Friday, July 22, 2016

San, Chan, Kun, Sama さん, ちゃん, くん, 様

Have you ever noticed how every time someone says someone else's name in anime they add a san さん, chan ちゃん, kun 君, sama 様 or something else at the end? No? Well, have you ever actually watched anime? They do that all the time! The question is... why?

Why Are Honorifics Used

Turns out this is a matter of Japanese culture rather than the Japanese language.

In Japan, using honorifics with people's names is sort of a big deal. It's an extremely normal thing to do, so everyone does it all the time, which, in turn, means that not doing it is considered sort of rude.

Think about it. If everyone started calling everyone else "sir" or "madam" out of politeness, you wouldn't find it surprisingly polite anymore when someone called you "sir." Instead, you would find it rude when someone did not call you "sir," because it would imply that rude bastard doesn't consider you worth of the everyday courtesy.

Difference Between Honorifics

Each different honorific has a different meaning, obviously. They state the sort of relationship between the speaker and who he's referring to, and this treatment isn't reciprocal. It's not identical both ways.

What it means, for example, is that if I call someone X-san and someone else Y-san, that doesn't mean they call me me-san. It also doesn't mean that X-san and Y-san call each other that. X-san could call Y-san Y-chan, Y-san could call X-san X-kun, etc. It entirely depends on what they consider themselves to be in relation to who they are talking about.


First off, let's start with the honorific sama 様 which is the most extreme. In anime and fiction, it's used to talk about someone who is superior to you. However, by doing that, you're also saying you're inferior to them. You're humbling yourself while glorifying who you're talking about.

In normal cases the suffix sama is used when naturally humble characters speak about naturally glorified characters. Like servants, butlers or maids talking about their masters who are from rich families full of cash and gold, etc.

It's also used as a suffix in many actual words, some of which can sound like you're sucking up to somebody. For example:
  • otou-sama お父様
  • onii-sama お兄様
    Older brother.
  • okyaku-sama お客様
    Customer. Visitor.
  • kami-sama 神様

Another thing to note is that in some cases, a formal, respectful version of a given phrase includes the honorific for added humbleness. Note the difference:
  • dare ka omae? 誰かお前?
    Who are you? (no respect)
  • dochira-sama desu ka? どちら様ですか
    Who are you? (ok respect)
    (note: dochira is a rather tricky word)

In anime without reaç servants and masters it can be as a joke, sarcastically, to mean a character is being too bossy and ordering people around, acting like some sort of king:
  • Hai hai, X-sama はいはいX様
    Right away, your highness X.

(manga readers: don't mistake sama 様 with you 様 which means "[something] like [something]")

San さん

Next we have the honorific san さん, which is the most common and generic of all honorifics. In real life this is used to talk to anybody. It's neutral, so using it means nothing, which means using any other honorific will mean something.

You can interpret it as a light version of sama 様, actually. Because sama 様 sounds too heavy, too respectful, too formal, it can't be used in everyday life. So, instead, san さん is used.

On Internet Usernames

An interesting note about the honorific san さん is that: because Japanese honorifics are so important, and not using the honorific san さん is kind of disrespectful, some websites will automatically add the san さん after a commenter or author's username. For example, xX_NaRuTo360noSCOPE_Xx would become xX_NaRuTo360noSCOPE_Xxさん.

San Juu

There's a certain pun used to joke about the ages of anime characters based on the honorific san and the number "three" in Japanese, san 三. It works like this:
  • maria-san juu nana sai マリアさん17歳
    Maria-san, 17 years old. (10 + 7)
  • maria san juu nana sai マリアさんじゅうなな歳
    Maria, 37 years old. (3 × 10 + 7)

(and yes, this refers to Maria from Hayate no Gotoku! ハヤテのごとく!)

Chan ちゃん

Next we have chan ちゃん, which is like a cute version of san さん. Imagine a small child trying to say san さん but saying chan ちゃん instead. Yeah, that sort of childish cute.

