What is the difference between san, sama, kun and chan? (2023)

  • sci.lang.japan FAQ
  • 13. Etiquette
  • Previous: What are the phrases used on nengajō (New Year's greetings)?

In Japan, when talking about other people, one uses honorific titlesafter their name. The most common title is san (さん). It meansall of "Mr", "Mrs", "Miss", and "Ms." Mr Tanaka is referred to asTanaka-san, as is Mrs Tanaka, and their unmarried daughter. Othercommon titles include sama (), a more polite version ofsan, sensei (先生), for teachers, kun andchan. These titles also come after the name.

Correct use of titles is very important in Japan. Calling somebody byjust their name, without adding a title, is a form of bad manners,called yobisute (呼び捨て).

Although titles are usually added to people's names, there are someexceptions. They are not used when talking about a family member, oranother member of one's "in-group", to someone from outside thegroup. At work, Ms. Shimizu calls her boss "Tanaka san" when she talksto him, or about him to other people. But when she talks to a customerfrom outside their company, she calls him just "Tanaka".

Common honorific titles


San (さん) is the most common honorific title. San issimilar to "Mr", "Ms.", "Mrs", and so on. There is no kanji form forsan, it's written in hiragana.

San may also be used with a characteristic of a person. Abookseller might be hon'ya-san (本屋さん), "Mr. Bookseller". Aforeigner might be referred to as gaijin-san (外人さん). (Seealso Is gaijin a derogatory term?)

San is also used when talking about entities such ascompanies. For example, the offices or shop of a company calledKojima denki might be referred to as Kojima Denki-san byanother nearby company. This may be seen on the small maps often usedin phone books and business cards in Japan, where the names ofsurrounding companies are written using san.

San is also applied to some kinds of foods. For example, fishused for cooking are sometimes referred to as sakana-san (魚さん).

Both san and its more formal equivalent, sama, implyfamiliarity. In formal speech or writing, thetitle shi may be preferred.


Kun () is informal and mostly used for males, such as boys orjuniors at work. It is used by superiors to inferiors, by males ofthe same age and status to each other, and in addressing malechildren. In business settings junior women may also be addressed askun by superiors.

Schoolteachers typically address male students using kun, whilefemale students are addressed as san or chan.

In the Diet of Japan, diet members and ministers are called kunby the chairpersons. For example, Junichiro Koizumi is calledKoizumi Jun'ichirō kun. However, when Takako Doi, a woman, wasthe chairperson of the lower house, she used the san title.


What is the difference between san, sama, kun and chan? (1)
Schwarzenegger AKA Shuwa-chan

Chan (ちゃん) is a form of san used to refer to childrenand female family members, close friends and lovers. The change fromsan to chan is a kind of "baby talk" in Japanese where "sh"sounds are turned into "ch" sounds, such as chitchai forchiisai, "small".

Chan is also used for adults who are considered to be kawaii(cute or loveable). For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger gained thenickname Shuwa-chan (シュワちゃん).

Chan is sometimes applied to male children if the name does notfit with the kun suffix. For example, a boy called Tetsuyamay be nicknamed Tetchan rather than Tekkun for reasons moreto do with phonetics than anything else.

Although it is usually said that honorifics are not applied tooneself, some women refer to themselves in the third person usingchan. For example, a young woman named Maki might callherself Maki-chan rather than using a first person pronoun likewatashi. Chan is also used for pets and animals, such asusagi-chan. (See also What are the personal pronouns of Japanese?)

In the same way that chan is a version of san, there is alsochama (ちゃま) from sama. Other variations of chaninclude chin (ちん), and tan (たん).

What is the difference between san, sama, kun and chan? (2)
Senpai and Kōhai

Senpai and kōhai

Senpai (先輩) is used by students to refer to or address seniorstudents in an academic or other learning environment, or in athleticsand sports clubs, and also in business settings to refer to those inmore senior positions. Kōhai (後輩) is the reverse of this. Itis used to refer to or address juniors.


Sensei (先生) is used to refer to or address teachers, doctors,lawyers, politicians, or other authority figures. It is also used toshow respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery insome skill. It is used by fans of novelists, musicians, and artists.For example, Japanese manga fans refer to manga artist RumikoTakahashi as Takahashi-sensei.


Sama () is the formal version of san. It's used inaddressing persons higher in rank than oneself, and in commercial andbusiness settings to address and refer to customers. It also formsparts of set phrases such as o-kyaku-sama (customer) oro-machidō-sama ("I am sorry to keep you waiting"). Samaalso follows the addressee's name on postal packages and letters.

Sama is also often used for people considered to have some highability or be particularly attractive. At the peak of his popularity,Leonardo DiCaprio gained the nickname Leo-sama in Japan.

Sama is also occasionally used about oneself, as in the arrogantmale pronoun ore-sama, "my esteemed self", meaning "I". However,this is not common outside fiction or humour. (See alsoWhat are the personal pronouns of Japanese?)


Shi () is used in formal writing, and sometimes in verypolite speech, for referring to a person who is unfamiliar to thespeaker, typically a person who the speaker has never met. Forexample, the shi title is common in the speech of newsreaders. Itis preferred in legal documents, academic journals, and certain otherformal written styles because of the familiaritywhich sanor sama imply. Once a person's namehas been used with shi, the person can be referred to withshi alone, without the name, as long as there is only one personbeing referred to.

