One of the main advantages of watching anime in Japanese with subtitles is that even if you don’t understand Japanese you can pick up a lot of information that will be lost in the English dub. A little effort spent in learning a few words can pay off in a wealth of information about the culture and the relationships between the characters.
I’ve collected a lot of notes on the subject and I’m going to try to organize them into posts. If you have been watching anime for years you will probably find this stuff very elementary, but newer viewers may find this useful.
The first thing to master are the honorifics. There are only 5 to learn, but there are many subtleties in how they are used.
Japanese names are normally stated in the Asian order: the family name first, followed by the personal name. However when speaking or writing English, Japanese people usually give their names in the European order: personal name followed by family name. Since this blog is written for English-speakers I follow the same “first name first” convention. Just keep in mind that on the Japanese soundtrack the family name will be given first. Some subtitles also give the family name first, depending on how pedantic the translator is. (Japanese language classes usually require that names be given in the Japanese order, so student translators often do this.)
Also of course I am using the terms “first name” and “last name” with their usual English meanings: the personal name and family name respectively, regardless of their actual order.
Japanese adults normally do not call each other by their first names. Adults are normally addressed by their family name followed by an honorific like “-san”. First names are reserved for family members and close friends, and even then are commonly followed by an honorific. If two characters in a anime series switch from using last names to first names, this represents a significant turning point in their relationship.
The Five Honorifics
There are only 5 honorifics, of which only 4 are commonly used. In order from most respectful to least respectful, these are:
- dono. An archaic form often translated as “lord” or “lady”. This is mostly heard in costume dramas, but it is still sometimes used in the Osaka area.
- sama. A very respectful honorific which is also sometimes translated a “lord” or “lady”. In practice it is mostly used by shopkeepers addressing customers, or in any situation where you want to show great respect for someone.
- san. The standard default honorific, usually translated as “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms”.
- kun. A diminuitive honorific commonly used for boys.
- chan. An affectionate diminutive honorific, primarily used for children.
Rules for “kun”
From the time he enters school to the time he graduates college, a boy will typically be addressed using “-kun” by just about everyone. It is also acceptable to call an older man “-kun”, but only if you are his boss or teacher. Calling a grown man “-kun” is fairly offensive if you do not actually outrank him.
It is also acceptable to call a girl or woman “-kun”, but only if you are her teacher or supervisor. Since the default honorific for girls or women is “-san”, calling her “-kun” implies that you outrank her, regardless of her age. This sort of thing is more common in traditionally masculine environments like business offices. Usually schoolteachers address girls as “-san”, if only to remind the boys that they should do the same.
Rules for “chan”
The use of the intimate honorific “-chan” can be endearing or insolent depending on the age of the recipient and the relationship with the speaker. Some general rules:
- Small children are called “-chan” by everyone. They use “-chan” to address each other or even older children, and often adults. Nobody minds because they are so cute.
- No matter how old you are, female relatives can still call you “-chan”. There’s not much that can be done about this.
- Teenage girls easily form first-name friendships and call each other “-chan”.
- Teenage boys sometimes call their girlfriends “-chan”.
- Girls can call their boyfriends “-chan”, but it’s sort of embarrassing, like using baby-talk pet names in public.
- Adults who knew each other as small children sometimes call each other “-chan”. This is an example of a general principle, often used for comic effect, that people who have known each other for a long time often use forms of address that are no longer appropriate for their current relationship.
- Shortening the first name before adding “-chan” is even more intimate than just using “-chan”.
- Married couples do NOT call each other “-chan”, at least not in front of the children.
Rules for Students
While girls routinely go around calling each other by first name and “-chan”, relationships between the sexes are much more formal. Boys and girls usually address each other by last name plus “-kun” or “-san” as appropriate.
Addressing someone without an honorific is very informal and can be quite rude, except between family members and very close friends. On the other hand there are some uncouth characters (usually male) who never use honorifics with anybody. They aren’t necessarily being deliberately rude, they’re just ill-bred.
The thing to watch out for is when one character usually addresses another with a proper honorific, but then suddenly drops it. That’s a deliberate insult.
Titles as Honorifics
Titles used to address people can be used as if they were honorifics. You would probably address your teacher as sensei, but if you had two teachers in the same room you could avoid ambiguity by calling them, for example, Nakamura-sensei and Tanaka-sensei. Titles often used in this way include:
- sensei. Used for teachers, doctors and master craftsmen.
- sempai. Used for older students, more senior coworkers or mentors.
