The use of honorifics in Japanese (of which “san” is probably the best known) is an inevitable part of the language, but also quite a confusing area for many of you. As well as having a function of politeness, their use also gives a very strong indication of the familiarity or the relationship between the speakers.
We therefore propose to go over their various uses.
Unless otherwise specified, these honorifics are placed after the name of the caller (sometimes his first name but usually his sur-name), as in: Sato-san, Kenji-kun, Miyagi-sensei. Also keep in mind these honorifics are highly contextual, so it is difficult to give absolute rules for their use.
The simplest translation would be “Mr” or “Mrs” (so this is a unisex suffix), but it signifies much more than that. “-San” is used with someone we respect and with whom one is not especially close, for example a colleague or boss, customers or anyone you don’t know very well.
This is a kind of default honorific, which leaves little chance for error (but watch out anyway). “-San” is used primarily with last names, but can be used with first names, for example one of your students or someone new in your social circle.
This is a less formal title with a lower level of politeness. In fact the symbol or kanji is the same as that of “kimi”, like "you" in its familiar form or the French "tu" (especially between couples). “Kun” is used with a friend, a classmate, a little brother or a younger boy.
Avoid using it when speaking to a girl because it is a masculine form, unless it is someone you are very close to (for this reason, it gives interesting insights into relationships in some manga animes or dramas).
"-Chan" performs a function similar to "kun", except that it is used mainly with girls. It's quite an affectionate word, which might be used with a friend, a classmate, a little sister, a baby, a grandmother, a girl or a woman to let her know you think she is sweet.
"-chan" can also be used with little boys; though from adolescence, it becomes rather feminised.
This signifies that a person in a group has more experience such as a senior colleague or a high school senior if you’re in a lower grade. Generally it refers to someone older.
As with "Sensei" is used interchangeably by sex, and does not necessarily follows the name. You might find it transcribed as “sempai”. Its opposite is “Kohai/kouhai” but it is rarely used when talking to someone.
You are unlikely to make any mistakes with "Sensei", which signifies a teacher, doctor, martial arts master or a recognised artist of either sex. It can be used after a surname or on its own.
A mark of deference and huge respect for those high up in society or those with a high status. This is the title used for God ("Kami-sama") or a princess ("Hime-sama") for example.
Somewhere between "-san" and "-sama" but it's an old-fashioned title that is hardly found today except in certain administrative correspondence. It was more commonly used around the time of the samurai.
A few general points to end on:
- It is very rude to talk about oneself using any honorific.
- You can refer to someone very close using their name without using an honorific.
- You would usually refer to family members using specific honorifics for their position (father, sister ...) although this may change depending on whether it is your family, the family of the person you are talking to or that of a third person.
- There are also some honorifics for positions of responsibility in companies, “bucho”, “kacho”, “shacho”... which are used as “senpai” or “sensei”.