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...)
-samaThis 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.
- Kami-sama is how you would address God (↗kami is the word for "god").
- To very respectfully address a group of people, a character might say "mina-sama" (↗mina means "everyone").
- In Ai Yori Aoshi, Aoi addresses her fiancé Kaoru as "Kaoru-sama" to show her love for him and submission to him.
- In Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-ohki, Ayeka addresses Tenchi as "Tenchi-sama" after she learns he is part of the royal family. However, she also uses the term to convey her love for Tenchi.
- In Tenchi Muyo! GXP and in TM!R OAV 3, Kamiki Seto Jurai is addressed as "Seto-sama" due to her being the most powerful person on Jurai. Washu is address as "Washu-sama" (until other arrangements are made) due to her incredible intellect.
- In Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru is called "Sesshoumaru-sama" by Rin (a little girl he saved) and Jaken (an imp-youkai in his service) as he is a powerful ↗youkai (demon/magical monster) in humanoid form. Rin also addresses Jaken with the -sama honorific. Also in Inuyasha, the priest Miroku will call Kagome "Kagome-sama" because of her ↗miko (sorceress/shrine maiden) powers.
- In Hand Maid May, CBD Sara addresses Kazuya with the -sama honorific when she has official business dealings with him.
Some official translations seen in anime:
- My Love/Love
- ignored (for example, "Big Sister" may have been "onee-san" as well as "onee-sama" in Japanese)
-donoThis 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.
- In Ai Yori Aoshi, Aoi's teacher and guardian Miyabi calls Aoi's fiancé Kaoru "Kaoru-dono". She does this out of respect for the fact that Kaoru is Aoi-sama's fiancé (and the son of a wealthy family on the same level as Aoi's family), but he is not superior to her.
- In Tenchi Muyou! Ryououki, Washu addresses Tenchi as "Tenchi-dono". She uses this term out of respect for his obvious great power. As such, she is treating him as an equal, but with great respect. Seto-sama uses the -dono honorific to address others she sees of importance.
- In Tenchi Muyou! Ryououki, the computer Yukinojo addresses Mihoshi as "Mihoshi-dono" because she is his owner.
- In Fruits Basket, Kazuma (owner of the dojo and trainer of Kyo-kun) is addressed by some as "Kazuma-dono" out of great respect for his possition as martial arts teacher and head of a dojo.
- ignored (common)
-sanThis 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").
- To respectfully address a group of people, a character might say "mina-san" (↗mina means "everyone").
- In Ai Yori Aoshi, Kaoru addresses Miyabi as "Miyabi-san" to show respect without going overboard.
- In Tenchi Muyou! Ryououki, Ayeka calls Tenchi "Tenchi-san" before discovering he was a member of House Masaki and a decendant of Yosho.
- In Azumanga Daioh (TV), many of the girls are addressed with the "-san" honorific (some are refered to with the "-chan" honorific though).
- In Hand Maid May, May runs through a list of honorifics (-sama, -dono, & Mister to name a few) to address her owner Kazuya until he states that the "-san" honorific is fine.
- My Love/Love
- ignored (frequent)
-chanThis 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:
- In Ai Yori Aoshi, Kaoru addresses his fiancé Aoi as "Aoi-chan". This is unusual, but considering they knew each other since they were little kids, understandable.
- In Tenchi Muyou! Ryououki, Tenchi calls Sasami "Sasami-chan" and she calls Ryo-Ohki "Ryo-chan". Rea addresses Tenchi as "Tenchi-chan" since she was a mother figure to him when he was a child. Others in the royal family have addressed Tenchi as such too.
- In Ranma ½, Akane called the little pig she found, "P-chan". Ukyou calls male-Ranma "Ranma-chan" since she's also engaged to him and really likes him.
- In Inuyasha Kagome calls Sango "Sango-chan" and she calls Kagome "Kagome-chan", indicating their friendship.
- In Heppoko Jiken Animation Excel Saga, Excel refers to Hyatt as "Ha-chan" (which ADV spells as "Hatchan", partially to avoid bringing attention to the fact that they are actually using an honorific in the subtitle translation and in the dub script).
- In Hand Maid May, CBD Rena addresses herself as "Rena-chan" and is addressed as such by everyone else.
- Mr. (seen in either Slayers or Slayers Next)
- ignored (frequent)
-kunThis 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:
- In Ranma ½, Akane addresses Ranma's rival Ryouga as "Ryouga-kun". Also, Soun and Gennma address each other with the ↗-kun honorific since they trained together in their younger days.
- In Inuyasha Kagome calls the wolf-demon Kouga "Kouga-kun".
- In Heppoko Jiken Animation Excel Saga, !IlPalazzo-sama addresses Excel as "Excel-kun" because she's his underling.
- In Kimera, Shigure often addresses Tohru as "Tohru-kun." Kagura also addresses Tohru as "Tohru-kun" though changes in the manga to "Tohru-chan" when the two become friends.
- In Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu, Suizenji Kunihiro (a boy of about 18 years) addresses Yuuko, the 12-year-old sister of his fellow club member Asaba Naoyuki, as "Asaba-kun" because he wants to communicate on a "business level" with her (he wants to recruit her for his club) as opposed to addressing her as "cute little girl".
- Miss (seen in Dual! Paralle Lunlun Monogatari)
- ignored (its rare for this honorific to be acknowledged)
↗Senpai/-senpaiThis 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:
- In Ranma ½, Kunou Tatewaki expects people address him as "Senpai" or "Kunou-senpai"
- In Azumanga Daioh (TV), 11-year old genius Chiyo-chan is a 2nd-year student at high school. She feels she is getting no respect and demands the 1st-year students address her as "Senpai".