- Military ranks.
Honorifics for Oneself
You are never supposed to refer to yourself with an honorific–that would be arrogant. It should be up to the other person to decide what honorific, if any, to honor you with.
Of course, some characters really are arrogant. The boastful man who refers to himself as “ore-sama” is a common figure of fun.
Calling yourself “-chan” is not arrogant–it’s just baby talk. It would be done only by a very small child, or perhaps by a woman trying to reassure a small child.
Children sometimes mispronounce honorifics, often to tease or insult.
- “-tan” is baby talk for “-chan”. This if often used in the names of chibi cartoon characters.
- “-chin”, “-chi” and “-rin” are deliberate mispronunciations of “-chan”, typically used by teenage girls trying to be cute. Since most teenage girls want to be considered cute, they will tolerate this from close friends.
- “-run” and “-pun” are deliberate mispronunciations of “-kun”. These might be used by rude girls to tease boys.
- “-chama” is a whimsical combination of “-chan” and “-sama”, occasionally used for cartoon characters.
Honorifics for Non-Humans
Young children routinely attach “-san” to the names of animals, and older girls often do the same in order to sound cute. For example inu-san (literally “Mr. Dog”) is much like the English “doggy”, and neko-san is like the English “kitty”.
These usages have a childish sound. On the other hand, if you happen to be the sort of anime character who can talk to animals and get an intelligible response, you would naturally want to address them using polite honorifics.
Big impressive things like mountains are called “-san” even by adults. Most people would refer to Mt. Fuji as Fuji-san rather than Fujiyama.
- YUKITO: Morning!
- TOUYA: Yo!
- YUKITO: Morning Touya! Morning Sakura-chan. You got up early today.
- SAKURA: Yes!
- TOUYA: Well, she did eat breakfast in five minutes.
- SAKURA: (kicks him.)
- YUKITO: You’re cheerful today, Sakura-chan.
- SAKURA (v/o): This is Yukito Tsukishiro-san. He’s in the eleventh grade and in the same class as my big brother. He’s such a kind, wonderful person that I can’t believe he’s friends with my awful brother!
- YUKITO: Bye, Sakura-chan.
- SAKURA (v/o): Eh? We’re here already.
- YUKITO: See you later! (Throws candy).
- SAKURA: (catches candy)
- SAKURA (v/o): Yukito-san.
- TOMOYO: Slick move!
- SAKURA: Ack! Tomoyo-chan!
- TOMOYO: That was a slick move of his, to hand you a gift just as he is leaving.
- SAKURA: M-morning, Tomoyo-chan!
- TOMOYO: Good morning, Sakura-chan!
Cardcaptor Sakura, Episode 1
Yukito and Touya call each other by their first names without honorifics. They are close friends and Touya at least is not overly polite.
Sakura and Yukito are also on a first name basis–and he is the only boy who she addresses that way. However there is a big difference in their ages and that is reflected in the honorifics. He calls her “Sakura-chan” since he thinks of her as a child. Even though she has a big crush on him she calls him “Yukito-san”. She is in too much awe of him to call him “-kun”, let alone “-chan”.
Viewers who understand a little Japanese will also note that Yukito talks to Sakura using plain speech, while she talks to him using polite speech. This is also due to the age difference and dramatically illustrates the unequal nature of the relationship.
Sakura and Tomoyo call each other “-chan” and have a much more equal friendship (even if Tomoyo does tend to boss Sakura around a bit.) Sakura speaks to Tomoyo using plain speech, but Tomoyo speaks to Sakura in polite speech. This is not because the relationship is unequal; it is because Tomoyo is a super-polite oujo character who talks to everyone that way.
Example: Trying to be Friends
- SAKURA: Meilin-chan…Thank’s for turning off the flame.
- MEILIN: Kinomoto-san…
Cardcaptor Sakura, Episode 28
Sakura is making a determined effort to be friends with Meilin, but Meilin will have none of it. Addressing Sakura formally with last name and “-san” after Sakura called her “-chan” is a deliberate snub.
Example: Mothers are Embarrasing
- CHIGUSA: Oh! Hi, Yuu-chan.
- YUUJI: M-mom!
- CHIGUSA: Hello. Are you a friend of Yuu-chan’s?
- YUUJI: No! Shana’s…only a classmate.
- CHIGUSA: Mmm? Can I call you Shana-chan? How are you getting along with Yuu-chan?
- YUUJI: Mom! Don’t call her that!
