A Quick Guide to Understanding Japanese Name Suffixes
Have you ever been to Japan? If so, you know showing politeness is a core aspect of the culture. Politeness isn’t just shown by actions, but it’s also woven into the language too. In English we might use Sir, Madam, Mister (Mr.), Misses (Mrs.), Miss (Ms.) and so on. Similarly, Japanese name suffixes can include , ~san, ~sama, ~kun, and more which I will discuss in more detail below.
Japanese Name Suffixes in Action
The most common by far is ～さん、(～san). This is appended to the end of names and is often approximated to mean Mr. or Mrs./Ms. As with a lot of translations from English to Japanese, it is not a perfect match. If you have been working with someone called ‘Smith,’ for five years, would you call them Mr. Smith in private conversation? I would not, but in a Japanese company you would.
This versatile suffix is used outside the workplace too. Casual acquaintances would be sure to say ～さん、and friends that have known each other a while might still say it. Indeed, dropping the suffix altogether is a sign of closeness and familiarity that may take many years to reach.
As a learner of Japanese, always use ～さん. Even if you read the relationship incorrectly, adding ～さん is always better than saying nothing at all. If you are friends with the person, or are in a more informal setting, you are probably safe to use first name ～さん, while last name ～さん is the fallback if you are completely stumped. In Japan it is impossible to be too formal.
～さま(～sama) is used for people of importance. This might be a princess, famous writer or nobleman. It is also used when talking about Gods, かみさま(kamisama) literally means God, and is used with traditional Shinto Gods along with foreign monotheistic Gods.
But where most people will hear ～さま is during everyday transactions at the convenience store, supermarket or in restaurants. While you may never have to call someone ～さま yourself, you will certainly hear it a lot. This suffix shows humility, the person saying it (for example shop staff) are below the person hearing it (the customer) and they are there to serve you. This is part of the reason why Japanese people consider themselves so polite, and why Japanese customer service is seen to be among the best in the world.
One of the more confusing daily suffixes is ～くん(～kun). At first, I only ever heard it in reference to boys, particularly from senior figures in the schools I worked in. All the male names ended with ～くん and so I assumed it was only used when talking to children (for reference, all the girls were ～さん). Then I heard it used among older men, referring to a colleague who was well into his mid-thirties. And then I heard it when an older man was talking about a female teacher, at which point I made a mental note to never use it myself in case I got it wrong and offended someone.
In brief, ～くん is mostly used with people who are significantly younger than the speaker, regardless of gender. Despite being used most often with children it is not used to belittle the recipient. It does not denote any subservience, and is not derisive in any way.
I have never heard anyone under the age of sixty refer to a woman or girl as ～くん. I have also never heard a woman refer to another woman as ～くん. I get the distinct impression that it is an old man thing, so I will wait until there is a little more grey in my beard before using it.
Continuing the school theme, ～せんぱい(～senpai) and ～こうはい(～kouhai) will be familiar to anyone who watches Japanese movies or drama. ～せんぱい is upperclassman, someone who is in the year above you in school, while ～こうはい is an underclassman, someone in the year below you. While both can be used much in the same way as the other suffixes, they are also used as standalone phrases. For example, instead of saying クリスせんぱい(Chris senpai) it can be more natural just to say せんぱい、by itself. The same goes with こうはい.
These are also used in the workplace which can lead to some interesting problems. For example, if Chris and John join a company at the same time they would call each other ～さん, unless there is a noticeable age gap in which case the younger will defer to the older (even if they do not explicitly say せんぱい or こうはい, that upper/lower dynamic is engrained in the culture). If John joins after Chris, John is the こうはい regardless of age, because he is less experienced. But what happens if John is forty years older than Chris? Or what happens if John has 5 PHD’s in their field, and is obviously far more qualified than John, is he still the こうはい?
Japanese social dynamics can be very complicated.
The other commonly used suffix is ～ちゃん(～chan). This is a cuter suffix and is used among close friends and by adults speaking to young children. Do not call your boss ～ちゃん unless you already have another job lined up.
It is often used with children and gives the impression of youth, so some women who are trying to appear cuter will append ～ちゃん to their own names, but this is a high risk low reward strategy, especially for foreign speakers.
There are a lot more suffixes out there, but these are among the most commonly used. As with much of Japanese, once you have learned what these words mean you can start understanding what they actually mean. Remember, if you are ever unsure of which to use, just use ～さん.
If you want to learn more polite ways to say things in Japanese, our previous Japanese honorifics guide is something you should check out.
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Sam De Roeck is a native English speaker living in Japan. He should probably study Japanese more, but he spends all his time watching horror movies instead.