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What are honorifics?

An honorific is a word that confers honor. Generally speaking, honorifics are seen as something added to a person's name. However in Japan, honorifics can be added to an event, idea, or thing. Being polite is a very important part the Japanese culture and why honorifics are so important. Unlike in America, addressing anyone you've just met without an honorific (-san is the standard honorific) is considered rude at best and a form of contempt at worst. If you know the person in question, addressing them by their name alone indicates you are close to the person (more so if you use their given name rather than their family name). It is also improper to address yourself with an honorific.

Japanese honorifics don't translate well into English. For the English dubs, the scripts are written to try to match lip movement with English words. Sometimes, this forces them to "domesticate" the dubs to varying degrees, with some companies modifying scripts to better appeal to an English-speaking audience. Since most Americans who watch anime in English aren't really interested in the Japanese cultural aspects of a show, including honorifics in the dubs is not seen as even needed.

For the subtitles, most fansub groups leave the honorifics associated with names in their subtitles as well as title honorifics. Most officially licensed subtitled versions try to ignore the honorifics for the most part. However, at times they are forced to deal with honorifics and then give them forced translations based on what they think is appropriate for the scene. Sometimes these fit and at other times, the translations are likely to make one cringe.

The reason for this attitude on the part of distributors is that they feel that most American's won't understand what the honorifics are and thus be confused. However, it can be argued that while some people may be confused, a quick explanation of honorifics on the DVD will clear this up.

The inclusion of honorifics within anime translations (primarily subtitles) or manga adaptations helps to give the non-Japanese speaking audience more of a Japanese perspective on the story that would be lost with the elimination or forced-translation of said honorifics. The inclusion of said honorifics add a certain richness and spice to the adaptation.

It should be noted that Japanese authors, manga-ka, and anime writers use honorifics as an element of their storytelling. As such, they will use certain honorifics more commonly in their works than the normal Japanese person might use them in real life to better establish character relationships and the like.

To be fair, as anime becomes more popular, American distributors are starting to take honorifics into consideration. Some honorific terms like "senpai" (defined below) are starting to show up both in the English dub and English subtitled versions. "Sensei" is another term that is starting to be seen a little more frequently as is "-chan" (all depending on the company). One anime distribution company (FUNimation) has decided to include all of the common honorifics into their subtitled versions and another company has experimented with this on a few of their titles. Del Rey does the same thing for their manga adaptations, only with some titles they go even farther to give the audience the Japanese experience. TokyoPop does some of their titles this way and some domesticated.

Honorifics for People

(Note that adding an honorific to a first name or a familiy name of a person again has different connotations that aren't covered in the above description... and that the mechanism when to use the first name and when to use the family name in Japanese isn't the same as in English as well...)


This honorific denotes the greatest level of respect to the addressee or submission on the part of the addresser (or both). It is a suffix used after a person’s name or at the end of a title. People in authority or royalty are addressed with the "-sama" suffix. Also, women who are really taken with a guy (whether they are dating or not) may address him with the "-sama" honorific. The "-sama" honorific is sometimes used (especially by girls in more upper class families) when addressing their parents or older siblings.

Some examples in anime:

Some official translations seen in anime:


This is an archaic honorific which is almost never used these days in Japan. You might still see it on letters and in Japanese fiction (to include anime/manga), this still gets used a decent amount, especially in historical titles. It is generally considered to show a level of respect higher than :"-san" but less than "-sama". However, in the past, the "-dono" honorific actually held a higher degree of respect that "-sama", as the lord of a village was addressed as such.

Today, there are two ways that "-dono" is used in anime/manga.

1) non-submissive -- This form of -dono is used when a person of great importance addresses someone else of great importance (in one way or another). It allows the addresser to show great respect to the addressee without elevating them above the addresser. In this way, the -dono honorific ranks higher than the -san honorific, but below the -sama honorific.

2) submissive -- The second form of "-dono" is one of "lord" or "master" where the user of the honorific is clearly being subservient or showing great respect. Some exaples in anime are:

Some official translations seen in anime:


This is the most commonly used honorific in Japan and is considered the default honorific. When someone is introduced to you, it is proper to address them with the "-san" honorific. If you don't know what honorific to use, "-san" is always a safe bet. While this is often translated as "Mr." or "Mrs.", this is not its true translation, but close enough for government work. However, it is considered acceptable way of defining the honorific when dealing with adults and even when children address each other with "-san" (though it is unnatural English for kids to address each other as "Mr. Doe" or "Miss Doe").

Some examples in anime:

Some official translations seen in anime:


This is a more intimate honorific and has a more feminine aspect to it. The "-chan" honorific is used by adults addressing young children, girls addressing girls, boys addressing girls, & girls (and sometimes boys) addressing pets. Sometimes a girl may address a guy with the "-chan" honorific as a sign of affection. Guys who were raised in part by older girls will sometimes still be addressed with the -chan honorific when they are adults. Outside of that, guys generally do not like being addressed with the "-chan" honorific.

In high school, girls may start being addressed with the "-san" honorific in stead of "-chan", though close friends may continue to address each other with "-chan". It is also my understanding that women may continue using the "-chan" honorific if they've known the other women since childhood.

