Here are some of the honorific suffixes that appear in Japanese. None of them are really analogous to any English terms, but I'll do my best to explain them.

-san: The standard. Vaguely like "Mr." or "Ms.", although it doesn't have any gender associated with it. Used for peers and acquaintances, but would be a bit formal for using with your friends. Used for people socially higher than you, and people you don't know well.

-chan: Female diminutive. You can use -chan with little kids, particularly little girls. Teenage girls can use it on each other, as can younger children in general.

-kun: Male diminutive. Teenage girls would use this for their male peers. People socially higher than a given male could use -kun, those lower than him would use -san. A teacher might call all his students, male or female, -kun.

-sama: Very honorable. -Sama is not used very much in standard conversation anymore, but it's often applied to pronouns (as in mina-sama, "everyone" dochira-sama, "who") when using "keigo", honorific language. -Sama is used for somebody much higher than you, but be careful - in modern Japan, -san is probably correct, if not -san, then sensei. -Sama may make whoever you're using it on feel uncomfortable.

-dono: Archaic honorable. Samurai used -dono, and you occasionally hear it in anime. I'm not clear on the rules for its usage, but it does denote respect. Update: Below, getzburg is right, eclip5e is wrong.

-sensei: Teacher. Used for any kind of instructor, whether it be elementry school teacher, music tutor, or martial arts master. Also used when referring to medical doctors, and professionals of certain vocations. Manga artists are called sensei, as in Fujishima-sensei.

It bears mentioning that these suffixes are not the only way of indicating respect in spoken Japanese; indeed, they're only a small part. More important is the level of politeness you decide to use in your grammar, particularly verb conjugations. There's more than one way to, for example, conjugate the past tense of the verb "to eat", but one way will be more polite than another.

I don't pretend to have honorific speech mastered; it's really hard. But perhaps this guide will be slightly useful all the same. As a last note, when referring to yourself by name, as in when you introduce yourself, you don't say "I'm Tanaka-san", you say "I'm Tanaka" - honorifics of any kind are never used when referring to yourself.

Point: Below, -brazil- is correct, but I'm sticking to my guns in saying that chan has basically female overtones while kun has basically male overtones, even though both terms can be used for both sexes.

A good rule of thumb for foreigners: When in doubt, use "san."

In Japanese it is keigo. Japanese culture has distinct borders of who is above and below you. Above include your teachers, your employers and people who are older than you. Not only must you raise the person who is above you, but you must lower yourself. Speaking about yourself using honorific sounds like an inflated ego and leads to disaster (trust me, i know).

Keigo is becoming less common in the classroom because teachers are trying to foster a comfortable friendship type of relationship with their students. This is similar to the trend away from calling teachers vous in French Canada.

Japanese honourifics (敬語, keigo) are divided into 尊敬語 sonkeigo, respectful words, and 謙譲語 kenjyoogo, humble words (excuse the romanisation). The use of each depends on the notions of "out-group" and "in-group".

Honourific verb forms are where a bit of irregularity creeps into the language. There are both regular forms, which may be arrived at by conjugation, and irregular forms. The regular way to construct a respectful verb, is to prefix the verb stem with "o", the honourific prefix, and append "ni narimasu".


kaku->kaki->o-kaki ni narimasu
書く → 書き → お書きになります

Of course, the narimasu ending is conjugated to arrive at all the other possible verb manipulations.

In addition to regular respectful verb formations, there is humble verb formation. This is done by prefixing the verb stem by "o" and appending "shimasu" or perhaps "itashimasu" (more on this later) to the verb, similar to forming respectful verbs.

Many common verbs also have irregular respectful forms and humble forms, e.g. suru, which has the humble form of "itasu", and the respectful form "nasaru". Other common examples are:

-Iku (to go) : Respectful form of irassharu, humble form of mairu

-Iru (to exist) : Respectful form of irassharu, humble form of oru

-Iu (to say) : Respectful form of ossharu, humble form of mousu

-taberu (to eat) : Respectful form of meshiagaru, humble form of itadaku

-shiru (to know) : Respectful form of gozonjiru, humble form of zonjiru

Of course, there are others.

The meanings of the irregular respectful/humble forms often interrelate closely to their use in keigo, and are also the source of many "set phrases" that Japanese students are taught (like itte mairimasu, itadakimasu, etc). Mairu, for example, is defined as going up/going into a higher/sacred place.

In addition to this are the nouns, which are easier. Respectful nouns may be simply formed by adding the prefix "o" or "go" onto the noun. Which prefix is added is irregular! A general rule is that if the noun is read using kunyomi, e.g. namae (name), the prefix is often "o", giving "onamae". If the noun is read using onyomi, e.g. juusho (address), it is often "go", giving "gojuusho".

Also, there are many nouns, most of which are Chinese words that are intrinsically respectful in tone. If you use "otaku", for another person's house, it is more "formal" in tone.

Actually spoke with my Japanese professor about this once, and I didn't get the impression that "dono" was restricted to use with females. As far as I know, it's merely an archaic and highly formal version of "san."

Also, I didn't see "kyo" on the list. Kyo is used similar to the way we would use "Sir" in english.

Lancelot-kyo == Sir Lancelot (goofy, I know, but it was the best I could do)

Some corrections and/or elaborations:

  • -chan is not necessarily female, it is used towards children of either gender, and may even be used for an adult male whom the speaker is very close to.
  • -kun is not necessarily male; it is common for high-ups in companies to use it for subordinates of either gender.
  • -dono is first and foremost archaic. It is respectful and formal, but not submissive. It was used between people of equal (high) status.
  • -sama is definitely submissive, and it is still used in some instances, as suffix in the address on a letter; furthermore, it is always used by service personnel towards customers.
Working for a japanese company, I asked a japanese colleague about what to use, other than -san.

"Westerners will get away with using Mr. or -san", he said.

He addresses his superior using -dono, while his superior addresses him using -kun.
Visiting dignitaries of other companies justify the use of -sama, which you would not use within the company itself.
When talking to top-ranking company officials, it is also possible to use the title (i.e. the japanese form of director) as a honorific.

A lesson my colleague taught me is the following :
"When communication with japanese, use -san. If you have something important to ask for, use -dono."

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