Basic Japanese : Formal Japanese honorific titles
At first, I was going to write about how to say “you” in Japanese, but the most common “you” word is a person’s name usually with suffix like “san”, “kun”, or “chan”. (ex. Hanako-san)
This way of calling is used as third person as well.
In this post, I’m trying to explain the variants and differences of the formal titles in speech: “sama”, “dono” and “san”.
Formal Japanese honorific titles in speech
- The most formal and polite title, which shows respect to the person, usually treating the person as one of higher ranking people than the speaker.
Frequently used in business to call a customer’s name.
- It sounds distant, so it’s not appropriate among people who are close to each other.
- Some people use this as a sarcasm.
ex) “Ninpu-sama” (a too self-important pregnant woman)
- “Ore-sama” is a combination of a first person pronoun “ore” and “sama”.
It means “a person who respects him/herself too much, having no regard for others”.
You might see a character using this as a first person pronoun in some Japanese manga.
- Formal and polite, but rarely used with a person’s name in speech now.
It may be considered old-fashioned and rather odd in conversation.
- Often used in historical fictions, especially to samurai.
- The Kanji character can be used as a second or third person pronoun.
In this case, its pronunciation is “tono”, which usually means a noble person, a lord, or the speaker’s master.
- The most commonly used, but not as formal as “sama” and sounds closer than “sama”.
Probably equivalent to “Mr.”, “Mrs.” or “Miss”.
There is a suffix “shi” for “Mr.” (“shi” is sometimes used as “Ms.” too), and “fujin” for “Mrs.”, but seldom used especially in conversation.
“Sama”, “san” and “dono” with a person’s profession or status
These formal titles are often used with a person’s profession or status, and chiefly without a person’s name.
For instance, “kango-fu san” is used to call a nurse.
“Kango-fu” is a female nurse. (If you are a feminist, “kango-shi” is a better word.)
You can omit suffix and call just “kango-fu”, but this may sound rough when it’s used as a second person pronoun.
The name of the profession is used instead of the person’s name, so it possibly sounds like you calling the person’s name without suffix.
- Comes with a noble status, a medical doctor or a customer.
“Ou sama” is for “king”.
“Ouji sama” for “prince”.
- For noble status except “hime” (princess), suffix is “sama” only.
We never say “ou san” or “ouji san”.
If you say “ou san” for “king”, people will consider that you are calling somebody whose name is “Ou”.
- For a medical doctor, there are three common words in Japanese.
“Isha”, “ishi” or “sensei”.
“Sama” or “san” only comes after “isha”, with prefex “o” for respect.
“O-isha sama”, “o-isha san” (the most common) or “o-isha”
- For a customer, “kyaku” is the word in Japanese.
Its pattern is the same as “isha”, a medical doctor.
“O-kyaku sama”, “o-kyaku san” or “o-kyaku”.
– About the prefix “o” –
“O” can be sometimes attached to a person’s status, profession, or non-human like horse or monkey.
Almost always it’s used with suffix “sama” or “san”.
We can say “hime”, “o-hime sama” or “hime sama” for “princess”, but never “o-hime”.
Also, it cannot be used before noble titles except some words like “tono” (lord), “hime” (princess) or “kisaki” (noble person’s wife).
(“Kisaki” is different from “tono” or “hime”.
“O-kisaki sama” is the best, and “o-kisaki” is acceptable when it’s used as a third pronoun, but “kisaki sama” is impossible as a Japanese word.)
“Kougou” (Emperor’s wife) can be called as “kougou sama”, and it is very strange to attach “o” before the word.
- This may be used to officers in military or police with their status by people in the lower position of the same organisation.
If I remember right, in a Japanese police drama entitled “Aibou” (lit. partners), “Ukyou Sugishita”, a protagonist who is an inspector, is called “Keibu-ho dono” by some of his colleagues in the lower position.
(“keibu-ho” is “inspector”.)
Also, in a Japanese-dubbed old American drama “Combat!”, Sgt. Saunders called 2nd Lt. Hanley “Shoui dono”.