Some examples in anime:

Some official translations seen in anime:


This is also a more intimate honorific and has a more masculine aspect to it. Boys in school are given the "-kun" honorific though the end of high school. While not as common, it is seen as OK for guys who've known each other since childhood to continue to use the "-kun" honorific.

In recent times, some teachers may address female students with the "-kun" honorific. The same thing is happening in the workplace where some bosses are started to address female workers with the "-kun" suffix.

Of all the honorifics, this one tends to be ignored the most by official translations. That's because it is the most difficult to force into an English translation, but ignoring it often changes how characters relate to each other.

Some examples in anime:

Some official translations seen in anime:

(In this case the 'intimacy' depends on the use of first name vs. family name as well; compare episode 7 of Shin Seiki Evangelion where the ministers of the Japanese government name each other "-kun" after the surname whereas the "Shinji-kun" of Misato towards her "adopted child" is really emotional at times.)


This is a word which denotes someone as being superior or more experienced to yourself and is sometimes spelled out as "sempai" (since that's how is often sounds to our English-speaking ears). Primarily this is used in high school or college where underclassmen address upperclassmen as "senpai" as a sign of respect. This title/honorific isn't used much outside of the school environment, but it can be used in the workplace (rarely done though from what I'm told).

Some examples in anime:

Some official translations seen in anime:


This is a word used for teachers, doctors, and masters of any kind. It is also used to address writers, including manga-ka (all authors to be precise), and lawyers. As with "-senpai", it can be used as a stand-alone title or as an honorific.

Some examples in anime:

Some official translations seen in anime:


One level above sensei, this word translates to "savant" and equals the doctor's degree. As with "-sensei", it can be used as a stand-alone title or as an honorific.

Some examples in anime:

No Honorific

The lack of the use of an honorific either indicates rudeness or disrespect on the part of the addresser, or it indicates that the addresser feels a sense of intimacy to the addressee. The degree of intimacy is reflected on whether the addresser uses the addressee's family name or given name. Classmates at school usually address each other by surname without honorific unless they are friends.

Some examples in anime:

Honorifics for Family

As you have seen, respect is very important in Japanese society. It is possibly more important in the family structure. The base word for the family member (mom, dad, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, etc.) is mostly preceded by the prefix honorific "O" (just gives a little more respect) and is almost always followed by the suffix honorifics of "-sama", "-san", or "-chan". No other suffix honorific is used for the family member to say "mom", "dad", etc. As defined above, the honorific used indicates the degree of respect paid to the family member and/or the closeness felt to the family member being addressed.


The base word used today for one's dad is "tou" and the base word for one's mom is "kaa." However, there are other words for mother/father, none of which use honorifics.

For a father, the following are variations of how to address him: "Otousama", "Otousan", "Tousan", "Touchan" (used mainly by little kids). It is similar for how to address a mother: "Okaasama", "Okaasan", "Kaasan", "Kaachan" (again, used mainly by little kids).

In more recent animes there may be a trend away from that super traditionalist naming to more relaxed relations between kids and their parents. In Lamune, 17-year-old Tomosaka Kenji addresses his father as "oyaji" which would translate to "dad" or even "old man".

Note that there's a difference whether you say "father"/"mother" addressing your father/mother ("otousan"/"okaasan") or whether you're talking about your father/mother to some other person (formal: ↗chichi / ↗haha). If a girl would talk to a classmate about her mother she would use "haha", not "okaasan" according to the rules of Japanese. However, as AstroNerdBoy's sensei laments, it is becoming more common for people to only use the "tou" or "kaa" forms of "mom" and "dad." In anime, this can be seen a lot as well.

As an honorific, it is something that is extremely rare. In TM!R OAV 3 +1, Sasami-chan refers to Tenchi's new stepmom as "Rea-okaasan".


There's no word for either of them without implying whether they are older or younger, as their relative position in the family is that important in Japan. Like for father/mother there are respectful and intimate versions as well as formal ones. Younger children always address their older siblings by one form or other of older brother/sister, but older children generally just use the name-honorific with their younger brothers/sisters.

Some examples in anime: Note that a child would address a young man/woman on the street as "oniisan/chan" / "oneesan/chan" (older brother/older sister) and an older man/woman on the street as "ojiisan"/"obaasan" (grandpa/grandma) even though they are not related. Further, in an eating establishment or bar, sometimes female servers are refered to as "oneesan/chan".

Examples in anime:

As an honorific, there are several forms:

Examples in anime:

Other Honorifics/Titles of Interest

Here are honorific and titles that are also used:

[2008-08-26, DD: Added "hakase" and a few links to the Japanese dictionary]
[2007-11-26, DD: Removed onii-san/-sama interpretation as "big", added "oyaji", added some examples]
[2007-01-20, ANB: Additional information is being gathered for this topic]
[2006-01-20, DD: Fixed two broken links, added examples for the "other honorifics" section]
[2005-11-18; DD: some additions by Devil Doll]
[2005-01-20, ANB: updated by AstroNerdBoy, work in progress]

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