Chan, Kun, Senpai? Japanese Honorifics

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.

8 thoughts on “Chan, Kun, Senpai? Japanese Honorifics”

  1. 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.

    1. 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!

  2. 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 :)

    1. 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 :).

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