Nifa is a writer, translator and bishounen connoisseur. When not working, she can usually be found scouring Osaka for beautiful comics of the lewd variety.
Welcome to Lost in Honyaku, a Manga.Tokyo column where we help you get your head around some of the Japanese words and phrases that you may find yourself hearing a lot in anime!
We’re not here to teach you Japanese, but we want to help you get the most out of your anime-watching experience. So many things can get lost in translation, and even if you don’t speak any Japanese whatsoever, we’re here to help you out!
Our first topic is something that is often left untranslated even in anime subtitles or translated manga. If you are new to anime or manga you may be wondering what those funny words are that are attached to the end of people’s names. Yamada-san? San? What’s a San??
Well, ~san is an example of a Japanese honorific suffix. You could say that the English equivalents are the titles ‘Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms’. So…why don’t the translators just use ‘Mr’? Or just leave the honorifics out altogether?
— 『食戟のソーマ』TVアニメ公式 (@shokugeki_anime) September 18, 2016
No matter the subject matter, you are sure to hear many kinds of honorifics being used between characters
The truth is that Japanese honorifics are the best giveaway to the relationships between characters. Japanese has a very complex system of honorific language that reflects the social hierarchies that are so important in Japanese society. Using an incorrect suffix could be seen as extremely rude, or using an overly-polite one may be awkward.
Honorifics can be attached to both family names and given names. Which of these names one chooses to use is also very important. Japanese names are written family name first, given name second. Unlike in most Western countries, it is usual to refer to people by their family name. Using somebody’s given name implies intimacy and as such is usually reserved for close friends and family members. This is why you may find a character being called Yamada-san by one character and Taro-kun by another.
Now that you have a small idea of what honorifics are, let’s have a look at some of most common ones you are likely to hear in anime.
Our first suffix is, ironically, no suffix at all. Remember how we said that using a person’s given name implies intimacy? Using a given name with no suffix is the next level: calling somebody by their given-name with no honorific often means you are extremely close. If one character starts to address another with no suffix halfway through a show, it could possibly mean there is romance in the air! <3
Conversely, calling somebody by their family-name with no suffix may show a lack of respect. Oh dear.
Introduced to many Westerners through ‘The Karate Kid’, ~san is the most common honorific suffix in Japanese. It’s gender-neutral and can be used with people you don’t know or even amongst friends if you aren’t particularly close. It is often added to inanimate objects or animals too! Basically, if in doubt, use ~san!
You might also hear ~san being attached to inanimate objects, job titles, or even companies!
Often seen as a term of endearment, this suffix was originally a baby-talk version of ~san that is now often used to address young girls. Some people use it as a cute way to address their close friends.
Fun fact: Hello Kitty is known as Kitty-chan in Japan!
A term of respect that is most commonly used to address young males. If you watch school anime then you may have noticed boys being referred to as ~kun. It isn’t necessarily only used for boys though and is often used by superiors to address their subordinates, both male and female.
— 「ReLIFE」アニメ公式 (@ReLIFE_anime) September 14, 2016
Pretty much any anime set in a school will have examples of all the common honorifics
A term of extreme respect. For most regular Japanese, this is most commonly used when dealing with customers and clients. In fact, mail is usually addressed to [name]-sama.
In anime it often shows that the character is highly respected or in a position of power. It is sometimes used sarcastically too!
Any of you who have dabbled in Japanese martial arts may be used to the term ~sensei. As well as a suffix, this may be used as a pronoun in its own right.
Although it means ‘teacher’, sensei is actually used to give respect to anybody in a learned profession. For example: teachers, doctors, and writers. This is why manga authors are usually referred to as [name]-sensei.
Like ~sensei, ~sempai can be used as both a suffix and a pronoun (as in ‘Notice me, sempai!’). It is used as a term of respect to refer to an upperclassman at school, or somebody in your office who joined before you. Sempai–Kouhai (upperclassman-lowerclassman) relations are extremely important in Japan, and it is standard to treat your sempai with the utmost respect. A cute example is Ryunosuke Tanaka from Haikyu!!, as he gets super emotional when the first-years finally address him as Tanaka-sempai rather than Tanaka-san.
— アニメ「ハイキュー!!」 (@animehaikyu_com) February 5, 2016
“Let’s master honorifics! Waaah!” Sports anime, such as Haikyu!!, put a great focus on the hierarchy of the characters.
So those were the essential suffixes you are likely to see in any anime you watch. Next are some you may be less likely to hear (but that certainly doesn’t mean you won’t!)
A baby-talk version of –sama. It somehow manages to give respect yet be cutesy at the same time.
Comes from ‘tono’, meaning something like ‘Lord’ in modern Japanese. It is a level below –sama and is rarely ever used in speech. However, it is sometimes used by characters in anime that have a slightly… unique personality. For example, Takane Shijo from [email protected] often addresses other characters using ~dono. This adds to her character being noble, yet a little ‘out there’ (it’s rumored she even be from the moon!).
A very polite and general suffix that is often used in formal writing and very often heard on the news. The stereotypical otaku will refer to their otaku-comrades with ~shi.
Remember how ~chan started off as baby-talk for ~san? Well ~tan is now baby-talk for ~chan! Super cutesy. Sometimes used by older women to make them seem younger than they are, such as Meme Towa from Dempa-onna to Seishun no Otoko, who sometimes refers to herself as ‘Meme-tan‘.
This is similar to ~sensei and may also be used as a stand-alone pronoun. It is used to give respect to masters of traditional Japanese skills, including martial arts. A good example in from G Gundam, in which the protagonist Domon Kashu refers to his martial arts master, Master Asia, as ‘shisho’. That is, until something happens to make Domon lose respect for his former teacher… (no spoilers here!)
— アニメD.Gray-man HALLOW (@dgrayman_anime) July 11, 2016
“Wow, look at all those suffixes. Can’t compute.” Fantasy anime still tend to use regular Japanese honorifics yet you’ll hear some less-common suffixes here and there.
These are just some of the common honorifics you may see or hear in anime. We didn’t even touch upon addressing family members (eg: onii-chan), words that refer to rank or job position (e.g shachou, taichou) or honorifics use in local dialects (such as ~han). You will learn all about them in future article of Lost in Honyaku (if you have any request for a specific topic, send us a message)!
We hope that you can now listen out for the different honorifics and gain a better understanding of the relationships between characters!
What do you think? Do you prefer honorifics to be left untranslated, or do you think they should be left as-is? Do you know any interesting usages of Japanese honorifics? Let us know in the comments!