(“Shoui” is second lieutenant.)
- Generally, this is not used with noble titles.
You might see a princess called “Hime-san” in fictions, though.
“Hak”, a character in a manga entitled “Akatsuki no Yona” (Yona of the Dawn), often calls Princess Yona “hime-san”.
Yona and Hak are childfood friends as well as master and servant.
If Hak were a solemn character, it sounds natural for him to call his master with “sama” every time.
However, Hak is not that kind of person, so it would sound distant to use “(o)hime-sama” to Yona.
In the same time, considering his position, Hak calling her just by name would be overly familiar.
- Common suffix used by people to a person who they are not working with.
For example, “keiji san” (“keiji” means police detective) can be used by anybody who doesn’t belong to police, but it sounds odd when it’s used by policemen.
Policemen would call the person by name (usually with “san” or status).
Latest posts by kara (see all)
- Basic Japanese : “Sumimasen” – “Thank you” in Japanese - June 24, 2015
- Basic Japanese : “Arigatou” – “Thank you” in Japanese - May 29, 2015
- Basic Japanese : “Go-chisou sama” – Phrase after meal - May 27, 2015
Old Japanese Alphabets or Historical Japanese Alphabets The two red characters in “gojyuu-on” and “iroha-uta” are out of use now. Both characters had their own sounds consisting of a consonant and a vowel, but each of them changed into the same sound as a vowel which has a similar sound. Although they couldn’t be distinguished […]
There are mysterious legends around Sugawara no Michizane. Most of them are episodes after he was framed by his political enemy. Michizane and the flying plum tree This legend is very well-known along with the following poem. The night before he left his home in Kyoto, the capital at that time, he composed a poem […]
Large numbers in Japanese : Thousand to quadrillion From thousand to quadrillion, the common units you hear in everyday life in Japan including in the news. As I wrote in the previous post, for digits over ten, “4” is always read as “yon” and “9” as “kyuu”. “7” is generally “nana”. For bigger numbers than […]
How to say one to ten in Japanese There are (more than) two ways for general counting. The one that is supposed to originate in China and the other is (probably) Japanese original. Now, the Chinese one is commonly used. The most common Japanese for one to ten With Kanji characters, their sounds should have […]
Many of Japanese honorific titles in text are the same as ones in speech. However, “sama” or “dono” is much more often used in text, especially for address. Maybe it’s because a writer is in the distance. In a letter, use the same title as one in speech. When I write a letter to my […]
“Thank you” in Japanese other than “Arigatou” “Arigatou (gozai masu)” is the common phrase, but there are other phrases for “Thank you” in Japanese. Sumimasen The phrase is also very common and frequently heard in Japan. (Maybe more often used than “Arigatou”). This has several meanings : “I’m sorry.” “Excuse me.” “Thank you (and I’m […]
Barrier for Masakado? There are seven main shrines (including “Kubi-zuka”) for Masakado. They are said to have been built to seal the powerful spirit of Masakado as well as to make use of it. [1. Torigoe shrine] It is not officially admitted, but this shrine is said to be the place where Masakado’s hand(s?) is […]
The final post about numbers in Japanese. Number over quadrillion Numbers over “chou” (trillion to quadrillion) are quite rarely used. You may hear the following unit “kei” sometimes, but numbers over the unit “kei” won’t be seen in usual life. I’ve never seen it myself even in the news and I actually can’t name units […]
“Toshi densetsu” : Japanese urban legends (1) Summer in Japan is ridiculously hot and humid except in some northern areas. So, people enjoy horror stories especially in summer to feel shivering cold. There are many old and new ghost / horror stories in Japan, and I feel it would be nice to introduce some. (It’s […]
Sugawara no Michizane is the person who is worshipped as god of study at the shrine, “Dazaifu Tenman-guu”. “Sugawara” is the family name and “Michizane” is the first name. He is also well-known as one of the Big Three Onryou (vengeful spirit) in Japan, along with Taira no Masakado and Emperor Sutoku. Life of Sugawara […]