The Japanese Way of Addressing People

In Japan, it’s important to know about honorific titles. It’s similar to Mr. or Mrs. in English, but we attach the titles after either people’s first name or family name.

The most typical one is “san”. It’s used for both male and female, generally for older people or people who are new to you. In schools, it’s used only for girls to distinguish between boys and girls who have the same family name. It’s commonly used in many situations, including when addressing family members, or addressing someone with their occupational title, like driver-san, sales clerk-san or station worker-san.

Incidentally, “Winnie the Pooh” is called ”Pooh-san“!

“sama”is another common title, which shows respect to the person whom you are talking or writing to. For example, customer-sama , prince-sama or 3 people-sama (when a waitress talks to a customer). It’s not used for friends (or for friends as a joke) because it’s a formal way of addressing people.

“chan” and”kun” are informal words to attach to the name of friends or younger people. Chan is for girls and kun for boys. With close friends, we are excused from using this and address them without any titles or by nickname.

In addition, chan is also used to call something cute or pretty: Kitty-chan (Hello kitty), Akachan (baby).
In schools or in work places, whenever addressing upper grade students or older people, younger people are requested to attach “senpai” to the older persons name. Unless asked not to use that form, younger people always have to remember to use it.

Usually when meeting new students at school, we ask not only their name but also which grade they are in, to decide which title is most appropriate to use.

One more thing to be careful with, whenever you talk to people using “san” (except for family members ), “sama” or “senpai” , you also have to use polite expressions with them. You can talk informally when addressing someone who has “san” or “kun” or no title after their name.

If you really don’t know which form to use, then use “san”! It will be acceptable in most cases.


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