Other titles

What is the difference between san, sama, kun and chan? (3)
Director Yasujiro Ozu

Occupation-related titles

Instead of the above general honorifics, it is fairly common to usethe name of the person's job after the name. It is common for sportsathletes to be referred to as name + senshu (選手) rather thanname + san. A master carpenter called Suzuki might have the titletōryō (棟梁), meaning "master carpenter", attached to his name,and be referred to as Suzuki-Tōryō rather thanSuzuki-San. Television lawyer Kazuya Maruyama is referred to asMaruyama Bengoshi (丸山弁護士) (literally "Maruyama-lawyer")rather than Maruyama-san.

Inside companies, it is also common to refer to people using theircompany rank, particularly for those of a high rank, such as companypresident, shachō (社長) or other titles such asbuchō (部長), department chief, etc.

Honorific job titles

The name of a job may have two versions. For example, "translator" maybe hon'yakuka (翻訳家) or hon'yakusha (翻訳者). Jobtitles ending in ka (), meaning "expert", usually imply somekind of expertise, thus, by the rules of modesty in Japanese, they arenot usually used for oneself. The plain form with sha (),meaning "person", may be used by the person or in plain text, such asthe book title. Use of the ka ending implies respect. Similarly,judo practitioners are jūdōka (柔道家), or "judo experts", andmanga authors are mangaka (漫画家) or "manga experts".

In the case of farmers, the old name hyakushō (百姓) (literally"one hundred surnames") is now considered offensive, and farmers arereferred to, and refer to themselves as, nōka (農家), or"farming experts".

Honorific job titles such as sensei, which is applied to teachersand doctors, also have plain forms. For example, in plain language, ateacher is a kyōshi (教師) and a doctor is an isha (医者)or ishi (医師). The polite versions are used when addressing ortalking about the person, but the plain forms of the jobs are used inother cases.

What is the difference between san, sama, kun and chan? (4)
Dewi Fujin,
"Mrs Dewi" or "Madam Dewi"


Fujin (夫人) is a title similar to "Mrs" in English, used tospecify the wife of a couple. It tends to be used with persons of highstatus, such as television celebrity Dewi Fujin (デヴィ夫人),former wife of Indonesian president Sukarno.

Titles for criminals and the accused

Convicted criminals are referred to with the title hikoku (被告)instead of san. For example, Matsumoto hikoku of AumShinrikyo. Suspects awaiting trial are referred to by the titleyōgisha (容疑者).

Titles for companies

As mentioned above, companies often referto each other's offices informally using the company name plussan. In correspondence, the title onchū (御中) is added tothe company name when the letter is not addressed to a specific personin the company. Furthermore, the legal status of the company isusually included, either incorporated, kabushikigaisha (株式会社), or limited, yūgen gaisha (有限会社). These may beabbreviated with the kanji kabu () or () inbrackets.

There are also separate words for "our company", heisha (弊社),which literally means "clumsy/poor company", and "your company",kisha (貴社) or onsha (御社), meaning "honouredcompany".

Organizations that provide professional services, such as law oraccounting firms, may have sha substituted by jimusho (事務所), meaning "office".

Dono and tono

Dono and tono, both written "殿" in kanji, roughly mean"lord". This title is no longer used in daily conversation, though itis still used in some types of written business correspondence. It isalso seen on drug prescriptions, certificates and awards.


Ue () literally means "above" and, appropriately, denotes ahigh level of respect. While its use is no longer very common, it isstill seen in constructions like chichi-ue (父上) andhaha-ue (母上), reverent terms for father and mother.


Iemoto (家元) is an even more polite version of sensei used for the highest ranking persons in traditional art forms such as calligraphy or the tea ceremony.

Titles for royalty and others

  • Heika (陛下) is affixed to the end of a royal title, witha meaning similar to "Majesty". For example, Tennō heika (天皇陛下) means "His Majesty, the Emperor" and Joō heika (女王陛下)means "Her Majesty, the Queen". Heika by itself can also be usedas a direct term of address, similar to "Your Majesty".
  • Denka (殿下) is affixed to the end of a royal title, witha meaning similar to "Royal Highness" or "Majesty". For exampleSuwēden Ōkoku Bikutoria Kōtaishi denka (スウェーデン王国 ビクトリア皇太子殿下) "Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Victoria of theKingdom of Sweden".
  • Kakka (閣下) means "Your Excellency" and is used forambassadors and some heads of state.
  • sci.lang.japan FAQ
  • 13. Etiquette
  • Previous: What are the phrases used on nengajō (New Year's greetings)?

Copyright © 1994-2022 Ben Bullock

If you have questions, corrections, or comments, please contact Ben Bullock or use the discussion forum / Privacy policy

Book reviewsConvertJapanesenumbersHandwrittenkanjirecognitionStroke orderdiagramsConvertJapaneseunits
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Geoffrey Lueilwitz

Last Updated: 11/09/2023

Views: 6756

Rating: 5 / 5 (60 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Geoffrey Lueilwitz

Birthday: 1997-03-23

Address: 74183 Thomas Course, Port Micheal, OK 55446-1529

Phone: +13408645881558

Job: Global Representative

Hobby: Sailing, Vehicle restoration, Rowing, Ghost hunting, Scrapbooking, Rugby, Board sports

Introduction: My name is Geoffrey Lueilwitz, I am a zealous, encouraging, sparkling, enchanting, graceful, faithful, nice person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.