I received an ask from somebody asking me what Japanese honorifics meant, so I decided to make a post about it! Please note that this is based on the limited research I’ve done, so if I’m incorrect please tell me so! I’m only covering the common honorifics and not the obscurer ones.
By far the most common honorific in Japan. It’s the equivalent to Ms., Mrs., Mr., etc. in the English language. It’s an all-purpose honorific and can be used in any situation where politeness is required. San is almost universally added to a person’s name, in both formal and informal contexts.
Chan is a diminutive suffix, meaning it’s often used to express that the speaker finds the person endearing. In general, but not always, chan is used for babies, young children, young girls, grandparents, and pets. It may also be used towards cute animals, lovers, and close friends. When friends reach a certain age and use chan to address one another, it shows that they are close and have an intimate bond. Chan should not be used to address one’s seniors or superiors without permission, as it can be seen as condescending and rude.
Thissuffixis used at the end of boys’ names to express familiarity or endearment. In general, kun is exclusive to males, but this is not always the case. For example, in business settings, young female employees may also be addressed as kun by older males of senior status and male teachers can address their female students using kun.
Sama is a level higher than san and is used to confer great respect. Sama is normally used to address somebody one admires or people in a rank much higher than oneself.
Senpai (Also sempai)
Senpai means “upperclassman.” This honorific is attached to one’s seniors in an organization or school.
Kohai means “underclassman” and is addressed to underclassmen or juniors in one’s organization. It connotes that the addressee is of a lower station.
Literally means “one who has come before.” Sensei is used to refer to or address teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and other authority figures. Typically, it is used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill.
This one is often forgotten in lists but it is perhaps the most significant difference between Japanese and English. The lack of an honorific means that the speaker has permission to address the person in a very intimate way. Usually, only family, spouses, or very close friends have this kind of permission. It can be very gratifying when someone has earned the intimacy and the right to address one without an honorific. However, if this intimacy hasn’t been earned, it can be highly disrespectful and insulting.