And kanji with manga
Friday, April 20, 2018

oneesan お姉さん

The word oneesan means "older sister" in Japanese (but sometimes refers to a young woman). It's one of the many family words with the o__san お〇〇さん pattern, and as such the honorific suffix can be changed between san, chan and sama. (see oneechan vs. oneesan vs. oneesama)


The word oneesan written with kanji is oneesan お姉さん. It has the same kanji as another word for "older sister," ane, but uses a different reading (and has different usage). This is the same for the other words with different suffix:
  • oneechan お姉ちゃん
  • oneesama お姉さま

The sama 様 suffix and the o 御 prefix are only sometimes written with kanji. So, for example, oneesama can also be written お姉様 or 御姉様.


The word oneesan is used to refer or address to one's older sister. This is relative. You can have two or more older sisters, two or more oneesan's.

To be clear: your oneesan is obviously always older than you, but you call someone else's older sister oneesan and they may be younger than you. It's about the siblings' ages, not the speaker's age.

To refer to a "younger sister," the word imouto is used instead. This word is used less because normally you refer to your own younger sister by name when talking to her.

To say "oldest sister" the word is choushi 長姉, written with the kanji for "long," nagai 長い, because they've lived the longest, probably. Often a phrase like ichiban ue no ane 一番上の姉, literally "the older sister most above (in the age ranking)," may be used instead.

Referring to People

The way oneesan is used in Japanese to refer to people is very different from how a phrase such as "older sister" is used in English.

This is because in Japanese it's considered rude refer to people by saying "you" with words like anata, kimi, omae, etc. Instead, you refer to people by their names, with an honorific. And then there are cases where people are referred to by what they are instead. Or you can just not say anything and whom you're referring to is implicit.

For example, to say "you are cool" in Japanese, you would say merely kakkoii カッコいい, which means "cool," and the "you are" is implicit.

If you were to be explicit:
  • anata wa kakkoii あなたはカッコいい
    You [are] cool.

But I just said you should avoid using words like anata. So use the name instead, like:
  • Yuuko-san wa kakkoii 勇子さんはカッコいい
    Yuuko [is] cool.

Then if Yuuko is your older sister, you address to her by title:
  • oneesan wa kakkoii お姉さんはカッコいい
    [My] older sister [is] cool.


Even though oneesan is literally "older sister," in English it's kinda weird to say that, so "big sister, "big sis," are often used instead. (Obviously there are cases where your older sister is smaller than you, so that doesn't always make sense.) It can also be translated as "elder sister."

Sometimes the the sister's name is used instead of "older sister." For example, instead of "my older sister is cool," the translation ends up being "Yuuko is cool." Of course, this is weird in another way when subtitles read Yuuko even though nobody says Yuuko in the audio.

And what if you're talking to Yuuko herself? Questions like oneesan wa nani ga suki? meaning "what does older sister like?" can end up being translated as "what do you like?" instead to avoid weirdness.


The meaning of oneechan is the same as oneesan, "older sister."

The difference between oneechan and oneesan is that oneechan is a cozier word, and that may imply the character is from a cozier family with a cozier upbringing. It's generally used by siblings in friendlier relationships. It's also common for younger children use oneechan instead instead of oneesan. And some people consider it to be cuter.

It's somewhat like the words "sis" and "sister" in English.


The meaning of oneesama is the same as oneesan, "older sister," too.

The difference between oneesama and oneesana is that oneesama has more reverence, and that may imply the character is from a stricter ore more traditional family, often rich $$$, with stern upbringing.

In some cases a younger sibling will say oneesama instead of oneesan out of admiration. In some cases the older sister may demand to be called oneesama instead, or it can be implicit that's demanded by the family.

Neesan, Neesama, Neechan

Sometimes the words oneesan, oneechan and oneesama are said without the o prefix: neesan 姉さん, neesama 姉さまand neechan 姉ちゃん. This is just a less formal way of saying the same thing.

Toward Young Women

Sometimes the word oneesan is used to address a young woman, just like the word "miss" is used in English.

This usage generally applies to teenagers and above. Toward elders, words like obasan, "aunt," and obaasan, "grandma," are similarly used instead. Toward little girls, ojousan, "daughter," is used instead.

In anime, there are two types of characters that often say oneesan this way:

First, little children. It's usual for main characters to be in high school, teenagers. So when they meet such children the girls end up being called oneesan.
  • ano oneesan ga tasukete kureta あのお姉さんが助けてくれた
    That oneesan helped [me].

In the manga Cells at Work!, Hataraku Saibou はたらく細胞, there's a platelet child-character  that routinely calls other cells oneechan and oniichan. Transcript: a' sekkekyuu no oneechan! あっ 赤血球のおねーちゃん! Ah, the oneechan red blood cell! a' hakkekkyuu no oniisan ita yo~ あっ 白血球のお兄さんいたよー Ah, the oniisan white blood cell [is there].

Second, old men talking in a patronizing way.
  • Oneesan, kokora hen no hito janai ne? お姉さん、ここら辺の人じゃないね?
    Oneesan, [you] aren't from around these parts, are [you]?

In both cases oneechan may also be used, but oneesama isn't used like this.

Oneesan vs. Ane

The difference between oneesan and ane is that oneesan has honorifics. Generally speaking, you don't use honorifics toward yourself. So you say ane when you refer to your own older sister, and oneesan when you refer to someone else's older sister. (see お姉さん vs. 姉)

One exception is when you're talking about your older sister to someone inside your own family, then you use oneesan.

In manga and anime, characters will often break the rules above. This is because they're children, in school, talking to friends, in fiction, and such rules are a lot more relaxed.

Some example phrases:
  • watashi no ane¹ to anata no oneesan² 私の姉とあなたのお姉さん
    My older sister¹ and your older sister².
  • anata no oneesan wa genki desuka? あなたのお姉さんは元気ですか?
    Is your older sister well?
  • oniisan, oneesan wa? お兄さん、お姉さんは?
    Older brother, [what about] older sister?
    Older brother, [where is] older sister?
    (here the speaker is speaking to their "older sister," asking about their "older brother.")


Sometimes oneesan is written without kanji with a prolonged sound mark ー. This often happens with child characters to denote the way they speak.
  • oneechan おねーちゃん
  • oneesan おねーさん
  • oneesama おねーさま

Oneesan vs. Onēsan

The difference between oneesan and onēsan, with a macron, is merely that they're different romaji for the same Japanese word. The same applies for onēchan and onēsama.

This happens because long vowels, found in syllables like nee ねえ and nee ねー, may be romanized with a macron instead of two vowel letters.

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