Horror story of the day: In Japanese, addressing someone by “you” can be insulting. Shocking! Why, and how?
While a language like English uses “you” neutrally (based on personal observation, so please pardon me if the statement is statistically untrue), Japanese always address others using their names followed by honorific titles like “san,” “sama,” “chan,” etc. depending on the context.
The etiquette seems orderly, so what makes using Japanese “you” an issue?
Because among Japanese, addressing someone without using their names may seem impolite. It seems somewhat like you do not care enough about remembering their name. Imagine if you were called “that person” instead of your name. Sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it?
“Anata” (貴方), is the most common “you” in Japanese. Typically, wives or lovers use this with male partners. You may also hear “anata” when people scream at each other, which happens more often in dramas and movies or say, among colorful areas at late hours.
In contrast, “kimi” (君/きみ) can be spoken by husbands or lovers to their female partners. An elderly person might use the term with any younger person, while seniors also use the word when conversing with company subordinates.
Since Japan emphasizes their etiquette with a capital E, people address each other politely by their names, plus the expected correctly, thoughtfully chosen suffix.
How can we address someone ?
“San” is the most commonly used suffix, neither gender- nor age-specific. In English, “san” translates “Mr”, “Ms”, “Mrs” or “Miss”. And yes, this “san” is the same “san” as “okaa-san” (mother), “otou-san” (father), “onee-san” (elder sister), “onii-san” (elder brother), etc.
An interesting observation, these supposedly family references is language also used for someone personally unknown to the speaker. For instance, a seller from a fruit stall could address a housewife customer using “okaa-san”; and if she seems younger (so not yet a mother?), she might be called “onee-san” instead.
“San” etiquette extends to non-humans, like places or companies. “Hon-ya-san” would be something like “Mr. bookstore” and “tempura-ya-san” as “Mr. tempura store”. And when you are a staff addressing another company, you may say “ABC-kaisha-san” (“Mr. ABC Company”) as a respectful term.
“Sama” is the polite form of “san”, which is also frequently heard everyday language, especially throughout commercial settings. It is common etiquette being addressed as “[last name]-sama” visiting a bank or a hospital, or “okyaku-sama” (customer) among stores or restaurants.
Since “sama” is used extensively in daily life, there are altered kanji words to specify the rankings. The four “sama-s” are, in descending order, “ei-sama”, “tsugi-sama”, “bi-sama” and “hira-sama.” Their differences are distinguished through written language by how bottom right parts are written (i.e. “永” in “樣” verses the “水” in a regular “様”). To avoid complications, just remember that “sama” is the polite etiquette while addressing others, but that we usually hear the word used towards us as customers (unless you are faced with customers as part of a job, per se).
A cuter version of “san”, usually used with children (boys and girls) as well as younger females of closer relations, such as in school or among friends. However, “chan” is also used for older, close relatives, like grandma (“obaa-chan”) and grandpa (“ojii-chan”).
You will also hear “chan” after animal words, like “neko-chan” or “inu-chan”, somewhat like “kitty” or “doggy”.
Side note: Only recently did I learn that “ame-chan” (candy) is non-existent outside of Kansai area, so is “o-imo-san” (potato) or “unko-san” (poo). Regional language variations are not unheard of between Japan’s prefectures, so atop the regionalism that already interests me, the personification of everyday objects is just too adorable!
“Kun” is generally used for little boys, for juniors (at work) or for close friends among grown-ups.
Sensei (先生) / senpai (先輩) and kouhai (後輩)
“Sensei” is proper etiquette for teachers, doctors, lawyers, or other respectable occupations or masteries, such as artists, musicians or writers. It can be used after a name, like with “san” or “sama”. The title can also stand alone. Professional titles can be used similarly, for instance “[name]-bengoshi” (lawyer) or “[name]-senshu” (athlete).
“Senpai” refers to school or work seniors, while “Kouhai” does the opposite.
The list of suffixes continues, but don’t worry just yet: you need not memorize every definition of the above for surviving Japan. Good news is, a simple “san” will get you through without great language issues. Remember, no “you” unless you have a lover (and I hope you will not run into situations that require yelling at people!).