One of the most important parts of talking to people in Japanese is the honorific system, or what you put at the end of somebody’s name. Honorifics situate people within the Japanese social hierarchy, by showing respect, affection, and humility.
Think of Japanese honorifics like calling somebody as Mr., Madam, or Doctor in English; each has a different level of respect and can be gender-specific.
Honorifics are also really important because they’re used all the time in Japanese. Unlike in English, virtually every time you talk about another person, you’ll want to use an honorific. Because they’re used all the time, you’ll want to make sure that you use them when you’re writing or speaking Japanese.
Honorifics can be used at the end of both somebody’s first and last names; but, unless it’s a casual situation or you’re close to the person you’re talking about, you should use their his/her last name.
One thing to remember is that you shouldn’t use any of these when referring to yourself (unless you’re trying to be ironic). A common mistake for new Japanese learners is to use an honorific when talking about themselves. Doing this will make you look pretty pompous, so avoid doing it.
Let’s take a look at the most common honorifics you’ll encounter in Japanese, going from most formal (様) to informal (ちゃん).
The Different Honorifics
This is the highest honorific you can possibly use and, because of that, you probably won’t be using it much at all. 様 is a level of formality that seems a bit absurd, disrespectful, or sarcastic in everyday conversation.
However, you can use 様 in some specific contexts. If you’re an employee talking about a valued customer, calling out somebody’s name over an intercom, or addressing somebody in a letter, then 様 might be appropriate. Otherwise, you should probably just avoid using it.
Another extremely formal honorific, 氏 is mainly used in formal writing. This can include things like legal documents, formal letters, or academic writing. You’ll occasionally hear 氏 is formal speech, but it’s not too common.
For most people learning Japanese, you probably won’t come across an opportunity to use 氏 very much, if at all.
While not quite as formal as 様, 先生 is another respectful honorific. You’ll mostly hear 先生 used when referring to teachers, but it can be used for talking about other people who are experts in their fields. Doctors, lawyers, and politicians can all be called 先生.
先輩 is an honorific used when talking about more senior or experienced peers. For instance, if you’re talking to another student in your school who’s older than you, you could use 先輩; or if you’re in a club and somebody has been there longer than you, you can use 先輩 when referring to him/her.
And while 先輩 is most commonly used in schools and school clubs, this kind of dynamic goes far beyond school. You’ll probably hear this used in the workplace or elsewhere.
You might also hear the word for junior peer, 後輩【こうはい】used as an honorific, but it’s not as common.
さん should be your go-to honorific. It’s pretty neutral in terms of politeness, and isn’t gender-specific. If you’re unsure about how to refer to somebody, start with さん and work from there.
You might see variants of this, depending on the dialect. In Kansai region of Japan (where Kyoto and Osaka are located), you might hear somebody use はん instead of さん.
This is one honorific that’s more gender specific than most others. 〜君 is used for people in a lower position than you, and is mostly for males. Use it when talking about a young boy, or just a male younger than you.
At the lower end of the formality spectrum, we have ちゃん. This is an honorific mainly used for children, or people you are intimate with like family, close friends, and significant others. In general, ちゃん is a term of endearment and affection.
In short: don’t use ちゃん unless you are very close to the person you’re talking to, or they’re considerably younger than you.
You might also hear other variants of ちゃん like たん, but you really shouldn’t use it. たん is kind of like baby talk, and imagine if somebody started speaking to you in baby talk – more than a little awkward and definitely inappropriate.
Honorifics themselves are straightforward and simple to learn; there are a limited number of them, and they don’t ever change. What can be tricky is navigating the social relationships that these honorifics are meant to designate. The most important thing about using honorifics is understanding the appropriate context to use them. In the meantime though, just use the honorific さん and you’ll be A-okay, Reader様.
But, like most aspects of Japanese, with enough patience and observation, you’ll pick up the nuances of when and where to use honorifics in no time!