- CHIGUSA: Oh, it’s all right. By the way, I’m making your favorite, omelet rice for dinner, so don’t be late. See you later, Shana-chan!
- SHANA (v.o.): Only…a classmate?
Shakugan no Shana, Episode 6
Yuuji feels humilated to have his mother call him “-chan” in front of a girl he would like to impress. Worse, Chigusa proceeds to speak to Shana in much too familiar a manner. It’s almost as if Chigusa, having just met Shana, is already evaluating her as a potential daughter-in-law.
Of course from Chigusa’s standpoint, the fact that Yuuji is calling this girl by her first name is bound to pique her interest.
Chigusa is always very polite and sweet, but note how she dominates this conversation. While Japan is in many ways a very patriarchal society, the mother is generally the boss of the household, and that is clearly the case here. Possibly Chigusa wants Shana to understand that if she is romantically interested in Yuuji she will have to establish a relationship with Chigusa as well.
Example: Overly Familiar
- AKA: You did a good job. There’s still time. Here. (Hands him a soda.)
- FUMIHIKO: It’s depressing really.
- AKA: Let’s try a little harder.
- HATAKEDA: Yeah, you’re right, Onda-chan!
- FUMIHIKO: Onda-chan?
- HATAKEDA: You have to work harder, Matsumaru! (To Aka) I have to go back to the company now. See you tomorrow, Onda-chan!
- AKA: (Smiles and bows) Thank you very much! (otsukare sama deshita!)
REC, Episode 4
Hatakeda is way out of line here. He is not even on a first-name basis with Aka, so he definitely has no business calling her “-chan”. Since she is a contract worker he could get away with calling her “-kun”, but that wouldn’t achieve the flirtatious tone that he is trying for.
Since she is Japanese (and because she needs the job) Aka responds to his boorishness by acting extra polite.
Example: Using First Names
- TAMAKI: Um…what about you, Suzuki-san?
- RIN: Call me “Rin”. (“Rin” de ii wa.)
- TAMAKI: Rin-san, what do you like about Shinaider?
Bamboo Blade, Episode 21
This is an example of the way anime characters usually form first-name friendships. The standard formula is
“It’s OK to call me X”.
“All right, X-san. You can call me Y”.
This approach minimizes the risk of a humiliating rejection. If the other person doesn’t want to use first names, he can just pretend not to have heard the suggestion.
In this case Tamaki accepts, but she is too awed and intimidated by the older and more confident Rin to call her “-chan”. They end up using “Rin-san” and “Tama-chan”.
Example: Another Approach
- SAKURA: Hirazigawa-kun!
- ERIOL: I’m sorry I surprised you.
- SAKURA: No…
- ERIOL: Good. Can I come sit next to you?
- SAKURA: (nods)
- ERIOL: It doesn’t feel like I’m meeting you for the first time either.
- SAKURA: It’s rather strange.
- ERIOL: Maybe we’ve met before…Perhaps we met each other before we were born…Can I ask your name?
- SAKURA: It’s Sakura Kinomoto.
- ERIOL: That’s the name of a pretty flower that blooms in the spring, isn’t it?…Can I call you “Sakura-san”?
- SAKURA: Um…yeah, Hirazigawa-kun.
- ERIOL: Please call me “Eriol”, Sakura-san.
- TOMOYO (spying on them): Wow! This is developing like a shoujo manga!
Cardcaptor Sakura, Episode 47
Eriol is a smooth operator. Sakura is friendly but she is also a very proper girl who would normally be reluctant to use first names with a boy she has just met, so the standard “You can call me Eriol” approach probably wouldn’t work. Instead he takes a more formal and direct approach. He first charms her, then asks directly if he can use her first name. She must respond, either agreeing or committing the rudeness of refusing a direct request.
She doesn’t mind because he is indeed charming. Still, this is a risky approach. If she did turn him down he would be so humiliated that the relationship would end right there.
- Ai: Thank you very much, Edel-san
- Edelgard: You can call me “Edel”.
Planetes, Episode 15
When an anime is set in a foreign country the dialog is, of course, given in Japanese, but it presumably represents conversations in English or some other foreign language. The foreign characters generally use Japanese honorifics, but the rules seem a bit different. It is generally assumed that Western characters are very informal and are normally addressed by their first names, even if that would be inappropriate if they were Japanese. If the Western characters want to establish a close friendship, they offer to drop the honorific.
On close examination this doesn’t make much sense. If the characters are really supposed to be speaking English and using English honorifics, then English honorifics aren’t normally used with first names in any case.