Are you learning Japanese through textbooks or something a little less traditional?
If your first exposure to Japanese was through pop culture (think J-pop, anime, or movies), you’re probably used to young people tacking on a friendly -kun or -chan to someone’s name.
If you’ve simply heard some Japanese here and there, maybe you’ve wondered why everyone’s name seems to end in -san.
Well I’ve got a surprise for you—these little tags aren’t part of people’s names at all! They’re Japanese suffixes, and you'll cover all of them in this post so you know when, why, and how to use them.
Don’t sweat it—this’ll be easy. By the end of the post, you'll know exactly when (and when not) to use each of the 7 suffixes. So you'll sound more polite or friendly in Japanese and fit in more easily with native speakers.
So much so that you can't really go wrong, especially if you follow the golden rules below about when and how to use suffixes that I'll share with you below.
In many languages, some words or pieces are attached to people’s names to clarify more about them. Think of terms like:
In Japanese, language pieces like these exist—the only difference is that unlike in English, Japanese titles like these are placed at the end of a person’s name. That’s why they’re called suffixes.
Just like in other languages, Japanese suffixes exist to clarify the relationship between people or tell you more about a person’s rank or role.
But when do you use them?
If you’re asking when you’re supposed to add these suffixes to people’s names in Japanese, the answer is very simple—always.
You can never only call someone by their name in Japanese.
While saying, “Hey Matt, wanna go to the store?” in English is perfectly fine, in Japanese, saying the same (Ne, Matt, mise ni ikou ka? ね、マット、店に行こうか？) without adding a suffix to Matt’s name will produce either odd looks or even slight offence.
“If it’s so important to use suffixes all the time, how do I use them?”
Excellent question. Thankfully, the answer to how to use them is just as simple as the answer to when to use them.
If you take only one thing from this article, let it be this: when in doubt, use -san.
The suffix –san is the workhorse of the Japanese suffix world. If you don’t know what to use on someone, use –san.
It’s the generic equivalent of Mr. or Ms. And it’s polite, so you’ll never offend someone.
To affix it to someone’s name, just put it right onto the end of the name. Matt becomes Matt-san, and there you have it! The same is true of all other suffixes.
Fun fact: in addition to using –san for just about everybody (even your friends!), you can create new words using this suffix.
If you’re shopping at a kutsuya (shoe store), you can address the workers as kutsuya-san, which literally means “Mr./Ms. Shoe Store.”
But it's actually taken to mean “gentleman/lady who works in this shoe store.” If you need someone’s help but don’t know their name, you might be able to use –san anyway!
Japanese has a number of suffixes beyond –san. And if you learn them all, you’ll never be lacking ways to describe someone!
Some you may already be familiar with, others may be new. Take a look below and see if you spot any suffixes you recognise!
You'll rarely hear –sama, the much more formal version of –san, in general conversation.
Because of its politeness, you’re likely to use –sama in only a few very specific circumstances, such as:
You’ll encounter this suffix more frequently if you work in Japan than if you’re just visiting. –Sama is a great suffix when addressing a client via email, for example.
This suffix is commonly known to be “boyish,” and you’ll often find people referring to young men with the -kun suffix.
It’s slightly casual. But you’ll still find it in a variety of business settings, such as among friendly male coworkers of the same rank.
You’re also likely to hear it from a superior speaking to someone of a lower rank.
If you’re looking for opportunities to use -kun, try it out with your male friends!
The -chan suffix is in many ways the “feminine” equivalent of -kun. Use it for or among girls, though it has a number of other uses too.
If you’re looking for an on-point way to clarify just how cute you think something (or someone) is, -chan is the way to go.
Whether it’s calling a little kid by -chan or naming your tiny, yippy little dog Yuki-chan, sweetness is the name of the game if you’re using -chan.
But I'd recommend that you keep this one out of business or formal relations.
Suffixes like -dono are the sort where you’ve either heard them consistently or never before.
The reason for this is its common appearance in anime. Otherwise, the -dono suffix is largely archaic, so you’re unlikely to hear it.
If you do, it’s probably being used in a joking manner. A step below -sama, -dono means “lord”.
You can sometimes use it with a pinch of humour to poke fun at someone’s age—like calling that grumpy man down the street “Old Man Bill” even though he’s barely past 40.
These two words, which go hand in hand, are two of three unique items that can stand on their own, separate of someone’s name (spoiler: the other is -sensei, coming next).
The word senpai refers to someone within your circle or group—think school, your department at work, and so on—who outranks you, most often in experience but potentially in age.
A first year at secondary school or uni would address an older student as senpai, as would an intern addressing a coworker with more experience.
Could you use –san here? Sure. You can always use –san. But it’s nice to have options.
If Matt is one year ahead of you in school, you could refer to him as Matt-senpai. Similarly, you could simply say that Matt is your senpai, because the word senpai can stand on its own as well.
The opposite of a senpai is a kouhai, or one who is ranked lower. If you're a year ahead of Matt, he is your kouhai.
However, unlike -senpai, you never use kouhai as a suffix. You won’t hear people talking about Matt-kouhai. So keep in mind that while senpai is versatile in its uses, you'll hear kouhai less often and it gives you fewer options.
Why don’t we use kouhai as a suffix like we do with senpai? Well, when we’re talking about kouhai, we’re talking about people with less experience or who are not as good at something as others.
Directly calling people out on that could be sort of condescending, right? So kouhai just end up being called –san, the great equalizer.
Many people likely recognise this word, which functions both independently and as a suffix. My Japanese teacher’s name was Nagatomi-sensei. Nakajima-sensei worked at a different school nearby.
It’s also entirely correct to simply say that Nagatomi-san was my sensei, which means “teacher” or “expert.”
Use of the word sensei isn’t limited only to academic teachers, though. If you ever speak to a lawyer or doctor in Japan, you’ll find that they also go by -sensei.
This ties back into the idea that the word sensei means “expert.” People like lawyers, teachers, and doctors have mastered a subject or skill, and so they have become experts in it.
Because of this, –sensei is a very respectful suffix. The only time you’ll hear it outside of these contexts is in sarcasm.
Maybe by a friend who, on noticing that Matt failed his maths test after bragging that it would be super easy, ribs on him by asking “how Matt-sensei did on the test.”
You often can’t, to be honest. If you stick with -san, you’ll be hard-pressed to offend anyone. Addressing someone as -sama just to be safe will likely garner an entertained chuckle and a “-san is fine!” response.
The only suffixes you need to keep your eyes on are -chan and kouhai. Remember not to call anyone outranking you -chan, and never use kouhai as a suffix.
If you follow these simple rules, you’ll have no problem keeping the peace in every Japanese conversation!
Maybe throw in a -dono next time you’re talking with your close friends. See how confused and amused they get.
Over to you – after reading this post, do you feel able to use suffixes the right way with Japanese people? Are there any other aspects of Japanese language or culture you find tricky? Let me know in the comments below.
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