- In Trigun, Milly Thompson addresses her co-worker Meryl Striff as "Senpai".
- In Heppoko Jiken Animation Excel Saga, Hyatt calls Excel "Senpai" or "Excel-senpai".
- character's name
- ignored (occasionally)
- untranslated (occasionally)
↗Sensei/-senseiThis 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:
- In Onegai Teacher, Kei addresses his wife (who is also his teacher) as "Sensei".
- In Ranma ½, the gang all address Dr. Tofu as "Tofu-sensei". The principle of Ranma and Akane's school would be called "Kouchou-sensei" (kouchou=principle).
- In Witch Hunter Robin, the lawyer who helps Robin at Amon's request (and whose name I've forgotten) is addressed by his staff as "Sensei."
- In Read or Die - TV, author Nenene Sumiregawa is addressed as "Sensei" by most of the characters.
- character's name
- ignored (uncommon)
- untranslated (occasionally)
↗Hakase/-hakaseOne 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:
- In Shin Seiki Evangelion both Fuyutsuki Kouzou (university professor) and Akagi Ritsuko (chief computer scientist of a large organization) are named "-hakase" after their family name, which is translated to "Professor Fuyutsuki" but "Doctor Akagi".
No HonorificThe 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:
- In Tenchi Muyou! Ryououki, Ryoko addresses no one with an honorific except to tweak them. Tenchi addresses Ryoko with no honorific, which is often seen as a sign that the two of them are very close.
- In Inuyasha, Kagome and Inuyasha do not address each other with honorifics.
Honorifics for FamilyAs 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.
ParentsThe 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".
Brothers/sistersThere'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.
- Older Brother = "o-nii-sama" (very respectful), "nii-sama" (very respectful, with the hint of closeness by not using the "o"), "o-nii-san" (respectful), "nii-san" (from family members), "o-nii-chan" (very informal), "↗ani" (formal).
- Younger Brother = "otouto-san" (respectful, used at times by outsiders), "otouto" (from family members).
- Older Sister = "o-nee-sama" (very respectful), "nee-sama" (very respectful with a hint of closeness), "o-nee-san" (respectful), "nee-san" (from family members), "o-nee-chan" (very informal), "↗ane" (formal).
- Younger Sister = "imouto-san" (respectful), "imouto" (from family members).
- In Love Hina Aoyama Motoko (a girl raised in very traditional Japanese style) addresses her older sister as "ane-ue", appending an additional level of subserviency by the "-↗ue" ("my admired older sister").
- In Binbou Shimai Monogatari, Asu adresses her big sister Kyou as "onee-chan" indicating how close they are; Asu's classmate and neighbor Ginko adresses her big sister Kinko as "onee-sama" indicating how much she respects her (the difference between these two attitudes being an important story element of this series).
- In Mahou Sensei Negima!, the ermine Chamo-kun addressed Asuna as "Ane-san"
Examples in anime:
- In Full Metal Panic, Kurtz addresses Mao as "Neechan" even though they aren't related.
- Older Brother -- "-niisama", "-niisan", "-niichan", "-nii"
- Older Sister -- "-neesama", "-neesan", "-neechan", "-nee"
- In Tenchi Muyou! Ryououki, Sasami-chan addresses Tenchi as "Tenchi-niichan", Ryoko as "Ryoko-neechan", and her sister Aeka as "Oneesama".
- In Scrapped Princess, Pacifica addresses her older brother as "Shannon-nii" and her sister as "Raquel-nee"
- In Read or Die - TV, Anita addresses her older sister Michelle as "Mi-nee", her older sister Maggie as "Ma-nee", and Nenene-sensei as "Nene-nee" (something totally missed by the subtitle translation of Geneon).
Other Honorifics/Titles of InterestHere are honorific and titles that are also used:
- (o)jou(chan/san/sama) -- This is a title/honorific used to address a girl or young woman of someone important and rich, but who's NOT a member of the royalty. "Ojouchan" can be used to address a young girl, but is often seen used in a rude way by thugs to a young woman they've eyed. "Ojousama" is used by the household staff of the young woman's family to address her.
- -hime -- This is a title/honorific for princess. Kagato refered to both Aeka and Sasami-chan with this honorific. To add more respect to the title, the sama honorific is attached to it ("himesama").
- -han -- This is an honorific of the same level as -san, but seems to only be used by those speaking with a Kyoto dialect. In Mainichi ga Nichiyoubi, Ichidaiji Tohru addresses Takeshita Yumi as "Yumi-han".
- -tan -- A cutesy form of the -chan honorific. I had thought it to be a cutesy form of -san but have been informed this is not correct.
- -chii -- A cutesy, highly informal honorific. Ironically, this will often show up in translations, but not denoted as an honorific by using the dash. Instead, it will often be appended to the end of someone's name, often as "tchi." In Ai Yori Aoshi Tina Foster (an American raised in Japan) refers to her (younger) fellow student Miyuki Mayu as "Mayuchi".
- -chama -- A cutesy, childish form of the -sama honorific. In Hanaukyo Maid Tai La Verite Yashima Sanae refers to her female Captain Tsurugi Konoe (whom she has a secret crush on) as "Konoe-chama".
- -chin -- Another cutesy, childish form of the -chan honorific. In Ai Yori Aoshi Tina Foster refers to her fellow student Minazuki Taeko as "Tae-chin".
- -rin -- Often considered to be another cutesy, childish form of the -chan honorific, though it is not a true honorific in and of itself. Like "chin" and "chii," it is used as a casual, friendly suffix to a person's name. In Ai Yori Aoshi Tina Foster refers to Taeko's younger cousin Minazuki Chika as "Chika-rin".
- -tama -- Another cutesy, childish form of the -sama honorific.
[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]