Chan, Kun, Senpai? Japanese Honorifics

Published November 14, 2011 by Chris Kincaid in Culture

I am often confused about all the –kuns, –chans, and other name attachments in subtitles. These are called honorifics. They are roughly the same as our own Mister, Miss, Madam, and Sir. Although for the Japanese they tell a lot more about the relationships between people.

Honorifics are gender neutral, but some are used more for one gender than the other. Kun, for example, is used more for males while chan is for females. Honorifics are generally required when referring to someone, but sometimes they must be dropped altogether. It’s pretty confusing.

Not using an honorific or referring to oneself with one is considered poor speech. It can come off as clumsy or even arrogant. They are generally used when speaking directly to someone or when referring to a unrelated third party. Such as when you are talking about someone. David-san now has a girlfriend.

Dropping an honorific denotes intimacy with the person you are talking with. This is done with spouses, younger family members, very close friends, or social inferiors. They are also dropped when talking about a family member with a non-family member.

Honorifics are usually coupled with polite speech suffix -masa and desu.

San (さん) – this is the most common honorific. It is a title of respect between equals. It is the English equivalent of Mr, Miss, Ms. It can also be attached to animals and objects, but that usage considered childish. usagi-san translates roughly to Mr. Rabbit. It can also be used to refer to someone who works at a certain place. honya-san (“bookstore” + san) translates to “bookseller.”

Chan (ちゃん) – this suffix shows the speaker finds a person endearing. Using chan with a superior’s name is considered rude and condescending. Generally it is used for babies, teenager girls, young children, and grandparents. It can also be attached to animals. It denotes cuteness, lovers, close friends, or any young woman. Young women may use it to refer to themselves to appear cute and childish.

Kun (くん) – used by people of senior status to refer to people of junior status or by anyone when referring to male children or teenagers.  Women may also used the term when referring to a guy they are emotionally attached or known a long time. Kun isn’t male exclusive, but mostly used for male references.

Sama (さま) -much more respectful than san. This term is used to refer to people much higher in status than oneself, customers, or someone you greatly admire. When used to refer to oneself it can either come off as supremely arrogant or self effacing depending on the context.

Senpai (せんぱい) – refers to people with more experience than oneself. Also used for higher grade classmates. So a junior in high school would call a senior senpai.

Kōhai (こうはい) – refers to a person as a junior. So a senpai may attach this to a junior’s name. This generally isn’t used.

Sensei (せんせい) – one of the most recognizable honorifics. It refers to someone who as attained a high mastery of something.

Shi (し) – used to refer to someone a writer hasn’t met. Only used in formal writing. It is used as shorthand to refer back to the person originally referenced as long as there is only a single reference.

Ue (上) – literally means “above”. It shows utmost respect.  It is seldom used, but it is found in some phrases like chichi-ue and haha-ue. Reverent terms for father and mother. Or when referring to a nameless customer, ue-sama.

Here, Kun is used to refer to a guy known for a long time.

Phew. It’s pretty difficult to keep all these rules straight. Japan is a highly stratified society. These suffix help keep status and one’s opinion of others clear. Of course, the waters are muddied a little. Senpai-kohai relations may reverse in context to different clubs or organizations, depending on how long one or the other was in the organization.

Honorifics can be a quick shorthand to show how characters related to each other in anime…if you can keep them straight. However, good stories don’t have to rely on honorifics to show character relationships.


  1. Fer
    November 27, 2015 @ 7:27 pm

    Hi! I agree with Kazumi Mikuzi, out of all the articles I read, this was the best one. By far.

    Um, I was wondering after reading your article on relationships and dating… Is it possible for japanese people to refer to themselves as husband and wife even though they’re not married (by law or ceremony) ? This is a common thing to say in my country when you feel the relationship is more serious than just boyfriend and girlfriend . For example love wise, or when you have a kid or you live together. And so on. So I was wondering how much different we are regarding our culture.

    Also, would you be kind enough to tell me what this means: ジャー I understand it’s pronounced Jā (a long A)
    Could it be an Honorific? Cause I read it right next to a name. Thank you so much in advance.

    • Chris Kincaid
      November 27, 2015 @ 9:40 pm

      I am glad you enjoyed the article!

