When I was first beginning my trek into becoming a hardcore anime fan I found that there were a few barriers that I had to overcome along the way including getting used to a different style of storytelling and new character types that I had never encountered in Western animation before. The biggest hurdle that I had to overcome however was the language. When you first watch Japanese animation in its native language it’s only natural that you’d come across words that you don’t understand.
Recently I decided to poll fans and find out what words confused them the most when they were first starting. The answers were pretty varied from person to person but before long I noticed one common trend that was popping up amongst many of the people who were sending me answers: honorifics. In Asian countries such as Japan, it’s part of social etiquette to use honorifics to address other people and to omit them shows that you’re either very close to someone or you’re very rude. What do they mean though? Which ones are proper to use in which context?
In this article, I’m going to give you a crash course in basic honorifics and which ones are to be used from person to person and situation to situation. Keep in mind though that these are just the basics. There are still plenty of others that are used throughout Japan but since I don’t think anyone reading this is going to end up meeting the Emperor at any point in the near future, we’re going to skip the especially formal ones and stick with the casual honorifics that you’d come across in everyday life, anime or manga.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
This is your general, run of the mill honorific used to address pretty much anyone that you’re acquainted with. If you were to translate it into English it would generally be as Mr. or Ms. It can be used for both men and women and should be your “go to” honorific when meeting someone for the first time and continue to be the one you use until you’ve gotten more closely acquainted.
This is an honorific that you use for someone younger than you and is generally reserved for men or boys. That’s not all it’s used for though. Sometimes it can also be used by someone higher up on the ladder (a senpai, see below) addressing someone in a lower position than them. It’s not meant to be disrespectful if someone addresses you in such a manner.
Again, this is for someone who is physically or socially younger than you but is generally reserved for women, babies, animals and generally cute things. Never use the -chan honorific with someone above you, particularly a boss, unless you’re looking to appear rude or very disrespectful.
This honorific is reserved for someone whom you have great respect for or someone who has a much higher title than yourself such as a boss, a customer, audience members, etc. but never for yourself. A great example of this occurs in the anime series Lucky Star when one character named Kagami tells another character, Konata, to address her as Kagami-sama… to which Konata obliges until Kagami gets so embarrassed that she begs her to stop.
The senpai/kouhai relationshp is a complicated one to explain. As it has been explained to me in the past, Japan is a very vertical society that still relies on climbing the social and professional ladder towards the top which naturally means that there will be people who are above you and below you whether you’re at work or school. Anyone who is above you is going to be known as the senpai and it’s their responsibility to look after you, teach you and help you grow as a person, employee, etc. Anyone who is below you on the ladder is your kouhai and it’s your responsibility to look after them, etc.
Historically this is a term that referred to teachers but over the decades this is a title that has come to mean anyone with a high level of education and respect which includes teachers, doctors and others. It’s also become a term of great honor for those who have gained a high level of respect and achievement within their field (an example of which is anime director Hayao Miyazaki who is referred to as Miyazaki-sensei by many if not most people). For people who have managed to gain even more education or mastery than that, there is the title Hakase which can generally be translated to Professor.
And that’s it! You’re now armed with basic honorific knowledge so that you can venture forth in the vast world of anime and have a slightly better grasp of why characters are referring to each other in various ways. There are still plenty of other words and phrases from Japan which I can explain but I’ll save those for another time or column.
(picture copyright Toncsi via Shutterstock)
L.B. Bryant is a coffee fueled anime junkie living in the wilds of Seattle. When not consuming the latest simulcasts, he can found on Twitter.