Japanese Names, Suffixes, and Methods of Address


Name Order

Japanese names are in the opposite order of English names. The Japanese give their family name first, and then their given name. Currently, when Japanese learn English in school they are taught to reverse the traditional Japanese order of their names, so a Japanese woman would introduce herself as Fujita Midori in Japanese would introduce herself as Midori Fujita if talking to a gaijin. A proposed change in junior high school curriculum could change this, teaching some students to preserve the Japanese name order even when in Western nations. This means that you have to be careful when meeting a Japanese person for the first time and make sure you understand which name is the given name and which is the family name.

I have a poor grasp of which names are female names and which are male. The only hint I can give you is that only female names end with the mora (syllable) "ko", so you are guaranteed that a name ending in "ko" is a woman's name. I would estimate that about 33% of Japanese women have names that end in "ko", so it's a good hint for distinguishing male names from female names, but by no means infallible.

How do I call you?

The Japanese are more formal about names than Americans. They regularly refer to each other by family names. Only close friends would use given names. The use of given names depends not only on the relationship between the speakers, but it also depends on the current situation they're in. In a workplace situation close friends might still use family names to address one another, where they would automatically use their given names in other situations. Most Japanese understand that Westerners have different naming conventions and they should not be offended if you use their given name as a form of address, but if you want to impress them, stay polite and use their family name until given permission to use their given name.


Suffix Meaning
-san The usual suffix between aquaintances, adults, and colleagues. This is usually translated as "Mr.", "Mrs.", "Ms.", and "Miss". It can be used with titles as well as names, such as keiji-san, "Mr. Policeman".
-chan This is used when speaking of small children and animals, or between close childhood friends or family members. It can easily be disrespectful and overly familiar if used with the name of a superior or minor aquaintance.
-sama This is a respectful suffix. It's often translated as the title "Lord" or "Mistress". The Japanese word for god, "kami-sama" uses this suffix.
-chama "-chan" is a modified form of "-san", and "-chama" is the same sort of modification of "-sama". I have never heard this used in modern Japanese, only in more historical, archaic Japanese. It seems to refer to a young lord or master of some sort. It's for someone that deserves respect but you are very familiar with them, and they are young or you have raised them from youth. The nursemaid and lifelong servant of a young lord might use this. I've only seen it used once in anime.
-kun This is used most often for teenage boys, but men in the workplace also use this suffix, and it's even becoming more common when referring to women. I've also heard it used when referring to male pets by name.
-sensei This suffix has the same meaning as the word sensei. It's put after the name of a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or professor.
-dono / -tono This suffix is archaic and rarely used. I can't find it in my Japanese dictionary because it is so old, but it seems to be more respectful than "-san". I have seen it in Rurouni Kenshin and Inuyahsa only, so far.

Addressing People


In America people will politely address strangers as "Sir" or "Ma'am". There are many different ways of addressing strangers in Japan. You can address people by their job, simply adding a "-san" to the end (bookstore = honya, bookstore shopkeeper = honya-san). Shopkeepers and the like will address customers/guests as okyaku-san (guest-san).

Children can also address strangers using family names. A child would call a middle aged lady "oba-san" (aunt), or a young man "onii-san" (older brother), even though the child doesn't know the person.

"You" and "I"

"You" and "I" can get quite complicated in Japanese. There are many different ways to say both, and the word you chose depends on social status, the length and depth of the aquaintance between the speakers, and the situation the speakers are currently in.

Words for "you" are usually respectful, while words for "I" are humble. Many of the words that get translated as swear words in English are simply non-respectful words for "you" in Japanese, and saying "I" very often can sound proud and boastful. There are many aspects of this that are used in character design in anime, and it often doesn't translate very well into English. I have seen some artful and not so artful ways of dealing with the difficulty of translating the differences of respect/humility in Japanese, but all of them miss an essential element when translated into English. This is another reason that watching subtitled anime with a reasonable understanding of basic Japanese can be so much more rewarding than watching dubbed anime.

Fanfic Japanese Dictionary
Romaji Pronunciation
How Romaji is derived from the Japanese alphabets
Rurouni Kenshin: Fun with Archaic Japanese and Politeness levels

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