      I couldn’t find specific information about what long-term couples call each other besides the following:

          kare which means “him” or “boyfriend”
          kanojo which means “her” or “girlfriend”
          garufurendo — Japanese transliteration of “girlfriend”
          boifurendo — Japanese transliteration of “boyfriend”

      So I venture to say it is not common to call long-time dating partners wife or husband. In my part of the United States, these terms are also specific to those who are formally married. My aunt and uncle were together for over 30 years before they married. They never referred to each other as husband and wife until they were formally married. I surmise it is like this in Japan because of their traditions.

      ジャー is written in katakana, so therefore it is a loanword. It translates to “jar”. So if it appears in a phrase like: ひでおのジャー, it means “Hideo’s jar”. As far as I am aware (and I am far from being proficient in Japanese), loanwords are not used as honorifics.

      I hope this helps!

      • Fer
        November 28, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

        I see. So yeah then, we’re pretty different over here. Seem like they’re more conservative. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my comment, and thank you also for translating that word for me. Appreciate it.

      • Chris Kincaid
        November 28, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

        You’re welcome. I enjoy digging around for information and answering questions. Japan is fairly conservative. In my article on Homosexuality in Japan, I discovered how even gay men are expected to be formally married to a woman and have children. Single motherhood is also frowned upon and even targeted with penalties.

  2. Kazumi Mikuzi
    October 13, 2015 @ 6:55 pm

    I have to say out of all the websites I’ve seen explaining these, this is the best one I have seen. Also could you tell me if the pictures used from from any Anime, and if so what are they if you remember? It helped me understand a lot better and look quite interesting ^-^ Anyhoo I want to say thank you for the easy to understand definitions ^-^

    • Chris Kincaid
      October 14, 2015 @ 10:19 am

      I am glad you found the page helpful. Honorifics are certainly confusing! As for the first image, it is from Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei and the second is from Clannad.

      • Kazumi Mikuzi
        October 14, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

        Reading the pages you have created are really enjoyable and easy to understand and the pictures are a nice break between text and is an awesome way to keep attention and make the page really pretty. I’ve recommended this page to my friends and hopefully they will enjoy it as much as I did, I’m thoroughly glad I found this website ^^

  3. Chelsea
    April 14, 2015 @ 1:12 pm

    Hi, I’ve been writting a story in which the kohai and senpai end up getting married and I wasn’t sure what honorific study would use for each other once married. Is ‘senpai’ dropped for ‘san’ after university? Do spouses use totally different honorific stay weren’t mention?
    I hope you can get back to me soon. Much appreciated.

    • Chelsea
      April 14, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

      I meant to say “what honorifics they”
      Not “what honorific study”

    • Chris Kincaid
      April 14, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

      The respectful word for wife is okusan (おくさん) and husband is go-shujin (ごしょじん). So rather than stating a name and adding an honorific, the married couple would simply refer to each other in public using these respectful nouns. We do the same in English: “my wife” or “my husband” is quite common.

      The humble word for wife is kanai (かない) and husband is shujin (しゅじん). These are used to lower the social status level of the speaker to that of the listener. For example, a husband might call his wife kanai when speaking about her to a boss or to a relative.

      Finally, there are polite suffixes added to the end of sentences to be certain the speaker comes off as polite. Women do this more than men. -desu (です) and -masu (ます) are the most common.

      Hope this helps!

      • Chelsea
        April 14, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

        This help so much. Thanks a ton!

  4. JL
    February 26, 2014 @ 4:03 am

    Hi I have made a new japanese friend who is the same year university as me, and in some of my classes. However she is 1 and a half years older age-wise. What would I attach to the end of her name? Senpai because she is older? Or is that wrong since she is the same school year as me? We are both female btw! Thanks :)

    • Chris Kincaid
      February 26, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

      It might be best to simply ask her what she prefers. Honorifics change based on who you are talking to as much as who you are talking about. -san is a safe bet because you are both adults. Although senpai is perfectly fine if you look up to her. She might prefer -chan when with friends but -san when referring to her with other adults around. I would ask her. In this case, she would be your senpai because she is teaching you about honorifics :).

  5. hunter
    June 10, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

    you misspelled sensei


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