come full circle, and you get to use the honorific reserved for children on them. Poor guys.

Anyways…

If you were confused by that, then just know this is barely touching the surface. Knowing what name honorific to use in what situation is one of the easiest things to learn in terms of the whole hierarchy in Japanese speech. It gets so much worse. Anime, I think, will often give people the wrong idea when it comes to how to use san, kun, sama, & chan (another good reason to get yourself a teacher of some sort). Anyways, speaking of anime messing honorifics up, next time I’ll be talking about the difference between senpai, kohai, and sensei. Actually, come ot think of it, this might be one of the few things they might be getting right.

So, here’s the test. If you were to email me (or someone else you don’t really know), what honorific would you use?

If I were to email our author Erin, which one would I use?

If I were to email our other author Viet, which one would I use?

Lastly, here’s a trick question, what about Santa Claus?

  • Ness Ciocco

    Koichi-sama…. jk x3 <3

  • DLareg93

    i see .. thanks a lot :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ric.swoap Ric Swoap

    Koichi-san. Thank you for the explanation. I watch anime in Japanese with English subs and was getting confused with all the different honorifics. Wish I was smart enough to learn the whole language but with this knowledge I will be able to keep up at least. I hope.
    I also have my towel and keep it safe.
    Ric

  • http://www.facebook.com/nadia.rousell Nadia Rousell

    So basically,
    Use Sama if you’re insulting/joking about someone–but never on yourself or anyone of higher status.
    Use Chan on preferably younger people or a well known person or anyone of higher status.
    Use Kun USUALLY used on males, females also though, but use on someone of lower status then you –not on anyone higher/older then you.
    Use San used mostly if you don’t know what to say, a safe way out– do NOT use on yourself!!
    And obviously Senpai would be used on a boss or teacher (someone with high status) as would Sensei, not being used on self unless you are ACTUALLY a Senpai/Sensei.
    #hoping that’s right…

  • SSH

    Thanks a lot! Your article saved me from using improper honorifics with an unknown person! :D
    Here are some pictures to soothe your eyes as you’ve soothed/eased my mind! :)

  • xBOEITJOUNIKS

    They indeed give really wrong interpretations sometimes.

  • Yo

    Sama should be used on people you work for or super super high class people like princesses bosses kings leaders

  • TZ rex

    its confusing……. >_<"

  • Domalon

    This is a bloody brilliant app, I’ve started to use it so much especially with learning kanji :P

  • Misa

    im confused>< i just watch Kaichou wa Maid sama. :D but im curious what sama is. also, why is misaki ayuzawa is called as misaki chan or misa chan? and i don't know, once, someone call usui as usui san, but his full name is usui takumi. i forgot what website is that, that i read that i can use (name of guy)-kun, because it is more sweet. and i was like "huh? why?"

  • Mike

    So -san can be used for older ones like you grandpa or someone who’s older than you? And would it be no problem if I use -san for girls and -kun for boys?

  • Megalus Doomslayer

    As someone simply browsing the internet for the difference between san, chan, and kun after having watched an anime series that was honorific intensive, Sword Art Online hit the nail on the head with the honorifics. I believe American writers get it wrong when writing cartoon scripts more often than Japanese cartoons created in Japan get it wrong.

  • Your mom

    Like how you say its confusing but you also posted “if you guys can’t figure this stuff out, you might as well just give up on the japanese language altogether >_<" and act like a know-it-all.

    Did you just forget? LOL

  • Laurie

    Thank you. I watch a lot of Japanese movies, heck I even lived there almost 50 years ago, but I never could figure out how to distinguish which honorific belonged to whom. :)

  • Sakura Miama

    That’s really rude…