Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Japanese Honorifics

In a country which lays a strong emphasis on politeness, it is natural that people cannot be addressed simply by their given names or family names. It is very rare that people whom you interact with on a daily basis be it neighbours or colleagues or even friends will ever address you without attaching a honorific

The most commonly used honorific is " San". It is generally a suffix which is usually added to the family name. It is the equivalent of the Indian "ji" and is used to mean "Mr", "Mrs", "Ms" etc.It is not very common to address a person with his given name unless you are a close friend or know each other really well. That is why usually the "-san" is added  to the family name. The "-san" is used for both males and females. Only close friends or family members do not address each other by adding "-san". Foreigners may find it amusing that even telling your Japanese friends or colleagues to drop the "-san" while addressing you is of no use. You will still remain a certain "-san". I have tried before and given up. However addressing one's own family member by adding the "-san" is not acceptable and one should refrain from doing so. Adding the "san" to inanimate objects or animals is also very common. For example " Zhou san" is elephant,  "Usagi san" is Rabbit and " O-Saru san" is monkey. Sometimes storeowners are called "Sakana-ya-San" meaning " Fish store owner" or " Hon-ya-san" meaning Book store owner. Certain professionals are also addressed with the san suffix , for instance a cop is "Omawari san" in Japanese.

The next honorific that is commonly used is "Chan". It is used only for young girls, younger female family members and babies. Infact young girls and preschoolers usually introduce themselves by adding the suffix "-chan". Initially I used to wonder how every girl's name ends with the "-chan", only to be told by my friend that it is a suffix used for girl names. It is considered rude to call a young lady by adding the "-chan". It implies that the person is still childish and hence only small schoolgoing girls should be addressed with the honorific "chan". However it is common for close friends to address each other with the "chan" even if they are in their 30's or 40's. Our daughter loves being addressed with the suffix "chan" and introduces herself in this manner when speaking to the locals. Infact even cartoon characters are addressed with these honorifics- Hello Kitty is "Kitty-chan" and Minnie Mouse is " Minnie-chan" !!

If girls have "Chan", the boys have "Kun". "Kun" is used for male children and male teenagers but I havent seen the use as common as the female "chan". Even young boys do not introduce themselves by adding the suffix "-kun".

There is one more honorific "-sama" which is used to express utmost respect and admiration. It is the more respectful version of "-san" and is used to address customers, patients in a clinic and at times to top level employees in an organisation. Addressing oneself with "-sama" is considered rude and the person is considered to be arrogant. It is not as commonly used as "-san".

One more honorific that can be heard commonly is "Sensei". It is more commonly used for addressing a teacher or a person who is considered a master in his field. Sometimes doctors are also addressed as Sensei.

It may take a while for foreigners to naturally use the honorifics when addressing the locals. Nowadays the younger generation may not raise eyebrows if you fail to add the "-san" while addressing them but the older generation for sure expects to be addressed with more respect.

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