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Basic Japanese : Formal Japanese honorific titles

Date Published: Last Update:2015/03/09 Others , , ,

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.

Shi and fujin

“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”.)


    - "Aibou" DVD -

    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.

    Akatsuki no Yona

    - Hak and Yona from "Akatsuki no Yona" -

  • 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).

Next : Casual Japanese honorific titles


Related posts:
#“I” in Japanese (1) (2) (3)

#Japanese honorific titles (2:Casual) (3:In text) (4:Business titles)

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A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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