This honorific is used for girl characters. Little girl characters. Girl "childhood friends", osananajimi 幼なじみ. Girlfriends. Cabaret girls. You get the point. I mean, a few of these are out of place, but the meaning is more or less the same. More or less.

Chan Means Cute

Basically, between children characters it's normal to use the chan ちゃん honorific. Adult characters, not so much. Mostly because it sounds embarrassing.

It's like, as an adult character, you could call your daughter with chan, you could call pet cat or dog with chan, you could call a TV mascot character with chan, you could call anything you find dear and cute with chan, but that means you're implicitly, if not explicitly and out loud, calling them "cute".

Wile it's literally the same word, this "cute" thing can have vastly different implications. See:
  • Where is your daddy and mommy, X-chan
  • Y-chan is the cutest girl in our class
  • Bring more beer, Z-chan cutie

You're calling all of these girls cute, but the meaning is definitely not the same.


Finally, the honorific kun 君, which is often used for boys like chan ちゃん is used for girls, but not exactly.

What happens is that, indeed, it's used for boy characters in pretty much in every way chan is used. Even for pets and TV mascots. And, also, it's an rather embarrassing word that isn't used as frequently amongst adult characters. However, not as much as chan ちゃん, and that's because kun has another use, too.

The word kun 君 can be used for subordinates, students, employees, etc. People under you. In those cases gender doesn't matter. Often, in anime, female students are called with kun 君 by their teachers. And female employees can be called with kun 君 by their bosses and managers.

(manga readers: don't mistake kun 君 with kimi 君, which means "you")

Yobisute 呼び捨て

Now that we talked about the honorifics, let's talk about not using honorifics, or yobisute 呼び捨て.

This yobisute thing is actually the verbs yobu 呼ぶ, "to call," and suteru 捨てる, "to throw away" joined together. Meaning to throw away the way you call someone one (the honorific)
  • yobisute de ii 呼び捨てで良い
    [You] can call me without honorifics

By the way, "the way you call" someone is yobikata 呼び方. Since yobisute is kind of a disrespectful practice, in some anime that actually care about that you'll see a scene or another where a character says:
  • chanto san wo tsukete ne ちゃんとさんを付けてね

Which's saying [you] should add the san suffix on [his] name when calling [him]. In some cases, that could be about the sama suffix instead, like with Mayoi-sama in Gyakuten Saiban 逆転裁判 (Ace Attorney).

Parents and Children

As I said above, kun and chan are used for boys and girls, children, and often called that by their own parents. However, as I also said, these honorifics become increasingly embarrassing with age. So, as it turns out, in real life, some parents will avoid using those honorifics with their children in public.

Though this has absolutely nothing to do with anime, I thought it could give you a better idea of the weight these little suffixes carry.

Other Honorifics

Besides the four honorifics above, there are some other less common honorifics you can find around.

Dono 殿

This one shows up in very, very formal situations in anime and stories with samurais and stuff from that time, but that's about it.

In real life Japan, it's only used in formal situations, business, letters and email. Not a word you would hear in the middle of the street.

Sensei 先生

This is used when talking to teachers or masters of a profession.

Often in school anime you'll see everyone calling the sensei 先生, the teacher, Tanaka-sensei 田中先生 or something. In Bakuman バクマン, Ashirogi Muto 亜城木 夢叶, who is a mangaka, not a teacher, is often called Ashirogi-sensei 亜城木先生 because of his mastery.

Basically any noun can be used as a suffix if it's the position someone holds or his profession. For example, if Tanaka is a detective, a keiji 刑事, he could be called Tanaka-keiji 田中刑事 just like you would call him "Detective Tanaka" in English.

Senpai 先輩 and Kouhai 後輩

In the case of senpai 先輩 and kouhai 後輩, this just means senior and junior respectively. Some people have misconceptions about their actual meaning, but it's really just senior and junior.

1 comment:

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  1. Until now, I always thought that kanji could have more than one sound but only one meaning... Thanks for the info