Titles and Honorifics in Japanese (san, kun, chan, senpai…)
Here are some of the most common Japanese honorifics listed roughly from the highest level of respect to the lowest:
– sama (様): (usually reserved for masters or mistresses of a household, royalty, gods, or other extremely high-ranking individuals)
Although you may hear “-sama” used in anime, please note that this term is not usually utilized in everyday conversation because it is a very formal and elevating honorific. Unless you are really speaking to someone who is extremely high-ranking, “-san” will usually do the trick.
The only times “-sama” is commonly used is on envelopes after the recipient’s name in a formal letter/email, strung together with other terms, such as Kami-sama (God) or Hime-sama (Princess), or in a store/restaurant as “okyaku-sama,” which translates literally into something like, “venerated and honored customer.”
The last bit is because customer service is really important in Japan, so, in order to make the customer feel important and respected, they are referred to as “okakyu-sama.”
With close friends, you can get away with calling them [Name]-sama for fun, but be aware that it can sometimes come off as mocking and rude. This is also why extremely prideful and conceited (usually male) anime characters will boastfully refer to themselves as “ore-sama,” since it implies that they are extremely celebrated and important.
– senpai/-sempai (先輩): (only for higher-ranking individuals—either in terms of age or social position—who are in the same school/company/group as the speaker)
We all joke about wanting “Senpai to notice [us],” but this term can’t really be used freely and in all contexts. “-senpai” is an honorific that is reserved for lower-classmen to refer to their upper-classmen as a sign of respect. However, you don’t just attach “-senpai” to the end of someone’s name so long as they are older than you. You only call someone “-senpai” if they are older or higher than you in terms of the work/school/activity-related hierarchy AND are in the same group as you.
What does this mean? Well, in a quick-and-dirty breakdown, only people from the same school, club, or office should use “-senpai” in reference to their peers. However, even if individuals have graduated from school or moved to another office, if they meet up again, the term still holds.
Here’s a more solid example. Take Rei from Free! He refers to Makoto and Haruka as “Makoto-senpai” and “Haruka-senpai” because they are both older than him in terms of school year, actual age, and swimming experience. Even if they graduate from Iwatobi and meet up 10 years in the future, Rei can still call them “Makoto-senpai” and “Haruka-senpai.”
However, he doesn’t call Rin, who is a school year older than him, but technically the same age as Rei, “Rin-senpai,” because they aren’t from the same school. Instead, he calls Rin “Rin-san.”
– sensei (先生): (for teachers, instructors, doctors, authors, mangaka, etc. basically people who create works or teach others)
In the context of anime/manga, “-sensei” is very straight-forwardly used for teachers. It’s most polite to refer to one’s instructor as [Family Name]-sensei. Japan isn’t like America, where you can get away with just calling your professor by first name, as if you’re friends!
In real-world context, “-sensei” can also be used to refer to authors, mangaka, doctors, etc. It’s a title used to indicate that the subject is of higher-learning and can teach others their knowledge.
– san (さん): (the go-to honorific for a standard level of respect and distance)
This term is the one that is most commonly used in Japanese culture, since it is the catch-all honorific for a standard level of respect and distance. When in doubt, refer to someone as [Family Name]-san, as that is likely the most appropriate way to call someone during your first meeting.
Although “-san” is gender-neutral, it is more often used in reference to girls (when the speaker is trying to show respect and/or distance from the subject). “-kun,” which we will get into right now, is more often used with male peers of the same age.
– kun (君): (generally for more familiar individuals, such as friends. -kun is a more male-coded honorific, though girls can sometimes be called “-kun” as well)
This honorific more commonly used among peers who are around the same age/are the same level on the social hierarchy OR when the speaker is older/is higher on the social hierarchy than the subject. “-kun” is more often attached to boys’ names. However, depending on the speaker and their subject, “-kun” can sometimes be used in reference to a girl as well.
(This is what Seijuurou does to Gou when he calls her “Gou-kun,” although she doesn’t like it because it makes her sound even more boyish.)
Remember what I said about “-san” earlier, with it being generally more gender-neutral but is often used for girls? Well, if we’re talking about equivalent respect levels, “-san” and “-kun” are pretty close when we’re talking about actual equals, like classmates from the same grade. More on this later.
Male pets can also be called [Name]-kun, though they can also be called [Name]-chan
– chan (ちゃん): (used for more familiar individuals, such as friends or pets. -chan is more commonly used for girls, though this is not a hard and fast rule)
This honorific sounds cute and is supposed to be cute. It’s usually attached to girls’ names but young boys may also be called “-chan.” It can be a term of endearment among friends… or a term of mockery, especially when the speaker is calling a male peer “-chan.” Girls who are very close tend to call each other “-chan,” or with some other cutesy honorific (you may be familiar with “-tan” or “-cchi”).
Whether or not someone is okay with being called “-chan” is up to them, since it might be too intimate or too childish for them. Characters like Nagisa from Free! can get away with calling everyone [Nickname]-chan because of his childish and happy-go-lucky personality, but this is not the case for everyone.
Rei didn’t like Nagisa calling him “Rei-chan” at first because it was both too intimate AND childish for him. Remember that Rei is a very polite and strict character (at first), so suddenly being referred to with such a term of endearment almost immediately after they met rubbed him the wrong way. He was also probably upset with how “girly” the honorific sounded.
Haruka also doesn’t like Makoto calling him “Haru-chan” because he already dislikes how girly his given name is, and the added honorific made it sound no better. The two of them are close enough for it not to be an issue of too much intimacy though.
* No honorifics (either indicates extreme closeness or, sometimes, lack of respect)
People or characters referring to each other without honorifics may either indicate that 1) the speaker and subject are close in terms of their emotions and relationship AND are on the same step on the social hierarchy, 2) the speaker is HIGHER than the subject on the social hierarchy (for example a boss or an upper-classmen), 3) the speaker doesn’t really care for social niceties or thinks they’re unnecessary, or 4) the speaker does not respect the subject.
An example of (1) is Makoto/Haruka/Rin and Rin/Sousuke. All of them are childhood friends with each other, so they don’t need to use honorifics when talking about each other. Makoto even uses a nickname with Haruka, although that was partially out of request on Haruka’s part.
Rin/Aiichirou and Makoto+Haruka+Rin/Nagisa is a good example of (2). Since Rin is a school year older than Aiichirou, he isn’t required to use honorifics with him. He could, but Rin is kind of rough around the edges and pretty rude anyway, so he doesn’t. Makoto+Haruka+Rin and Nagisa’s relationship also overlaps with example (1).
I can’t think of an actual example for (3), but Nagisa is probably the closest to this one. The fact that he generally ignores the rules of polite company and calls everyone [Nickname]-chan makes him an outlier in the wider scope of things. He might not refer to anyone explicitly without an honorific because it feels too emotionally intimate, though this is just speculation on my part.
(4) is best seen between Sousuke/Haruka. In fact, the two of them dislike each other so much that they just refer to each other by family name, which indicates a larger emotional and social distance between the two.