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Oniichan, Oneechan, Otouto, Imouto - Meaning in Japanese

Sunday, July 24, 2016
Brothers and sisters, we are here united on this day to talk about the difference between "brother" and... "brother"... in Japanese. And "sister" and "sister." Of course I'm talking about the words oniichan 御兄ちゃん and otouto 弟, and oneechan お姉ちゃん and imouto 妹, and some other words related to siblings.

To begin with, the words otouto 弟 and imouto 妹  are always used for "younger brother" and "younger sister" respectively, while oniichan お兄ちゃん and oneechan お姉ちゃん would be for "older brother" and "older sister."

These terms are relative. For example, one otouto is one brother of yours that is younger than you. If you have 3 brothers and you are the oldest, you have 2 otouto's. But if you are the youngest, you have 0 otouto's. That is to say that otouto is not the single youngest brother, nor is imouto the single youngest sister. They are any younger brother and sister respectively.

Oniichan, Oniisan, Oniisama

You might have noticed that some characters call their older brothers oniichan, others call them oniisan, and others oniisama. But wait a second, what's the difference between oniichan, oniisan and oniisama?

As you probably guessed, this is actually related to the Japanese honorifics kun 君, chan ちゃん, san さん and sama 様, except there is no oniikun. When someone says oniichan, the chan there implies intimacy. And when they say oniisama, the sama there implies the utmost respect. By the way, oniisan is neutral and implies nothing.

The same is true for oneechan, oneesan and oneesama.

As if that wasn't enough the o is actually a prefix and is optional. Actually, even the san is optional. That means all of the following words mean "older brother" in Japanese:
  • nii
  • niisan 兄さん, niichan 兄ちゃん, niisama 兄様
  • onii お兄
  • oniisan お兄さん, oniichan お兄ちゃん, oniisama お兄様

And for "older sister":
  • nee
  • neesan 姉さん, neechan 姉ちゃん, neesama 姉様
  • onee お姉
  • oneesan お姉さん, oneechan お姉ちゃん, oneesama お姉様

Other Words for Brother and Sister

Besides the words above, you can say older brother and older sister in Japanese the following ways:
  • ani 兄 and ane 姉
  • aniue 兄上 and aneue 姉上
  • aniki 兄貴 and aneki 姉貴
    Brother and Sister

In the last case, aniki and aneki are also a way to call the "boss" of your gang, if you had one and if you were a character in an anime.

Brothers and Sisters

Behold the Japanese language! When you have two brothers, one must be the ani 兄, the other, the otouto 弟, together, they combine, to form... *drum roll* ...kyoudai 兄弟!!!

No, really. I'm serious.

The word for "brothers,"  two or more, in plural, is kyoudai and is written with the kanji for older brother and younger brother together. That's because a single kanji can have multiple readings.

The brothers, or kyoudai 兄弟, Kamina and Simon, ani 兄 and otouto 弟 respectively, from the anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann 天元突破グレンラガン

As if that wasn't enough, you can actually join ane 姉 and imouto 妹 to form shimai 姉妹, which would be the word for "sisters."

The sisters, or shimai 姉妹, Ram and Rem, ane 姉 and imouto 妹 respectively, from the anime Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu Re:ゼロから始める異世界生活

But wait! There is more! Since there's a 50% chance the pair of siblings aren't the same gender, often, in manga and written Japanese, you get stuff like kyoudai 姉弟 or kyoudai 兄妹. It reads the same as the kyoudai 兄弟 from before, but the kanji written change to match the genders of the siblings.

(technically, the words should be read as keimai 兄妹 and shitei 姉弟, but nobody reads them like that)

Finally, kyoudai shimai 兄弟姉妹 is how you say "brothers and sisters" in Japanese.

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